Skip to content

Obama’s Africa trip was more than what it seems

Obama greets youngsters on Goree Island in Dakar, Senegal. (22737)
Obama greets youngsters on Goree Island in Dakar, Senegal.

As measured by quantity and depth of media coverage, President Obama’s recent trip to three African countries—June 26-July 2—did not amount to much. Newspapers and television gave the trip scant coverage, choosing instead to focus on the Paula Deen flap, the George Zimmerman-Trayvon Martin murder trial, and a host of other diverse stories.

When the media did pay attention, it was usually to report Republican criticism of the cost of the trip during the time of across-the-board cost cutting connected with sequestration, or to opine that President Obama was now making a desperate attempt to reclaim some of the glory of having been elected president of the U.S. with tons of worldwide and African approval but not having done much to sustain that support.

The Washington Post, for example, reported on the $60-100 million cost and logistics of the trip while Bloomberg News focused its coverage on the continuing lack of American business interest in African investments.

Virtually all of the media simply missed the point. Yes, one can compare Obama’s Africa trip to Bill Clnton’s 1998 trip, and to George W. Bush’s two trips. But in that comparison, one must make the logical conclusion that here, finally, was the kind of American attention to Africa that could have tremendous positive consequences for Africa and America. Two political commentators even said that, when one actually looks at this trip, it “may prove to be the most important journeys ever undertaken to Africa by either a sitting or former president of the United States.”

That’s high-cotton praise for sure. Before Obama’s trip, the U.S. really was not even a player at the table, compared to China, India, and Brazil, for that matter. Africa heard much talk, but saw little economic action from the U.S. in terms of supporting African development, principally through investment and trade, not loans and foreign aid, as had these other countries. China had last year invested more than $200 billion in Africa, and the U.S. only a fraction of that.

But what tangibly did the president get done in Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania, the three nations he visited?

He focused on three primary commitments that struck at the heart of Africa’s present and future needs.

1) The first program he announced is aimed at developing new African leadership throughout the continent in institution building, economic analysis, and partnership collaboration. The U.S. will host thousands of emerging African leaders, placing them in internships in businesses, nonprofits, women’s organizations and educational facilities. The costs of this initiative will mostly be funded, not by the U.S. government, but by the hosting institutions and companies.

Japan and China have both recently offered a similar type of program, but the Japanese focused on the development of industrial leaders, while the Chinese are mainly training engineers and technicians.

2) The second primary program is the announcement of a new engagement by U.S. energy companies to help build power capacity in Africa, especially those companies committed to renewable energy. The first step here was Obama’s promise to provide $7 billion over the next five years for the development of reliable electricity in six African countries.

Called the Power Africa project, the president committed his administration to working with U.S. power companies and their partners in building a model of consistent electrical grid production that should bring power to more than 20 million African homes. This current deficiency is major in Africa, where only 4 percent of the electrical power in the world is used now on the continent, and most of that from hydro sources.

It has been said that, “… not a single country in Africa is meeting its current power needs, let alone its needs for the future. Most African countries are at least 50 percent deficient in meeting current power needs. Without electricity, Africa cannot hope to catch up to and find its rightful place in the global economy and educate its population. Crops must stay refrigerated long enough to get to market if modern agriculture is to develop.

Obama promised a financial environment that essentially will free up major financing institutions to help underwrite the necessary fiscal guarantees “that will allow a range of companies, large and small, to secure financing more easily to begin to invest in Africa.” This will be a private market company-driven project which will use loan guarantees of the U.S. government, through the Export-Import Bank of the United States and through the Overseas Private Investment Corp. The direct financial support of the U.S. cannot currently match the commitments made to Africa by the Japanese and Chinese governments, but with the American private sector included, American commitments to Africa will finally compare favorably to that of any nation in the world. This is also an area in which the African Diaspora can firmly plant its feet.

3) President Obama committed his administration to the hosting next year, 2014, of a U.S.-Africa Summit of Leaders. Acknowledging that other nations have already done this (China, Japan and India), the president did not apologize for America not being first in this regard. He just said it was high time for the United States to do this now.

Go on, Mr. President. This will indeed be part of the legacy of your administration.

Professor David L. Horne is founder and executive director of PAPPEI, the Pan African Public Policy and Ethical Institute, which is a new 501(c)(3) pending community-based organization or non-governmental organization (NGO). It is the stepparent organization for the California Black Think Tank which still operates and which meets every fourth Friday.

DISCLAIMER: The beliefs and viewpoints expressed in opinion pieces, letters to the editor, by columnists and/or contributing writers are not necessarily those of OurWeekly.