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Obama Africa Policy Gaining Momentum

  • Kent Klein

President Barack Obama will host a summit of African leaders in Washington this August, a sign that his administration is paying more attention to the continent than in the past. Many Africans and Africa experts say he has not done enough.

Africans had high hopes for America's new president in 2009. Many expected the son of a Kenyan academic to have a strong policy on Africa. He didn't, disappointing many.

But since then, President Obama has worked more closely with Africa, on trade, economic development and democracy. "Development depends upon good governance," he said.

The administration's programs include Power Africa, aimed at extending electricity to more of the continent, and Feed the Future, geared toward food security and backed by $3 billion from the U.S. government.

The programs have been successful, although overdue, said Jennifer Cooke, who leads the Africa Program at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"Many other global players, including China, Malaysia, Brazil, India, Europe even, are making big plays in the commercial and trade domain, and the U.S. is being kind of slow to catch up to that," she said.

Barack Obama's election in 2008 as the first black U.S. president was a moment of intense pride for African-Americans.

It was also a moment of pride for Africans. But even as Obama visited Senegal last year, some Africans hoped he would do more.

"We're happy about the arrival of President Obama, but what we would like is that he helps us," said Senegalese laundry worker Nging.

Jennifer Cooke said Obama neglected Africa early in his first term because he was faced with crises in the United States.

"We have to remember that when President Obama came into office, we were in the midst of a deep economic, a global economic crisis, a deep fiscal crisis here in the United States, tremendous domestic wrangles over health care, Iraq, Afghanistan," she said.

Cooke also said Obama's image regarding Africa suffered in comparison with his predecessor, George W. Bush, who spent tens of billions of dollars to fight AIDS in Africa.

She said, "And people did start to say, 'Look, you know, Bush had major, big initiatives here, was engaged, seemed passionate about it, traveled here on several kind of long trips. Obama made a very short stop in his first term in Ghana.'"

Presidential historian Allan Lichtman said Obama wanted to be seen as an American president, rather than as an African-American president.

"He very much wanted to be viewed as the president of all the people, and not a president concerned with issues of particular interest to African-Americans. He may have gone too far in kind of neglecting and ignoring Africa during his first term, but I think that partly explains it," he said.

The president hopes his policies will help erase some of the root causes of growing insecurity in Africa.

And with Obama planning to host African leaders this August, the perception that he has been neglecting Africa may begin to change.