President Barack Obama arrived in East Africa for his fourth trip to the continent, where he has weekend meetings with the leaders of Kenya and Ethiopia and will address the African Union.
The president will emphasize many aspects of his agenda for Africa, which includes empowering young people and increasing U.S.-Africa trade. He'll show support for engaging youth in job creation and economic growth at the Global Entrepreneurial Summit in Nairobi Saturday, a gathering that will introduce young African innovators to U.S. business leaders and government officials.
The meeting complements other administration efforts to empower youth, such as the Young African Leaders Initiative. Known as YALI, it provides a variety of programs to help youths improve leadership skills, bolster entrepreneurship and network with government and business leaders.
The effort taps into what economists call Africa’s "demographic bulge" – its growing number of young people that the U.N. says will need 500 million jobs over the next five years. .
Witney Schneidman, a fellow with the Washington-based Brookings Institution’s Africa Growth Initiative, says the administrative agenda "strikes at the heart of job creation on the continent."
"In Kenya alone," he said, "youth unemployment is at about 25 percent of the population. Where are the most jobs created? It’s pretty much by young entrepreneurs. And so a lot of what the administration is trying to do is mobilize resources for entrepreneurs in terms of skills development, training, resources, grants, and bringing the private sector along as well, and mentoring. So this is very much on the radar screen of this administration, to [its] credit."
Spurring the private sector
Schneidman added that private investment is a key element for many of the Obama administration's programs in Africa – whether it’s increasing food production or doubling consumers' access to electricity over the next five years.
Initiatives such as Feed the Future and Trade Africa "all have the U.S. and the African private sectors woven into them," he said. "This is new. No administration prior has really engaged the U.S. and the African private sectors seriously and as constructively as this one has. And given the complexity of the African economy and the African market, this is a good way to help U.S. companies get into the African market and to make an important contribution to economic development as well."
Room for partnerships
Amadou Sy, who directs Brookings' African Growth Initiative, said Obama’s initiatives efforts coincide with African countries' push to find common strategies on economic growth, development and climate change.
"I think it’s really clear, and he has said it publicly, that he’s seeing Africa as a partner," said Sy. "And it is very timely because … I think Africa is the only region that has a common position, when it comes to what to do in the future, when it comes to sustainable development goals, financing for development" and even the U.N. climate change conference in Paris in November.
With African Vision 2063, an economic growth initiative, "Africa is saying, ‘OK, we want to transform our economies and infrastructure, starting with power [generation],' " Sy said. "... At a time when the continent is articulating this vision as a common front, here comes President Obama, who says, ‘Well, OK, I see you guys as a partner.’ And I think this is very critical."
Security and human rights
Obama’s trip will also highlight another type of partnership with Africa: security.
Both Kenya and Ethiopia are involved in fighting the Islamic radical group al-Shabab. Also, Kenya is playing a leading role in the East Africa community to calm tensions in neighboring Burundi. Both countries are involved in regional efforts to reconcile warring factions in South Sudan.
But human rights groups say both countries are using security concerns to suppress dissent and personal freedoms. The Committee to Protect Journalists says Ethiopia has the second-worst record of imprisoning reporters in Africa. The government is accused of repressing its opposition, which has no representation in parliament. Kenya’s vice president has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for his alleged involvement in post-election violence eight years ago.
Human rights groups want the rule of law, democratic reforms and good governance to be at the top of talks with African leaders. Administration officials say human rights and democratization continue to be part of US engagement with all African leaders – and will be discussed in bilateral talks. They say an open and democratic approach to resolving citizen’s grievances is an important way of limiting the appeal of extremists.
Brookings' Schneidman said it’s a delicate balance for the U.S., which needs to engage African partners on many different levels, including security, trade and human rights.
"In Ethiopia, we’ve got security interests, economic growth interests, investment interests, but clearly we want to see more democracy," he said. "We want to see better governance. We want to see tolerance of the opposition. And I’m sure the president will talk to the government about those issues."
"In Kenya," he continued, "we have the same story. We have a lot of interests with the Kenyan government. Kenya is one of the fastest-growing economies on the continent. It’s the commercial hub of East Africa. It’s got a very dynamic and innovative middle class and strong private sector. But there, too, we have problems. We have differences with elections. Issues of governance and corruption are major concerns."
Schneidman said the administration’s approach – engaging countries with whom the U.S. disagrees on press freedom, elections and other issues – was on display last August when Obama invited the leaders of 50 African countries to a Washington summit.
Schneidman said continued consultations with all governments – including difficult ones – shows a maturation of U.S.-African relations. The goals – including good governance and the rule of law – remain the same. As Obama puts it: "Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions."