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June 19, 2013

Obama Africa Trip is Effort to Re-engage With Continent

by Dan Robinson

U.S. President Barack Obama returns to Africa next week, only the second visit of his presidency to the continent. In Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania, he will stress support for democracies and economic progress, and speak about the importance of human rights.

Obama has spent less than 24 hours in sub-Saharan Africa, an all-too short visit to Ghana in 2009.

He spoke to Ghana's parliament about democracy, opportunity and peaceful resolution of conflict, and pointed to what he called a fundamental truth.

“Development depends on good governance," he stated. "That is the ingredient which has been missing in far too many places, for far too long. That's the change that can unlock Africa's potential."

In Senegal, Obama's first stop, his host is President Macky Sall, who visited the White House last March with other African leaders.

Senegal and other stops reflect U.S. support for emerging democracies, food security, global health and fighting AIDS.

Obama also is likely to speak about joint counter-terrorism efforts with African nations, and threats from Islamist extremists in places like Mali and Nigeria.

Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said President Obama is aware of the disappointment that he has visited Africa only once, and is determined to change that.

"The U.S. would be ceding its leadership position in the world if the president of the United States was not deeply engaged in Africa," Rhodes noted. "And that is what he is going to do."

Former Bush administration top official for Africa Jendayi Frazer, now with the Council on Foreign Relations, said the African "street" and many leaders feel let down. "That he hasn't been more engaged, that he hasn't had more dialogue with them, and that his administration has not had greater influence, particularly when they compare that to the significant engagement that they are finding coming out of China," Frazer stated.

Julius Agbor, with the Brookings Institution, credits Obama with strengthening democratic institutions, peace and security initiatives, and food security initiatives.

He said Obama bolstered U.S. aid levels, but Africans remain disappointed with low levels of direct U.S. investment.

"Africans in the majority have been very disappointed by the fact that the U.S. is not investing enough in the continent which would have helped to provide jobs for its millions of unemployed young graduates," said Agbor.

In South Africa, which White House officials call the continent's iconic democracy, Obama will discuss economic and democratic progress. 

"South Africa is the largest economy in sub-Saharan Africa, it has strong democratic institutions although challenged, certainly there are major challenges in South Africa, but it is of strategic importance to the United States, it has a big influence in the African Union and across the region, particularly in southern Africa," added Frazer.

Deliberately left off Obama's itinerary was Kenya. Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta and deputy president face trials in the International Criminal Court on charges linked to post-election violence in 2007.