News / Africa

Obama's Africa Trip to Focus on Democracy, Development

U.S. President Barack Obama (file photo)
U.S. President Barack Obama (file photo)
— President Barack Obama and his family leave Wednesday for Senegal, the first stop on a weeklong African trip that also includes South Africa and Tanzania.  The focus of Obama's trip will be on democratic progress, trade and investment, development, and health issues.

During a brief visit to Ghana in 2009, Obama spoke about the rule of law, economic opportunity, health challenges and peaceful resolution of conflicts.

In blunt language, he said Africa could no longer afford the "old style of governance" marked by corruption and abuse of civil liberties, and issued this challenge to the youth of Africa.

"Here is what you must know. The world will be what you make of it. You have the power to hold your leaders accountable, and to build institutions that serve the people," he said.

White House officials acknowledge that Obama's failure to return until now has frustrated many Africans.

The 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," said Frazer.

Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes indicated that Obama intended to be more engaged. "For the U.S. to say we are a world leader except in this continent does not make any sense," said Rhodes.

Obama is reshaping U.S. global assistance and health programs. He announced a new food security initiative at last year's G8 Summit.

He has also intensified U.S. security links with African governments, and is expected to speak about threats from regional extremist groups.

Grant Harris, senior director for African Affairs on the National Security Council, rejected the notion that the U.S. has been "militarizing" its relationships on the continent.

"Advancing peace and security is a core objective for U.S. policy, but it’s part of a holistic approach of strengthening democratic institutions, spurring economic growth, trade and investment and promoting opportunity and development," said Harris.

Human Rights Watch Deputy Washington Director Sarah Margon said the Obama trip also came amid some big challenges to human rights and civil liberties.

"We have seen some important developments in certain countries that are laudable: Senegal being a very important example of things moving in the right direction, whereas Uganda, for instance, has been moving in the wrong direction with its media crackdowns and increasing repression on civil society groups," she said.

In South Africa, Obama is scheduled to hold a town hall-style meeting in Soweto, with youth from across the continent participating.

At the University of Cape Town, he will deliver what officials call the main framing speech of his trip, about U.S. Africa policy.

Trade and investment will be the focus of Obama's final stop in Tanzania.  He will also visit a memorial in Dar es Salaam remembering those who died in 1998, when al-Qaida bombed the U.S. embassy there.

Kenya, the birthplace of Obama's father, is not included on the schedule.  Kenya's president and deputy president face trials in the International Criminal Court on charges linked to violence after the 2007 election.

The White House says this "wasn't the best time" for Obama to travel to Kenya, but that the U.S. will continue to be focused on working with the new Kenyan government.

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