Africa finally gets its turn as Barack Obama begins tour

President faces complaints continent of father's birth has received less attention than it deserves

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 25 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 25 June, 2013, 5:38am


US President Barack Obama's visit to Africa this week highlights a paradox: its blood runs in his veins, yet he has given the continent only passing notice as US president, while rivals like China eye the prize.

In Africa, as elsewhere, Obama's election in 2008 sparked great expectations. But as he journeys through Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania from tomorrow, touting trade, investment and the developmental benefits of democracy, he must fix a perception he has given the region short shrift.

"Africans were very excited when President Obama was elected," said Dr Mwangi Kimenyi, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "They expected deeper engagement than in the past, both in regard to policy and also in terms of actual visits to the continent given the president's African heritage."

Obama hardly dampened expectations, declaring in a quick stop in Ghana in 2009: "I have the blood of Africa within me, and my family's own story encompasses both the tragedies and triumphs of the larger African story."

Given a choice, this son of a Kenyan goat-herder-turned-economist would have devoted more time to sub-Saharan Africa. But presidencies have only so much bandwidth.

Africa policy has languished, with Obama battling economic tumult, rebalancing US attention to a rising Asia, being outpaced by revolution in the Middle East and consumed by his effort to end US wars abroad.

Still, White House aides feel a nagging call to Africa and Obama will head there this week - though it is unclear if anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela's fragile condition could scramble his schedule.

"Frankly, Africa is a place that we had not yet been able to devote significant presidential time and attention to," said Ben Rhodes, a deputy US national security adviser.

US officials are aware that emerging economic opportunities and energy resources in Africa have attracted a clutch of interest from rising rivals.

"There are other countries getting in the game in Africa - China, Brazil, Turkey," Rhodes said. "If the US is not leading in Africa, we're going to fall behind in a very important region of the world."

Washington noticed that new President Xi Jinping professed a "sincere friendship" with Africa when he visited the continent during his first foreign tour in March.

Talk of a new "great game" for Africa with Beijing might be overcooked, but Obama may subtly play on concerns over China's aggressive economic tactics.

He will likely stress a US record in building local expertise, transferring technologies, transparency and the power of American brands, and stress the importance of economic "rules of the road" - a frequent US bone of contention with Beijing.

Obama may also suffer from comparison to George W. Bush, who made an Africa tour in his first term and who - despite a checkered presidential legacy - is widely hailed for his HIV/Aids program which saved millions.

US military operations in Africa have meanwhile multiplied, as terror franchises have exploited instability in Mali. US drones keep a stealthy vigil from bases in Djibouti, Ethiopia and Niger.