Is Barack Obama as hot in Africa as he was in 2009?

2013-07-01 10:00

Is the US president as hot in Africa as he was in 2009? Amadou Mahtar Ba is CEO of the Africa Media Initiative, co-founder of and a regular on lists of most influential Africans. Amid muted interest in Obama’s visit, worries over Madiba’s illness and threats of protests, Ferial Haffajee asks Ba why the visit matters

Is Obama’s star waning across the continent?

I actually do believe it’s true everywhere across the continent. There’s a difference between January 2009 when he took office and today, June 2013.

The reality is that having an African heritage doesn’t make Obama a president for Africa. He has put forward mostly the national interests of the US and that does not always coincide with the interests of Africa.

That being said, we have not seen any big initiatives in Africa by Obama. Everything he has been doing are continuations of former US president George W Bush’s policies. There is not a single economic, trade or other policy which is Obama’s brainchild. That is why people are disappointed.

In South Africa, China is quickly displacing the US as a major trading partner. Is the same happening across the continent?

The reality is that China is a much bigger player in Africa. Africans, more and more, are going to China rather than the US. US trade and investment in Africa is only 2% of total trade. In today’s world, China is more of a powerhouse and is doing all it needs to befriend and find political allies.

China turns projects around really rapidly without a lot of transparency and you don’t hear that country talk about (soft political issues) like transparency, accountability, and so on. Plus if the average African wakes up one morning and says, ‘I want to go to China’, he or she is more likely to get a visa much more quickly.

If you look at the education system, more and more Africans are going to be educated in China. And China has a visible presence in Africa through infrastructure building. On the contrary, although the US has diplomatic representation, it has an invisible presence. There is a very big difference in the engagement approaches of the two superpowers.

China’s interest in Africa in the past decade has been overwhelming. China knows very well that Africa has all the mineral resources it needs and that Africa is a huge market for products and services coming out of China. Often, this is happening in direct conflict with the traditional economic partners of the continent such as Europe and the US.

Why do you think President Obama has chosen to visit Senegal,but not Kenya, South Africa but not Nigeria?

In the case of Senegal, they need to pay tribute to the maturity of the Senegalese democracy, where there have been several transfers of peaceful power. Senegal, along with Cape Verde, has never had a military coup. The White House has said Senegal showcases established democracy and reflects that more and more countries on the continent are moving towards democracy.

In Kenya, it is more complex. The unresolved issue is that both President Uhuru Kenyatta and vice-president William Ruto are under interdict by the International Criminal Court.

Many Western nations are practising only essential engagement. If the US president went to Kenya, it would be an endorsement, which the US administration decided would not work.

If you are an American president, you have to come to South Africa. It is the leader on the continent. There is also the heritage of recognising a new country where there has been a generally peaceful transition. That is why it has to prevail over Nigeria.

In South Africa, a fairly powerful no-Obama protest movement gathered steam. It pivots on opposition to torture at Guantanamo, the numerous deaths through drone assaults and a voluble lobby looking to declare Obama a war criminal. Were similar protests planned in Senegal?

There have been protests in Senegal around Goree Island, (the slave station from which slaves from across Africa were dispatched through the door of no return). When Bush visited, it became a US territory where the local population was penned up and could not move. People were worried the same would happen. But Obama has less security presence.

There have been some protests about the closures of central artery roads in Dakar, but the protests are nothing like those in South Africa. You have similar protests in the US. It’s good that citizens in our countries can express discontent against US policies, but the impact will be minimal.

This trip is long overdue. It is focused on trade and investment as well as security. The US realises it is in competition with countries such as Turkey, China and India. On the continent, we have Boko Haram (in Nigeria), piracy (originating from Somalia) and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (which started in Algeria).

Obama is paying this visit in the first year of his second term. It is important for him to take the pulse of the continent and see it for himself.

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