WASHINGTON — U.S. President Barack Obama embarked this week on his second trip to sub-Saharan Africa since taking office in 2009. Significant though it is, this long-awaited visit will fall short of the expectations of many Africans. Over the last four and a half years, Africans have grown increasingly critical of Obama’s limited interest in the continent — an interest that seems confined to security — and many feel that the U.S. president has taken their goodwill for granted. The excitement that accompanied his historic 2008 election has given way to widespread cynicism on the continent. Unfortunately, this trip is unlikely to change the prevailing view among Africans that Obama is out of touch with the new realities of an emerging Africa.
When Obama returns to Washington, he will have increased the amount of time he’s spent as president in Africa nearly tenfold — from 21 to about 200 hours. He will also have gone from having visited only one country — Ghana — to having visited four (he’s scheduled to make appearances in Senegal, Tanzania and South Africa). For the Obama administration, these are important milestones and a sign of his renewed commitment.
But for a president who has failed to seize Africa’s many economic opportunities, the additional time spent there is still pathetic and embarrassing — especially when compared with China’s deep engagement in the region. Over the last five years, China’s top leaders — including the president, vice president, premier, vice premier, cabinet ministers and top communist party officials — have visited about 30 African countries. Former Chinese president Hu Jintao visited 17 African nations in a single 10-month stretch between July 2006 and February 2007. And China’s current president, Xi Jinping, has already visited three African countries since taking office on March 14, 2013.
Even by recent U.S. presidential standards, Obama’s travel to the region has been minimal. At this point in George W. Bush’s presidency, he had taken a five-country tour of sub-Saharan Africa and spent more than 100 hours on the continent. He then made another six-day trip to Africa near the end of his second term.
Another major criticism of Obama’s Africa trip concerns the makeup of his itinerary. The president will be passing over three of the continent’s regional anchors: Nigeria, Kenya and Ethiopia. In fact, some had thought Obama would attend the African Union Heads of State Summit in Addis Ababa last month to celebrate the organization’s 50th anniversary. This would have been more significant than visiting any group of countries, and especially poignant given Obama’s African heritage. Instead, he sent his secretary of state, which African leaders could have perceived as a sign of disrespect.
Obama has indicated that he will use his trip to highlight U.S. development programs in Africa. But since the president has established no significant new Africa-related programs, he will inevitably be highlighting the work of his predecessors, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Obama has also indicated he will highlight U.S. engagement in food security, terrorism, youth leadership and energy. Unfortunately, any new initiatives in these areas are likely to be relatively small in scale and guided by the outdated view of Africa as a "hopeless" continent looking for handouts.
Obama’s visit to Africa will also focus in part on promoting U.S. trade and private investment in the region. However, U.S. engagement in these areas has been limited to date, focused primarily on programs that target individual countries or on smaller, ill-defined initiatives such as the Commerce Department’s "Doing Business in Africa" campaign or USAID’s muddled efforts to create trade hubs in Africa. Such programs also do not sufficiently promote regional integration, which is critical to Africa’s economic growth and transformation. American private-sector investment — paired with public sector support — particularly in infrastructure, could go a long way in supporting Africa’s growth and industrialization, and to being mutually beneficial for trade and investment. Obama has an opportunity with this trip to announce and follow through on initiatives in this area. If he does so, he will leave behind an important legacy on the continent.
When Chinese leaders visit Africa, they come with very specific development initiatives and return home with hundreds of bilateral agreements, many of which involve investment by Chinese companies.
Obama will almost certainly return home empty-handed. So, what will he accomplish beyond symbolism? Probably not much. The president’s advisers will spin the trip as proof that Obama hasn’t ignored Africa and that the region is an important U.S. partner. And while the latter bit might be true, most Africans don’t see it that way.
Mwangi S. Kimenyi is the director of the Africa Growth Initiative at the Brookings Institution.