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South Africa: Obama ready to redraw map of US relations with Africa

2013/06/30

    By their own admission US envoys to Africa tend to spend the majority of their time fighting fires – preoccupied with troubled corners of the continent at the expense of furthering commercial ties in its brighter spots.

 So the focus on trade and investment that President Barack Obama plans to bring will be welcome both for the nations he is visiting this week – Senegal in the west, South Africa and Tanzania in the east – and for US companies waking up to African economic potential.

Mr Obama’s initial term was something of a damp squib for Africans. Across the continent there were murmurs of disappointment at the perceived lack of a coherent US response to changing times: to the fast-growing markets, aspirational populations and additional assertive governments.

 A lot of Africans had begun to compare Mr Obama’s engagement – or the perceived lack of it – unfavourably with George W Bush, and Bill Clinton.
        That may not be equitable.
In security terms the US has remained hyper-active under Mr Obama’s watch, with the US supporting initiatives to combat Islamist militancy in east and west Africa. In trade terms, the US has been overtaken by China in a lot of African nations. But in general US trade with Africa has risen healthily by comparison with the former colonial powers.

 Nonetheless, just one visit of less than a day to Ghana in additional than four years was at no time going to satisfy request from a continent that drew inspiration from Mr Obama’s personal story and saw his election in 2008 – a black American with Kenyan roots – as a victory for racial equality.

Moreover Africans presently have the experience of courtship from the likes of China, India, Brazil – and most recently Turkey – whose leaders have regularly made their presence felt in their aggressive pursuit of markets and resources.    

  “At the same time as Obama got elected expectations were so high all over the world and were probably highest in the left wing of the Democratic party and in Africa. In both instances it has been a jarring engagement with reality,” says Witney Schneidman, former US undersecretary of national for commerce in Africa under Mr Clinton.
       

Back in 2008 on his brief stopover in Accra, Mr Obama tapped into a strong desire for self-determination. He evoked the inspiration that Martin Luther King Jr drew from Ghana’s struggle for independence and proclaimed that he had Africa in his blood.There have been an array of dynamics inhibiting much follow through from the man himself: the 2008 financial crisis, the Iraq and Afghan wars, and, at one point, near daily questioning from his political opponents of his bona fides as a US citizen, born as he was to a Kenyan father.

 But the field is clearer presently for him to re-energise and recalibrate relations. At present the Pentagon has far better representation on the continent than the US Department of Commerce. US strategic interests in African security are unlikely to diminish. But Washington is under growing pressure from US companies to take on a role in promoting commercial ties

 In the completed US companies – outside oil and gas and extractive sectors – tended to be indifferent to Africa, dismissing it as a tiny part of world trade. That is changing as the rapid increase of some African economies draws the likes of Walmart, General Electric and the civil engineering giant Bechtel.

Mr Obama will announce the creation of a fund, Power Africa, to support development of electricity infrastructure with a mix of national and private investment , inclunding an array of initiatives to further trade. His trip coincides with talks in Addis Ababa on renewing the Clinton- era African Increase and Opportunity Act, which gave thousands of African products business-free access to the US.

It is too early to write the Obama legacy in Africa. But as Mr Schneidman argues, this trip could be a stepping stone to recalibrate US policy from aid to trade, investment , and even “mutual benefit”.

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