Did Obama's African Tour Help or Hurt?

US President Barack Obama finished his six-day tour of three African countries, Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania, on July 2, 2013. The global public opinion about the importance and impact of his tour is sharply divided.

During his visit, Obama announced a new initiative, “Power Africa”, to double access to electricity in Sub-Saharan Africa. Through this initiative, the US is committing seven billion US dollars while private sector companies have committed more than nine billion.

According to the White House blog, nearly 70 percent of Africans lack access to electricity.

Image of President Barack Obama on a billboard in Dar Es Salaam. Photo courtesy of Sandy Temu.

Image of President Barack Obama on a billboard welcoming him in Dar Es Salaam. Photo courtesy of Instagrammer Sandy Temu.

Commenting about the initiative, Bright Simmons at African Argument commended this new idea for strategic engagement with Africa:

As one of the people who have in the past complained about the seeming lack of new ideas for a “strategic engagement with Africa” from the Obama White House, I welcome renewed energy towards that direction.

The issue selected – Africa’s electricity challenge – is clearly a vital one. The World Bank for instance says that all sub-Saharan African countries, minus South Africa, combined do not generate more electricity than Argentina. Including South Africa, they produce only as much as Spain.

It is commendable that the White House is pledging up to $7 billion in additional funding from two of its overseas-focussed agencies – EXIM and OPIC – for this cause.

I am sure that the White House is already aware that even if this whole amount was provided in a single year, and it is more likely that it will be provided over a 3 to 5 year timeframe, it will not be able to dent the $23 billion YEARLY deficit in energy investment on the continent.

Daniel McLaughling reacted to his post arguing that abolishing national monopolies on electrical utilities is the only solution capable of producing results:

If people are serious about solving Africa’s electricity problem, they should be promoting the only solution capable of producing real results: abolish national monopolies on electric utilities. It amazes me that, with all of the talk about increasing electricity production, nobody wants to admit into the discussion the possibility that government monopolies and corruption are the problem, and that billions more in money transferred to governments will only entrench the corruption further, with little benefit for the people. Open up the markets to competition and profits and you will see large-scale investments and significantly improved access.

Joel B. Pollak was of the view that “Power Africa” will likely not produce as much energy as promised:

[…] “Power Africa” will likely not produce as much energy as promised, while lining the pockets of politically-connected individuals in both the U.S. and Africa. Meanwhile, China, which does not mind if Africans are driving cars and living in large houses with air conditioning, will continue to invest in Africa in ways that generate actual economic growth, relegating the U.S. to the sidelines in Africa's economic future.

Siddhartha Mitter noted that “all infrastructure investment should be considered a good thing unless proven otherwise—especially in Africa”:

At present, continent-wide installed capacity and power generation are roughly equivalent to those of Germany or Canada. Remove South Africa and Egypt, and you are left with about 63 GW supplying 260 billion kWh, scarcely more than Australia or Iran. In this context, if the first phase of Power Africa succeeds in its stated goal of adding 10 GW of generation capacity and connecting 20 million new residential and commercial customers, it will represent a major expansion—albeit not near the doubling of access that, according to the White House fact sheet on Power Africa, is the program’s ultimate aim. Indeed, the same fact sheet soberly estimates that it would cost $300bn to secure universal access to power on the continent by 2030.

Despite the excitement shown by citizens of the three countries, Shadow Government showed that there was a low point to the trip:

But there has been a low point to the trip: namely, his comments in South Africa during the press conference with President Jacob Zuma. The president made what I consider ill-thought-out comments, probably meant to be humorous, regarding the press. He referred to the American press corps as “my press,” and he chided them for asking too many questions. Normally, perhaps, this wouldn't be a big deal. But in that he was visiting three African countries whose press is judged by Freedom House to be “partially free,” I think it is not just bad form but harmful for his administration's support for democracy. Of course I would not expect the president to use his trip as an occasion to criticize his hosts directly. But I would expect that while he, himself, is under scrutiny for his administration's treatment of the press (the AP phone records and Fox News's James Rosen), he would not make light of such matters.

Kumekucha called Obama “snubbish Obama” for not visiting Kenya, the land of his father:

Now that Obama has finally landed in Dar es Salaam dancing to Bongo ‘Ohangla’ Flava [Bongo Flava is the name for Tanzanian Hip Hop and R&B music], we can finally bid him bye from without and mend our punctued national pride.

What a snubbish man to have him camp at next door neighbour with no regard to the hurt he is causing his own people who adore him so much. SHAME.

Forget all the bitterness spewed that we do not need Obama's visit. True, the economic side of such a visit would be realisedmuch later but boy, isn't Nairobi missing the buzz!

Obama's ICC-laced whip smacks of utmost contempt after Kibaki declared a holiday in his honour after winning the elections in 2008. What is more, the Tanzanians could afford to shame him with a street name for recognition.

The YouTube video below posted by the White House shows a young South African showing Obama his rap skills at the Desmond Tutu HIV Center:

Looking at Obama's overall contribution to Africa's development, Tolu considered Obama “positively neglectful” when comparing him to the Bush administration. He explained:

The Bush government left footprints across the continent beyond the aid arena. It played a role in the signing of the peace agreement that brought an end to decades of civil war in Sudan, showed a lot of interest in bringing an end to the wars in the Congo region, and helped bring about an end to the civil war in Liberia, helping ensure Charles Taylor’s resignation, and eventual arrest and prosecution. (Taylor has of course since wondered aloud why Bush is himself not facing prosecution for his own “crimes”).

Against this background of US, Obama comes across as positively neglectful. His only activity of note has been to ramp up US military activity in Africa, adding drone bases and deploying significant numbers of troops. When he was first elected there were celebrations across the continent, and perhaps unrealistic expectations that he would champion African interests on the world stage. Indeed on his first visit to Ghana, he declared that he had “the blood of Africa within me”. Since then his absence has been keenly felt, sparking accusations that he has betrayed his roots.

But is this fair? Does Obama have a special responsibility to the continent, because of his ancestry? Perhaps not. Perhaps the emphasis on Obama as a black president is missing the point. Because it’s not just for reasons of solidarity that the US president should attend to Africa. There are more selfish reasons, both , economic and political, as well.

Being a feminist South African, Jennifer Thorpe noted that the environment she lives in affects women’s lives most tangibly. She therefore looks at Obama's environmental protection track record:

We know the US has a poor track record environmentally — a perfect example of how legislation protecting the environment is not nearly as good as not polluting it in the first place. Recently Obama has changed his tune, saying he’d stop dangerous and environmentally disastrous projects like the Keystone pipeline if they showed the environmental impact would be negative.

In South Africa, the Constitution provides the right for all of us to live in an environment that is not bad for our health. Yet we see so often that environmental impact assessments just make sure that companies meet the bare minimum rather than actively going out of their way to protect the land and environment that belongs to all of us. I hope that when President Obama evaluates the impact of Keystone on the environment, he does so in broad strokes, not in a narrowly defined minimum norms and standards type of way. I think the question should be simple — will the innately valuable biodiversity, beauty, and sanctity of the land be improved by Keystone? As someone who grew up in Hawaai, I know he knows the answer to this question in his heart.

On Twitter, BBC's Andrew Harding (@BBCAndrewH) observed:

@BBCAndrewH: #obama – Africa cannot just be a source of raw materials for somebody else.

Mr. Mabotja (@MelosoDrop_Line) responded to @BBCAndrewH's tweet by saying:

@MelosoDrop_Line: @BBCAndrewH #Obama never indicated that Africa is a raw materials shop… His indicating the shift away from that mentality

Dayo Olopade (@madayo) wrote:

@madayo: The #ObamaInAfrica trip is as notable for what he's doing as for what he's not. Rule of law fixation leaves out the most relevant countries.

Haru Mutasa (@harumutasa) pointed out what some Africans are asking:

@harumutasa: #obamainafrica. Some Africans are asking, “what has the US president done for Africa that's different from previous US leaders?”

Ashley Koen (@a_koen) was concerned about innocent civilians who were rounded up to “clean up the city” – it is a commons practice in most African countries when a foreign head of state, especially from Europe and USA visits, for street vendors to be removed:

@a_koen: Will all those displaced businesses and innocent civilians who were thrown in jail to clean up the city get their lives back? #ObamainAfrica


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