By: Kingsley Okeke
President Barack Obama, disembarked Air Force One in Nairobi, last month, with a spring in his step, owing largely to the streaks of accomplishments that preceded his visit to Africa. He arrived in east Africa on the back of a ruling, upholding his healthcare plan; endorsement of his Pacific trade agreement; a nuclear deal with Iran; the reopening of diplomatic relations with Cuba, and stirring eulogy in Charleston. He was able to secure this major milestones at a time in a president’s term when most U.S. leaders are considered powerless “lame ducks.”
After the visit to his fatherland, Kenya, President Obama, took a short flight North to Ethiopia, were he was received at the Addis Ababa’s international airport, by the Prime Minister, Hailemariam Desalegn.
President Obama’s visit to Addis Ababa, seems more revealing in the retelling, as it marks a historic time for the oldest country in the continent. The visit would be the first by a sitting U.S. President to the country and also appears the last for Mr. Obama as the President of the United States; but the third since the assumption of office as the 44th President of the United States, to sub-sahara Africa.
The visit afforded the president an opportunity to reconnect with his ancestry, but more importantly, it provided Washington an opportunity to put China on notice that the United States is not ceding Africa to Beijing. Trade and security took centre stage, with leaders pledging to redouble efforts to boost trade relations, eliminate barriers and do more in the areas of security for the continent.
While in Kenya, the US leader participated in a global entrepreneurship summit and in Ethiopia, he discussed how to accelerate economic growth, strengthen democratic institutions, and improve security.
Africa responded with joy when Barack Obama was elected. There was dancing in the streets of Liberia. Kenya declared his inauguration a public holiday. When Obama visited the continent in July 2009, far earlier in his term than the handful of other U.S. presidents that had actually traveled to Africa while in office, expectations only continued to rise. Obama’s major address on Africa policy, delivered in Ghana, was generally well received, with African politicians across the spectrum broadly reassured by its themes of self-reliance and good governance. Many Africans (and many American Africa experts) assumed that, with a father born in Kenya, Obama’s approach to Africa would be transformative.
Yet a number of forces, and some of the president’s own decisions, conspired to make his approach to the continent in the first few years on the seat, seem like business as usual.
However, with a few months to the end of his Presidency, President Obama, seems to be making up for the lost times, with what analysts have described as a renewed US-Africa engagement. The last quarter of 2014 and the whole of 2015 has witnessed a remarkable growth in the relationship between Africa and the United States. A look at some of the Obama’s administration’s initiative aimed at fostering relationship between the United States and Africa, shows that the president is leaving nothing to chance as he makes his last effort to support the continent of his ancestry.
WHAT HAS BEEN DONE UNDER OBAMA’S LEADERSHIP
On a continent where more than two-thirds of the population is without electricity, Power Africa—a public-private partnership designed to make electricity available across the continent—has the potential to be truly transformative over time. The program involves 12 U.S. agencies and $7 billion in U.S. government commitments in addition to another $20 billion in direct loans, guarantee facilities and equity investments from financial partners. In fact, in 2014, the president tripled the initiative’s target from 10,000 MW to 30,000 MW of electricity generation capacity, and increased the number of households and businesses that will gain access to a reliable supply of electricity from 20 million to 60 million.
No administration has done more to move trade and investment to the forefront of U.S. engagement in Africa than the current, though President Clinton’s African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) initially introduced trade as a key stimulus for economic development in the region. Whether it is President Obama’s participation in two U.S.-Africa business fora in the space of 13 months (Tanzania in July 2013 and Washington in August 2014), or the private sector’s role in Power Africa, Feed the Future and the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI), Obama understands the critical importance of leveraging the power of commercial engagement to enhance the U.S. role in Africa.
For instance, both Feed the Future, President Obama’s global food security initiative, and YALI, which provides intensive leadership training for young African leaders, rely on private sector support to operate. Feed the Future is leveraging over $10 billion in private sector investments (in partnership with the African Union Commission) to assist African countries in the implementation of their national food security strategies. The YALI program has received $38 million in funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development to build four regional leadership centers in Ghana, Kenya, Senegal and South Africa; these funds have been matched by investments of $70 million from U.S. and African companies.
At the same time, no issue is as important to U.S. commercial objectives on the continent as the extension of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). As the cornerstone of the U.S.-African commercial relationship, AGOA provides duty-free access to the U.S. market for 6,400 products from 40 countries. If AGOA is not extended in a timely manner in this year (it now is set to expire on September 30, 2015), Obama’s credibility in Africa would be severely diminished, and U.S.-African trade and investment relations would be weakened. However, if there is a 10-15 year extension of AGOA (as the administration and Congress have committed themselves to achieve), trade and investment would be secure as a priority in U.S.-Africa relations for the foreseeable future. This would be a very welcome development for the long-term benefit of all.
The Obama administration, however, has expressed a desire not merely to extend AGOA but to strengthen the legislation as well. In addition to a “long-term” and “seamless” extension, including the third country fabric provision, which allows AGOA beneficiaries to source textile inputs such as yarns and fabrics from any other country (for example, India and China), the White House expressed a desire to expand AGOA’s product coverage by examining 316 tariff lines, mostly agricultural products, that might be included in the renewed legislation. Improving rules of origin and updating the AGOA eligibility criteria and review process were two other areas in which the administration expressed an interest to see AGOA strengthened.
One of the administration’s signal triumphs in 2014 was the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit. Given the challenge of hosting 50 heads of state and their delegations in Washington, there was a great deal of uncertainty prior to the event. However, the genuine engagement by the president and the administration, the focused but relatively free-flowing structure of the event and the several thousand supporters who converged on Washington to participate in innumerable events with the visiting delegations, made the summit a truly unique experience. The administration announced $14 billion in new deals at the summit in an effort to emphasize its commitment to promote U.S. investment on the continent. These deals included investments in clean energy, aviation, banking and construction. The president must maintain this momentum for the summit to have a significant impact on the continent.
Africa’s potential will not be achieved unless it can enhance security on the continent. To this end, the administration announced the Security Governance Initiative at the summit, a joint program between the U.S. and Ghana, Kenya, Mali, Niger, Nigeria and Tunisia. The goal of this program is to strengthen civilian and military institutions and the ministerial responsibilities that provide state oversight of the security sector. Responding to threats posed by groups like Boko Haram, al-Shabab, and al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is one of the goals of the program. (For more on security challenges facing the continent, see “How the West Can Do More Militarily in Africa.”)
Nevertheless, the Obama administration needs to do more to rationalize and enhance the U.S. engagement in Africa’s security challenges. In addition to the Security Governance Initiative, another security program, the African Peacekeeping Rapid Response Partnership (or A-Prep), was launched at the U.S.-African Leaders’ Summit. However, it appears that the U.S. security engagement in Africa lacks an overall strategic framework and, as a result, is made up of a series of loosely connected programs and initiatives that are successful to varying degrees. For example, U.S. support for the U.N.-AU force in Somalia, AMISOM, has been critical in pushing al-Shabab out of Mogadishu. At the same time, the U.S. has been helping Ugandans hunt for Joseph Kony for more than a decade, without success, although a number of his lieutenants have been removed. The unexpected overthrow of the Mali government in 2012. led by a U.S.-trained soldier, and the decision by the Nigerian government in December to halt U.S. training of its soldiers to fight Boko Haram suggests a need, at minimum, for the U.S. to review its strategic approach to responding to Africa’s security challenges.
While some analysts may still hold reservations about President Obama’s Africa legacy, many have described it as largely successful. The trip will no doubt be his last to the continent as the US president, but he declared “I will be Back,” as he concluded his trip, last month and Africa will always welcome her son and also grateful to him for the love and support.