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Anastasia Tolstukhina

PhD in Political Science, Program Coordinator and Website Editor at the Russian International Affairs Council

During Barack Obama’s first presidential term, Africa was not among the U.S. foreign policy priorities. In spite of his African roots, America’s first black president, contrary to expectations, focused attention not on Africa but on tackling such problems as the U.S. economy, Iraq, Afghanistan and so on. Yet, during his second term, Obama has tried to strengthen Washington’s engagement with African affairs and to put Africa back on the U.S. foreign policy agenda.

During Barack Obama’s first presidential term, Africa was not among the U.S. foreign policy priorities. In spite of his African roots, America’s first black president, contrary to expectations, focused attention not on Africa but on tackling such problems as the U.S. economy, Iraq, Afghanistan and so on. Yet, during his second term, Obama has tried to strengthen Washington’s engagement with African affairs and to put Africa back on the U.S. foreign policy agenda. The main reason was that China, India, the EU and other leading world players began to make significant inroads on America’s economic and geopolitical positions on the resource-rich and fast-growing African continent.

In 2012, for instance, the U.S. government launched the U.S. Strategy Toward Sub-Saharan Africa aimed at deepening commercial ties with the region and establishing an effective partnership with African countries in order to meet the main security challenges. The strategy is being implemented through such key initiatives as Power Africa, Feed the Future, the Global Health Initiative and Young African Leaders Initiative [1]. In addition to these, the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) passed in 2000 has been the cornerstone of commercial relations between Africa and the U.S. [2]. In 2013, President Obama made a major tour of Africa devoted to trade, investment and security on the continent. During his visit, Obama offered assistance to African countries in agriculture, education and healthcare, development of public-private partnership and reform. A major U.S.–Africa summit in Washington in August of 2014 discussed trade, investment and security issues. Its main outcome was Obama’s promise of a USD 37-billion injection of government and private investments into African countries.

Although the declared aims of Obama’s visit to Kenya and Ethiopia were to promote trade and strengthen security, the real ones were primarily political.

The U.S. president’s tour of East Africa on July 24–28, 2015, can be seen as a sequel to the efforts to implement the American strategy toward Sub-Saharan Africa. Although the declared aims of Obama’s visit to Kenya and Ethiopia were to promote trade and strengthen security, the real ones were primarily political. It is important for Obama to demonstrate the importance of the African continent for America by means of concrete actions and not just gestures.

REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta walks with
U.S. President Barack Obama after their joint
news conference at the State House in Nairobi
July 25, 2015

Not by chance did the U.S. president choose to visit Kenya and Ethiopia. Kenya is the biggest economy in East Africa. Obama did not offer aid and charity. Instead, addressing a summit of entrepreneurs in Nairobi, he said that Africa’s time has come as a place of innovation, with young people, and especially women, poised to transform the continent. “I wanted to be here because Africa is on the move,” he said. “This continent needs to be a future hub of global growth.” A billionaire investor from Nigeria noted the new tone in America-Africa relations: “For the first time, an American president comes to Africa to preach trade and investment instead of aid.” At the same time, Obama warned that corruption posed the biggest threat to Kenya’s economic growth. After the meeting, Barack Obama and Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta issued a 29-point plan to combat corruption.

In spite of its economic potential, Kenya is extremely vulnerable to terrorist attacks [3], which is prompting Kenyans to strengthen security cooperation with the U.S. Obama and Kenyatta signed an action plan for strengthening Kenya’s security in the fight against Al-Shabaab (a branch of Al Qaeda based in Somalia). Obama also promised the Kenyan president extra financing and assistance in counter-terrorist operations.

In spite of its economic potential, Kenya is extremely vulnerable to terrorist attacks, which is prompting Kenyans to strengthen security cooperation with the U.S.

Not that the two presidents saw eye-to-eye on everything. In a country fiercely opposed to homosexualism, President Kenyatta categorically rejected Obama’s views on gay rights, noting that it was hard to impose on people something they did not accept.

As for Ethiopia, along with Kenya, the U.S. considers it a key strategic security ally. The country is a major contributor to the African Union’s peacekeeping force fighting terrorist groups. Its capital Addis-Ababa is the headquarters of the African Union, the most influential international organisation on the African continent.

Reuters
Ethiopia's Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn
greets U.S. President Barack Obama as he
arrives aboard Air Force One at Bole International
Airport in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia July 26, 2015


Barack Obama that America was seeking closer cooperation with African countries on security matters because it wanted to increase its potential for tackling critical threats connected with international terrorism.

During his talks with Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, Barack Obama admitted that America was seeking closer cooperation with African countries on security matters because it wanted to increase its potential for tackling critical threats connected with international terrorism.

The U.S. president’s speech to 54 African Union members at the Union’s headquarters was a political and historic milestone. He spoke about Africa’s current challenges, democracy and human rights. Addressing the African leaders, Obama noted Africa’s huge potential and dynamism and the impressive economic growth in some of its countries. Even so, he urged the heads of state to respect their constitutions, not to suppress civil society and the opposition, and to fight corruption. Obama also stressed the need for reform in business to help attract more investment to the continent and develop trade. In addition, the U.S. president raised the issue of unemployment in African countries, which he said should be addressed urgently because Africa’s population would reach two billion within just a few decades. Obama called on African leaders to invest more in the education of the younger generation in order to prevent the kind of chaos and instability found in the Middle East and North Africa.

To conclude, Barack Obama’s East African tour was extremely important. With many experts sceptical about Washington’s policy vis-à-vis Africa, Barack Obama is trying, before his term runs out, to make the most of the remaining time to rehabilitate his policy on the continent and leave a legacy in the development of American-African relations.

1. The Power Africa programme seeks to make power accessible to all Africans. It is committing USD 7 billion government funds in addition to USD 20 billion in direct loans, guarantees and investments. Feed the Future is President Obama’s initiative in the field of global food security, funded by USD 10 billion in private investment. The Young African Leaders Initiative provides intensive training of young African leaders. (The U.S. Agency for International Development has earmarked some USD 38 million to build four training centres in Ghana, Kenya, Senegal and South Africa).

2. AGOA provides duty-free access to the U.S. market for 6400 types of goods from 40 African countries. Yana Leksyutina of Russia notes that, in reality, 90% of African exports under the AGOA programme consist of oil and petroleum products. See: Leksyutina Ya.V. Competing Expansion of the U.S. and China in Tropical Africa // POLITEX. 2011. Vol. 7. No. 4, p. 111 (in Russian).

3. On April 2, 2015, a terrorist attack in Garissa claimed 148 lives. In September 2013, terrorists seized a shopping mall in Nairobi, killing at least 67 people.

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