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Obama’s Africa visit another diplomatic show

Editor: Li Kun 丨CCTV.com

07-28-2015 16:03 BJT

By Sun Chenghao, assistant research fellow, institute of American studies, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR) and Sun Hong, assistant research fellow, institute of African studies, CICIR

US President Barack Obama landed in Kenya on Friday kicking off a two-day visit, to be followed by a trip to Ethiopia. As the first African-American president, he also becomes the first sitting US president to visit the East African countries and deliver a speech before the African Union. Ever since 2009 when Obama was sworn into office, Africa has held high expectations for his Africa policy. Yet during his first term Obama never paid an official visit to any country on the continent, let alone Kenya. So what do African countries expect from this trip?

Security comes first on the agenda, in particular for the Sahel region stretching from Mauritania in the west to Somalia in the East, the so-called “Arc of Instability” which harbors several terrorist groups, mainly al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Boko Haram and al Shabab. International efforts have poured in to assist local countries with their anti-terrorist campaigns. For example, French troops were redeployed in August 2014 in Operation Barkhane in the Sahel region.

Kenya is eager to grab more security aid from the US. After the government’s decision in 2011 to send troops to the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), al-Qaeda-led al-Shabab has staged several attacks in Kenya including the April 2 massacre at Garissa University this year where at least 147 died and the Westgate shopping center attack in 2013 where at least 68 died. Tarnished security has hammered Kenya’s tourism sector, one of its key industries. Recorded tourist arrivals have plunged more than 60 percent since 2011. The first five months of 2015 witnessed a 25 percent drop in arrivals.

Obama said during this trip that both countries had systematically reduced the territory that al-Shabab controlled, but the problem was not resolved. Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta stressed anti-terrorism cooperation between the two countries by saying “we have been working in very close collaboration with American agencies during our fight on terror. And I am certain that that is an agenda we shall further strengthen during this particular meeting.” 

But the US took a sideline strategy, satisfied to offer logistical and intelligence services to its allies and proxy forces. The bloody reality then proved that American efforts are far from meeting the continent’s demands. The recent eyebrow-raising speech of Muhammadu Buhari at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington constitutes proof. The newly elected President of Nigeria criticized the US for denying “access to appropriate strategic weapons” and having unwittingly “aided and abetted” the terrorists -- Boko Haram -- as a result.

Obama understands the risks if the US deeply involves itself in the battle against terrorism. Neither US troops nor his political standing could sustain the hit should he fail. To avoid direct intervention, the US supports regional and sub-regional organizations in military actions. From 2005 to August 2014, through the Africa Contingency Operations Training and Assistance (ACOTA) program, the US has trained more than 248,000 peacekeepers from 25 partner countries across the continent.

On the economic front, the African Growth Opportunity Act (AGOA) and infrastructure financing compete for African policy makers’ attention to deepen their cooperation with the US.

Under the Act, US-Africa trade rose to US$73 billion in 2014 with more than 40 African beneficiary countries. Exports increased from $7.6 billion to $24.8 billion. The 10-year extension to AGOA on June 29 cheered up many African enthusiasts, but many problems still block the way. The singleness of African exports to the US with crude petroleum accounting for approximately 90 per cent shows its vulnerability to the international commodity price dive last year: a more than 50 percent decrease in exports in 2014 to $11.6 billion. Secondly, the stringent rule of origin cannot be met by the majority of African producers.

In addition, Obama put forward the Power Africa project in an effort to bridge the region’s power gap, which is estimated to cost about $100 billion a year, more than 10 percent of the continent’s GDP. The first year of Power Africa reached 25 percent of its total goal, providing potential access to electricity for more than 5 million homes. Notwithstanding that, more strides need to be made to push forward the project, especially for Eastern Africa Community, whose 23 percent urban access rate to electricity lags way behind the 50 percent rate of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) another sub-regional organization.

Obama’s participation of the annual Global Entrepreneurship Summit, a US-backed initiative that brings together young business leaders from all over the world, in his trip to Kenya aims to carry forward the positive momentum by engaging with entrepreneurs, business leaders and government officials. Yet Obama never signed a bilateral investment treatment with any African country in his tenure. Confronted with an incredible infrastructure financing gap, Africa is in great need of development investment into infrastructure for transportation, energy, health, communication and education. Over the next 10 years, an annual infrastructure deficit of $50 billion challenges the African budget.

Africa has never been a priority in US strategic considerations and its real strategic pivot is towards the Asia-Pacific. That’s part of the reason why the US depends heavily on its allies to intervene in African internal conflicts and pours limited economic resources into the continent. Obama’s visits to Kenya and Ethiopia are merely a symbolic diplomatic show not worthy of too much emphasis.


( The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Panview or CCTV.com. )



Panview offers a new window of understanding the world as well as China through the views, opinions, and analysis of experts. We also welcome outside submissions, so feel free to send in your own editorials to "globalopinion@vip.cntv.cn" for consideration.

Panview offers an alternative angle on China and the rest of the world through the analyses and opinions of experts. We also welcome outside submissions, so feel free to send in your own editorials to "globalopinion@vip.cntv.cn" for consideration.

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