Obama in Africa

Over the last week President Obama made his second visit to the African continent, the first having been in July 2009. From Ghana in West Africa he moved on to South Africa, where he made a substantial address focusing in part on a tribute to Nelson Mandela, and on an intended  transition policy from aid to the continent, to  a focus on trade and investment. His announcement of a US$7.4 billion project to enhance the availability of electricity indicated the shift, as it is to be undertaken largely on the basis of facilitating private sector involvement.

The President’s visit has come in the face of some amount of criticism. This suggests that over the period of his first term he seemed to lose interest in a continent which had a particular interest in the first American administration to be led by an individual of partly African descent. And it has come at a time, too, when both the US government and private sector have become increasingly aware that China, with its major involvement in, particularly, raw material production in Africa, seems to have stolen a march on American and Western investors.

African governments and business groups have complained that Obama seems to have failed to follow up President Clinton’s introduction, in 2000, of the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act designed to give African exporters duty-free access to the American market. Instead, they have seen, and welcomed, the Chinese interest, in much the same way as BRICS like Brazil have done, and this has led to a visible, and almost unparalleled improvement in some African states’ growth rates. In that connection, sources indicate that “Chinese investment in African manufacturing almost equals its investment in commodities.”

In fact, the focus of American policy and diplomacy towards Africa during the last few decades has tended to be on issues of good governance, and on an insistence on the need for the diminution of corruption on the one hand; and on the other, with a preoccupation with the rise of Muslimist influences in certain countries. Today, however, with seven out of ten of the world’s fastest growing economies being on the continent, African governments, buoyed by increases in revenue as a result of the geographical diversification of sources of investment, have found more political breathing space for focusing on indigenously developed economic programmes, and have been less inclined to be overly preoccupied with American concerns on modes of governance.

On the other hand, the American presence has tended to be prominent, in recent years, in African countries where there has been continuing civil conflict, where governments, formally in office, have been unable to maintain their actual control of territory in the face of rebellions of various kinds. The United States can claim some success in one of these countries, Somalia, which had almost ceased to be a state in any recognized meaning of that term.

In addition the US has been keen to support European interventions in Central Africa, particularly in countries formerly under French jurisdiction, where Islamism, allied to the acquisition of weaponry and expertise in logistics over extensive spaces, has been increasingly used by anti-government groups.

The long-held American interest in the Horn of Africa has intensified as there has been an over-spilling of instability and rebellion in some North African and Middle Eastern states, in which respect American preoccupation with pacification has been most notable. And now there are signs of an increasing American interest in developments in Nigeria, where again, Muslimist groups are pressuring the traditional constitutional governments left by the British, in a context in which extensive corruption fuels hostility to existing rulers, and an insistence that Islamism is more appropriate to those areas.

But it is probably what appears to the Americans as an almost sudden pre-eminence of the presence of Chinese economic initiatives in Africa, no longer constrained by communist ideological principles and strategies, that now constitutes a wake-up call for the United States at this time. One source indicates that the data shows that “China-Africa trade has shot up more than tenfold since 2000, to just under $170billion in 2012 – twice the level of US-Africa trade,” and that China “has more than 150 commercial attaches in sub-Saharan Africa, against just six for the US.”

What however appears to some Americans to be a tendency on the part of the President to adopt strategies towards various geographical areas, Africa being one, and then to lose interest in them, raises some doubts as to whether his efforts will be sustained over the remainder of this, his second and last term.

But it is argued by others that the extensive presence of Chinese government and business interests, particularly in areas with extensive raw materials, and which, with growing economies are becoming useful markets for China’s manufactures, will lead to pressure placed on Obama by American business interests; and that this pressure will ensure a more sustained diplomatic interest by the President in those areas, than was visible in his first term. The stakes of non-action now seem to be much higher.

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