Why Obama's Trip to Africa Is Long Overdue

The continent's economy, struggle with terrorism, and burgeoning democracies are all vitally important to the U.S.
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Youths walk past a poster of U.S. President Barack Obama and Senegal's President Macky Sall before Obama's visit in Dakar on June 26, 2013. (Joe Penney/Reuters)

It has been much noted that President Barack Obama, the son of a Kenyan, has made just one visit to Africa as president - a one-day stop to Ghana in 2009. Some Africans have expressed disappointment in what they see as the president's lack of attention, complaining that on his watch, there has been no new American initiative comparable to President George W. Bush's President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). Despite such criticism, the president's June 26-July 3 trip to Senegal, South Africa, and Tanzania is likely to be warmly welcomed across the continent, which by and large remains pro-American.

There are three core themes of Obama's trip. The first deals with economic development, trade, and investment; the second with democracy and democratic institution building; and the third with Africa's youth. It is no surprise that the White House is emphasizing African economic development and U.S.-African trade and investment. The president will be accompanied by new U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman and numerous American CEOs. He will also participate in a business leaders' forum in Tanzania.

There is also a China dimension to the trade push, if not overt. Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes said on June 21: "There are other countries getting in the game. If the United States is not leading in Africa, we're going to fall behind in a very important region in the world." (China's trade with Africa was nearly U.S. $200 billion last year, while U.S. trade totaled only about $95 billion.)

The choice of countries on this trip allows the president to make a mark in each of sub-Saharan Africa's major regions.

The White House says the president will reach out to African youth, notably at a speech at the University of Cape Town. His Young African Leaders Initiative has been an important illustration of his approach to Africa. The iniative draws young leaders from across Africa together in high-profile forums, as well as mentoring partnerships and youth programs across sub-Saharan Africa to encourage democratic institution building and economic growth. The initiative also aims to strengthen U.S.-Africa ties.

The president's trip will include symbolic steps like the visit to the "Door of No Return" near Dakar, a memorial to the victims of the Atlantic slave trade; and Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela spent eighteen of his twenty-seven years in prison. The White House announced it will defer to Mandela's family as to whether the president may meet with the ailing icon of the African liberation movement. The latest reports indicate that the 94-year-old Mandela's condition is critical. Should he die during President Obama's Africa trip, that is likely to overshadow everything else.

Africa has not been a major foreign policy preoccupation of the Obama administration, which was more concerned with ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and currently faces challenges in Syria, North Korea, Iran, and the "pivot" to Asia. But Africa matters. Aside from the potential for expanded economic ties, there are more than fifty independent states in sub-Saharan Africa, and they can be an important bloc in one-country-one vote institutions such as the UN General Assembly and the World Trade Organization.

Presented by

John Campbell, a former U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria, is a Senior Fellow for Africa policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. He served as political counselor at the U.S. embassy in Pretoria during the end of apartheid. He blogs at Africa in Transition.

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