News Column

Obama Charm Comes Out, but Africans Await More Action

July 2, 2013

U.S. President Barack Obama on Tuesday wrapped up his first official tour of Africa, in which he sought to redefine his country's relationship with the continent of his father's birth as one based around partnership and trade.

Whether in Senegal, South Africa or Tanzania, Obama spoke about Africa's potential as the next economic growth hotspot - a move that helped him receive a warm welcome almost everywhere he went.

At the same time, he also urged Africans to make sure their dealings with other nations provide their citizens with new skills and jobs and help generate wealth.

Otherwise, Africa would continue to largely be an exporter of raw natural resources and would fail to benefit fully from its immense mineral wealth, he argued.

Seeking to reset US relations with the continent, Obama announced that he would invite African heads of state and government to a summit next year to open a "new chapter."

During his meetings with heads of state and government, he also stressed that his administration was focused on helping Africa's economic development through strong commerce links, rather than merely through aid programmes.

"I believe that the purpose of development should be to build capacity and to help other countries actually to stand on their own feet," Obama said at a once defunct Tanzanian power plant that has been turned around as part of an initiative with the United States.

"Instead of perpetual aid, development has to fuel investment and economic growth so that assistance is no longer necessary," Obama said during the final stop of his tour.

The US president had no specific deals on the table during the trip, and the visit was largely seen as a chance for him to move the spotlight from China back to America, even if only temporarily.

Analysts note that the United States has ceded its place as Africa's primary trading partner to China, which now has import-export deals with the continent worth about 200 billion dollars annually. Obama, however, has welcomed the fact that all emerging powers should interact with Africa.

"This is not a zero-sum game. This is not the Cold War," Obama said before landing in South Africa, the most industrialized nation on the continent.

He also repeatedly pushed for the American business sector to "up its game" in Africa and said he would seek to pass an updated version of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), which expires in 2015.

AGOA, while only a limited success story since its introduction a decade ago, has helped many African companies export goods like car parts and agricultural produce to the US duty free.

While in Cape Town, Obama announced a new 7 billion dollars US government investment in African power networks over the next five years, to be accompanied by 9 billion dollars from the private sector.

About 70 per cent of Africa's estimated 1 billion people lack regular power, and the new programme should double the number of people with electricity.

However, many will still be left in the dark - and even this investment might not be enough to catch up with China, which is offering loans to governments with few political strings attached and no demands for internal political reform.

Obama also used his trip to chastise African leaders who continue to oppress their people, arguing that political reforms must keep up with the rate of economic growth.

"There is no question Africa is on the move, but not moving fast enough for the child still languishing in poverty in a forgotten township, for the protester beaten in Harare, or the woman raped in the eastern Congo," he told students at the University of Cape Town.

While Obama and his large entourage, including US Trade Representative Michael Froman, who held meetings with businesses officials, were met by some protests, particularly over US foreign policy, they were mostly welcomed in Africa.

In a town hall meeting with students in Soweto, Johannesburg, Obama was impressed that many of the questions he fielded had to do with jobs, trade and the environment, rather than demands for aid. Youth unemployment in particular is a major concern in Africa.

He also used the meeting to say that the US would rather trade - or in his words sell "iPads and planes" - than go to war.

He tried to inspire young people in Africa to act on their dreams, often quoting Nelson Mandela, who he said was a "personal hero" and one of the greatest men of the past century.

The trip at times looked set to be overshadowed by Mandela's ill health, as the former South African president lies in a Pretoria hospital in critical condition.

And it remains to be seen if anything from this trip leaves Obama with a lasting legacy in Africa.

"Obama's long overdue visit to the continent was too little too late for some, who argued that he did less for the continent than his predecessor - the internationally derided George W Bush, who was nevertheless praised for his progressive policies on AIDS funding to the continent," wrote South African commentator Verashni Pillay in the Mail and Guardian newspaper.

Source: Copyright 2013 dpa Deutsche Presse-Agentur GmbH

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