Playing catch-up, Obama seeks bigger US role in Africa

Ask Major-General Wayne W Grigsby Jr, the top US military officer in Africa, how he thinks US and European-backed African troops are faring in their war on Islamist militants in Somalia, and his answer comes back smartly: “Pretty darn good!”.

But when “son of Africa” US President Barack Obama hosts 50 African leaders in Washington this week, the admiration may be less than mutual. Many Africans feel America is lagging behind China and others in its engagement with their continent.

The US-Africa Leaders Summit from August 4-6, billed by US officials as a first-of-its-kind event, looks like a belated imitation of Africa gatherings hosted in recent years by China, India, Japan and the continent’s former colonial master Europe.

The world’s richest nation has been slow coming to the party of an economically rising Africa, long dismissed as a hopeless morass of poverty and war, but now offering investors a huge market for everything from banking and retail to cellphones.

“The United States has fallen perhaps a little bit behind in the race to win African hearts and minds. So I think this is an attempt to compete with the likes of China and the European Union,” said Christopher Wood, an analyst in economic diplomacy at the South African Institute of International Affairs.

The top US diplomat for Africa, Linda Thomas-Greenfield bridles at suggestions that the Obama administration is playing catch-up. “Absolutely not,” she said.

“Our relationship with Africa is a very strong historic relationship … We see this as an opportunity to reaffirm that to African leaders,” she said in a pre-summit conference call.

China ahead

China overtook the United States as Africa’s biggest trade partner in 2009. Its leaders have criss-crossed the continent, proffering multibillion-dollar loans, aid and investment deals.

From Malabo to Maputo, Africa is studded with signs of Beijing’s diplomatic and commercial outreach: Chinese-built roads, bridges, airports, stadiums, ministries and presidencies.

Since 2009, Obama, despite his African blood through a Kenyan father, has been a far less frequent visitor. His first substantial trip to the continent was only made last year.

Washington’s many embassies in Africa – imposing concrete fortresses built to protect against angry mobs or terrorist attacks – project a cautious engagement from an Obama administration highly sensitive to a home public which has no appetite for overseas interventions after Iraq and Afghanistan.

Even US Army Major-General Grigsby, surrounded by F-18s, C130 transports, helicopters and Humvees at his Camp Lemonnier toehold in the turbulent Horn of Africa, acknowledges the US military’s “small footprint” on a continent where flaring Islamist insurgencies are stirring international concern.

Security, governance and democracy will be on the agenda when Obama engages the leaders in an “interactive” discussion on Wednesday, following business talks with US CEOs on Tuesday and discussions about health and wildlife trafficking on Monday.

Presidents Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and Omar Hassan al-Bashir of Sudan are among a few left off the invitation list because they are not “in good standing” with Washington for failing to respect human rights and democracy.

Presidents Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia and Ernest Bai Koroma of Sierra Leone have dropped out because of the deadly Ebola epidemic ravaging their nations. Thomas-Greenfield said ways of fighting the outbreak would be discussed at the summit.

$1-billion in business deals

Some concrete initiatives are expected from the meeting.

The United States will announce nearly $1-billion in business deals for the region, increase funding for peacekeeping in six African countries and boost food and power programmes.

Uppermost too will be Obama’s strong recommendation for Congress to renew the African Growth Opportunity Act, or AGOA, a 14-year-old trade programme giving most African countries duty-free access to US markets that expires on September 30 next year.

Total US two-way trade in Africa has actually fallen off in recent years, to about $60-billion in 2013, far eclipsed by the European Union with over $200-billion and China, whose $170-billion is a huge increase from $10-billion in 2000, according to a recent Africa in Focus post by the Brookings Institution.

While African leaders are keen on the AGOA renewal, Robert Besseling, principal Africa analyst, economics and country risk, at IHS consultancy, said some are seeking better terms of trade.

“Some countries are sceptical about AGOA because it is oriented towards the US companies and can be politically manipulated,” Besseling said. For example Swaziland was cut from AGOA last month due to US concerns over democracy there.

Obama officials are hoping to leverage US corporations like General Electric, Caterpillar and Procter & Gamble into more business opportunities in Africa amid intense competition from across the globe.

“In the boards of directors of big global US companies, more and more people are raising their hands at meetings and saying ‘why aren’t we in Africa?’,” said Toby Moffett, a former congressman from Connecticut and a senior adviser at law firm Mayer Brown LLP, who has represented African governments.

Orji Uzor Kalu, a Nigerian businessman with oil, tourism and other interests in West Africa, echoed such complaints. “I’m not seeing the effort the US made in Asia, they’re not making the same effort in Africa,” Kalu said from his Washington DC home.

Moral lectures

Pointing to an Africa map showing hotspots like Somalia, Major-General Grigsby toes the line of a cautious security policy that involves keeping US “boots on the ground” to a minimum while financing African peacekeeping and local training.

“My responsibility from a regional approach is to assist my East African teammates to be able to neutralise violent extremists and conduct their crisis response,” Grigsby told Reuters at the Africa Command’s Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa, where some 3 500 US service personnel are based.

Obama said last year during his Africa trip his country put “muscle behind African efforts” to fight Islamist militants or brutal warlords in the Sahel, Central Africa and Somalia.

Although French forces did the heavy lifting on the ground in driving back an offensive by al-Qaeda-allied Islamists in Mali in 2012, Washington has stepped up training African armies and deploying surveillance drones – to Niamey and N’Djamena besides those already operating over the Horn of Africa.

Some of the latest US initiatives have clearly played to American domestic opinion and social media campaigns, such as sending a specialist team to help Nigeria search for the more than 200 schoolgirls kidnapped by Islamist group Boko Haram.

While US officials say Washington remains influential, it may no longer wield the diplomatic clout it once had in Africa when it was squaring up to the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

Many noted how Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, an ally in turbulent Central Africa, went ahead in February with signing into law tougher penalties against homosexuality, ignoring an appeal from Obama who warned it would “complicate” relations.

This kind of diplomatic slap in the face “shows they have to reboot the relationship” with Africa, IHS’s Besseling said.

On Friday, Uganda’s constitutional court struck down the law, citing procedural irregularities.

African leaders have made clear they do not take kindly to moral lectures from Western leaders. By contrast, Beijing’s pledges of aid and investment come with “no-strings attached”.

But Moffett believes the US insistence on democracy and good governance, which US officials say will be re-affirmed at the summit, reflects a real transformation under way in Africa.

“President [Obama] can actually say, with a straight face, that the trajectory across Africa … [is] towards more democracy, more adherence to rule of law, more transparency, more judicial independence, less corruption.

“The Chinese guys don’t give that speech,” Moffett said. – Reuters

Pascal Fletcher
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