When Barack Obama touches down in East Africa today (Friday) it will be the start of a visit that cements a significant, if imperceptible, shift in US policy that could very well lock down his legacy on the continent in a way that even his predecessors would have struggled to match.
George W. Bush is often held up as having done more in Africa than any other American president, on the back of initiatives such as the Millennium Challenge Corporation, the President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief (Pepfar), and his anti-malaria campaign. The impact of these programmes on the continent has been huge – there is now talk of an Aids-free generation, and it is their wide-reaching scale that has been the stick used to beat Obama with.
But Obama could very well make his legacy much more transformative than even Bush did, having instead focused his Africa policy on the areas that now matter most to Africans – agriculture, trade and infrastructure.
Saving lives, changing lives
Seen another way, while Bush may have saved tens of millions of lives through aid, Obama could change millions more, despite having started off slow and weighed down by domestic problems, the inherited effects of the financial global crisis, and a virulent level of opposition from the right no modern American leader has encountered.
The choice of Kenya has been lost in the focus of his ancestral roots, but it is not merely symbolic as many have argued. On the surface it makes a good choice: already east Africa’s commercial hub, the country’s economy is growing, the innovation of its people has received worldwide recognition and it boasts an emergent middle class and thriving private sector, much of it driven by entrepreneurs.
It is also a key ally on terror, and retains long-standing ties with the US, which go back to the John F. Kennedy-backed airlifts of the 1960s that saw hundreds of students benefit from American scholarships. Many of them came back to occupy key positions in the post-independent government, and went on to shape the country’s capitalist leanings.
Ethiopia’s economy may be statist, but it has consistently chalked up double growth figures, and is a major player regionally as the host of the African Union, and also in security initiatives such as stabilising South Sudan and Somalia.
But for all their geopolitical and market importance it will the first time a sitting US president has visited either of the two countries. Both are often criticised for poor democratic policies and governance deficits (Kenya less so than Ethiopia) – this trip has not been different as civil society organisations have piled the pressure on their leaders. Past American leaders have tended to opt for “safer” options like South Africa, Botswana, Ghana and Tanzania, which attract much less criticism.
While Obama’s policy in sub-Saharan Africa released in 2012 was heavy on rights and governance, last year, the first-ever US-Africa Leaders summit took in 50 African leaders, including many who would not ordinarily have passed Washington’s eligibility test, a cocktail of rights and governance values that usually accompany American policy towards the continent.
It is the recent willingness of Washington to overlook this that gives clues to a rapidly shifting ground, where commercial interests are now the major consideration, even if in public officials have remained on-message, sometimes gratingly.
“There have been times where there have been misunderstandings, and there have been times where there have been suspicions. But when you look at every survey, it turns out that the people of Africa love the United States and what it stands for,” Obama said on Wednesday in Washingon, allowing him to go and make the business case.
And this visit is definitely commercial: Obama arrives with hundreds of American businessmen, including a few billionaires and multinational executives, who will be sniffing out more investment opportunities in a region where American FDI already constitutes the majority of greenfield or new projects – worth about $53-billion in the last seven years.
In this sense the two countries are a microcosm of America’s new business-focused thinking in Africa, where it is ready to do business with those who can fatten its pockets, a focus sharply outlined in its Doing Business in Africa campaign. And in pursuing this, Obama will have put down a notable marker for his legacy, and one that could endear him with many Africans.
He also arrives having seen what was America’s centrepiece trade pact with the region, the African Growth and Opportunity Act, renewed for another 10 years, after a late battle with lawmakers.
Next centre of global economic growth
At a Washington reception to celebrate the law’s passage on Wednesday, he said Africa had the “potential to be the next centre of global economic growth”.
“Despite its many challenges – and we have to be clear-eyed about all the challenges that the continent still faces – Africa is a place of incredible dynamism, some of the fastest-growing markets in the world, extraordinary people, extraordinary resilience,” Obama said.
Agoa, despite its blind spots, has significantly increased trade and created 350 000 direct and 1.3-million indirect jobs in sub-Saharan Africa. It was however a Bill Clinton project, and Obama has pushed to leave his own mark on the continent, something he alluded to at the same event.
“As president, I’ve worked so hard to take our relationship with Africa to a new level,” he said. “We’ve boosted US exports. We’ve launched historic initiatives to promote trade and investment, health, agricultural development and food security, [and] Power Africa to promote and expand electrification,” he said.
It is this focus on the areas that have the potential to transform tens of millions of African lives if they work well that could mark him out, because it also realigns with Africa’s much evolved demands for more and fairer trade, and less, or more targeted, aid that helps reduce dependence.
For example, agriculture, despite its low productivity, employs more than three-quarters of sub-Saharan Africa’s 960-million-strong population. And while its share in employment is slowly being eroded as other industries such as services and manufacturing grow and inefficiencies are reduced, it remains key for African economic planners.
Agoa: a flagship – until now?
Obama’s Feed the Future initiative, launched in 2010, was initially funded by the US for $3.5-billion. It seeks to cut poverty by a fifth by increasing investment in agriculture in the 19 countries it is focused on, 12 of which are in Africa.
In a further diversification from Agoa, the Obama government in 2012 unveiled its Trade Africa plan, in what Washington said would generate new exports markets for both the US and Africa. It has initially focused on the East African Community bloc, with a key goal being to double intra-regional trade in the bloc and boost its exports to the US – in 2013-2014 this grew by 24%, while exports rose by $2-billion in just one year, 2014.
Light for 600-million
With its focus on integration and helping the region better access international markets, it is easy to see why it would resonate with many on the continent, which recently unveiled a 26-nation Tripartite Free Trade Area covering 625-million people.
The Power Africa plan, unveiled by Obama in South Africa in 2013, has the most potential to change the one issue Africa has clearly identified as holding it back – infrastructure. Nigeria for example generates just 1.5% of the electricity it needs, and is still Africa’s largest economy.
Initially focused on six African countries, the initiative has now been expanded to all of the continent, with the goal of lighting up homes for 600-million Africans, or 70% of the population. It has so far attracted a significant $20-billion in pledges, three quarters of it from private investors, while its clean energy component plays to the continent’s sustainability goals.
While it may be slowed down by domestic politics, such as the crippling of the US’s Export-Import Bank, and competition from other players such as China and the EU, there is no doubt its premise has whetted appetites of African governments.
A latent strength of Obama’s initiatives is that they align with African blueprints towards growth, as outlined in the African Union’s Agenda 2063, further giving them some much-needed local buy-in.
Africa has to play its part
In 2010, Obama also unveiled the Young African Leaders Initiative, targeting young Africans in a continent where about 60% are below the age of 35. It attracts more than 50 000 applications annually for the 500 slots, and has now been doubled, ensuring the US retains strategic links with the continent’s next generation of leaders, much like the airlifts of the 1960s.
The focus on entrepreneurs – half of the 1 400 attending the Global Entrepreneurship Summit will be from Africa – also helps the continent take advantage of its demographic shift, creating more opportunities and reducing the target market for radicals, with benefiting both regional – and American – security.
The engagement with young people while improving their living standards will add to the hope that many felt when Obama ascended into office, feasibly leaving a glow that his successors will struggle to better.
This economic focus of Obama’s Africa policy could feed into the next phase of transformative and inclusive African growth.
Most definitely Africa has to play its part – fix its institutions and reduce risks, take a common position, innovatively fund infrastructure and make itself attractive to investors – there is only so much Obama, who has travelled to Africa more times than any other sitting US president, can do. It must also seek out the best deal for itself, as the US president is on a mission.
If all stay on course, it suggests that despite the early grumbling, Obama may actually deliver the most returns to “his people”, and at a time when it matters the most.
This article first appeared on mgafrica.com