Obama struggles to wow rising Africa
02 July 2013, 18:26
Johannesburg - It was billed as a new chapter in relations
with a continent on the move, but US President Barack Obama's whirlwind tour of
Africa left many underwhelmed by pledges that were thin on detail and dwarfed
by China's lavish investment.
Obama's long-awaited return to sub-Saharan Africa was seen
as recognition of the region's rising significance on the world stage, and a
challenge to Beijing's growing economic clout on the continent.
"There is clear recognition in Washington that Africa
is becoming a strategic player in the global arena and that those countries
that do not exploit the opportunities that are beginning to emerge in Africa
... will be left behind," said Aubrey Matshiqi, a research fellow with the
Helen Suzman Foundation in South Africa.
Obama's efforts to make up for lost time in the region were
complicated by the illness of his personal hero Nelson Mandela, which lent a
deeply poignant tone to the three-nation tour.
While the US leader's soaring rhetoric and calls for African
leaders to serve their people drew rapturous applause, observers noted his
speeches were light on actual promises.
In the end his visit was "no cure-all", noted
South African daily The New Age.
Obama announced he would host a landmark summit of leaders
from across sub-Saharan Africa next year.
But a $7bn offer to boost energy production in the region
was just a fraction of Chinese investment of around $20bn in infrastructure on
"The $7bn is effectively what South Africa is spending
on one power station," Matshiqi said.
Obama vowed not to dole out cash gifts as he touted US-style
investment and partnership as superior to Beijing's Africa push, arguing US
companies do more to build local economic capacity.
His ultimate goal - for "Africa to build Africa, for
Obama's election in 2008 sparked great expectations in
Africa, where many hoped America's first black president would heap attention
on the continent.
But although he visited Ghana for less than 24 hours just
months after his inauguration, telling the country's parliament he had
"the blood of Africa within me", it was to be his only trip to the
region until the fifth year of his presidency.
When the continent did come under the White House's
scrutiny, it was often because of security concerns.
US military operations in Africa have multiplied, as terror
franchises have exploited instability in Mali. US drones keep a stealthy vigil
from bases in Ethiopia, Niger and Djibouti
In contrast to Obama, by the time he left office last year,
former Chinese leader Hu Jintao had visited Africa four times and covered 18
Africa was also one of the first destinations by his
successor Xi Jinping, whose country overtook the US in 2009 as Africa's largest
For political scientist Laja Odukoya of the University of
Lagos, Obama's visit was "borne out of American national interest".
"Africa is of strategic importance to America as a
veritable source of cheap oil and huge market for its finished products,"
For most South Africans who are no strangers to the dynamics
of race, Obama's rise to president resonates with their own history, which saw
Mandela break almost half a century of racist white minority rule nearly two
Leroy Sikakane, a 25-year-old auditor, waited patiently on a
cold winter night to see Air Force One land in Pretoria. But in the end the
visit did nothing to alter his views.
"My perception wasn't changed of him or America,"
said Sikakane. "My love for Obama is based solely on his achievement as a
black president, because he's a person of my skin colour and he's got
He lamented "double standards," with America's
much-touted virtues at odd with actions such as its attempts to arrest former
spy agency contractor Edward Snowden.
Although he tried to cover Africa's three main regions,
Obama's decision to skip corruption-blighted Nigeria and Kenya - whose
president faces trial for crimes against humanity - was widely seen as a snub.
Zimbabwe also reacted angrily to a call for reform and an
end to harassment of its citizens, which an aide of President Robert Mugabe described as
HIV-Aids activists found little to cheer about.
Obama's visit "is not going to bring anything new"
but there is hope it will "inspire him to go back to his administration to
ask for more money for Aids," said Vuyiseka Dubula of South Africa's
Treatment Action Campaign.
His $10m pledge to fight wildlife trafficking in Africa was
also seen as relatively modest given that a single rhino horn can sell for tens
of thousands of dollars on the international black market.