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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 continent.

"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.

Great expectation

His ultimate goal - for "Africa to build Africa, for Africans".

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 nations.

Africa was also one of the first destinations by his successor Xi Jinping, whose country overtook the US in 2009 as Africa's largest trading partner.

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," Odukoya said.

Double standards

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 decades ago. 

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 there."

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 "uncivilised".

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.



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