In danger of falling behind China in the scramble for African influence, U.S. President Barack Obama begins his most ambitious Africa tour on Wednesday, trying to reverse years of neglect by wooing an increasingly skeptical continent.
In his first term, Mr. Obama spent less than a day in sub-Saharan Africa, making only a brief 20-hour jaunt into Ghana in 2009. On that visit, the streets were filled with adoring crowds, chanting his name and straining to catch a glimpse of his limousine. But this time, the reaction will be more ambivalent.
Mr. Obama, who begins in Senegal and then visits South Africa and Tanzania on his eight-day tour, will have to contend with Africans who are increasingly critical of U.S. policies and disillusioned by Mr. Obama’s failure to devote attention to the continent where his father was born. Some Africans say he has achieved less for Africa than his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush.
At home, Mr. Obama is facing political criticism for the high cost of his Africa tour, with its 56 support vehicles, fighter jets, floating naval hospital and hundreds of Secret Service agents. The total cost of the Africa tour could be as much as $100-million (U.S.), according to the Washington Post.
Fending off the criticism, the White House argues that the trip is long overdue. “If the U.S. is not leading in Africa, we’re going to fall behind in a very important region of the world,” deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes told journalists in a pretrip briefing.
“Frankly, Africa is a place that we had not yet been able to devote significant presidential time and attention to,” he said. “It would not be in our interest for the United States to pull back at precisely the time when we see other nations stepping into Africa and increasing their own investments.”
He listed China among the countries that are “getting in the game” to compete for business in Africa. The United States still has more embassies on the continent than Beijing, and more military bases and military trainers. But China has overtaken it as Africa’s leading trade partner, recording nearly $200-billion in trade with African nations last year.
Chinese President Xi Jinping chose to visit Africa this year on his first overseas trip as president, signalling Beijing’s commitment to the region. Meanwhile, many African leaders were complaining that Mr. Obama has cut funding for AIDS projects, allowed its business investment to slip and failed to launch any high-profile African initiatives on the scale of his predecessors.
But while Mr. Obama is keen to revive the relationship, the response among many Africans has been lukewarm. Even though Mr. Obama is the most powerful leader to visit South Africa over the past decade, there is little excitement on the eve of his arrival here. “The build-up is strangely muted,” said a South African newspaper, the Mail and Guardian. “We are hearing very little from our own government about the agenda for the visit.”
South Africa’s international relations department has not yet even held a press conference to discuss the visit, twice postponing a planned briefing. President Jacob Zuma mentioned the visit only briefly on Monday, calling it a “significant” event but giving few details.
Within the ruling African National Congress, there has always been a vocal anti-American element, resentful of U.S. policy in the Middle East, including the Pentagon’s participation in air strikes against Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi. The ANC’s youth league, reacting to Mr. Obama’s planned visit, attacked his “broken promises” and “imperialism.”
A coalition of unions and students has mobilized to protest Mr. Obama’s visit, while an association of Muslim lawyers has called for Mr. Obama to be arrested for “war crimes” involving U.S. drone attacks. And when the University of Johannesburg wanted to give an honorary doctorate to Mr. Obama this month, many of its senate members voted against the proposal, although it eventually passed.
“I think there were hopes about the Obama administration that weren’t realized,” said Steven Friedman, a South African political analyst.
“There is a sense of disappointment. People thought he would be more conciliatory and less prone to wars. He’s been less energetic in Africa than George W. Bush.”