Just before he delivered another of his trademark soaring speeches, President Barack Obama leaned over and joked to Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the chair of the African Union, that he might go on a little long.
“That’s okay,” replied the former anti-apartheid activist who became South African Foreign Minister for Nelson Mandela and, in 2012, the first woman to lead the African Union , adding Africans had “waited 50 years” for a U.S. president to speak to them.
Mr. Obama, who made much of his African-American heritage when he ran for president in 2008, largely turned his back on his father’s birthplace after he got to the White House . During his first term, Mr. Obama spent less than a day in Sub-Saharan Africa, in Ghana, a visit memorable mainly for the symbolic photo-op at Cape Coast Castle, the grim “door of no return” where slavers sent their human cargo to America.
Despite big promises, the President’s focus on Africa mostly paled compared to his predecessors, especially George W. Bush, whose massive and sustained anti-HIV campaign was widely credited as a huge success that saved millions of people. Bill Clinton too launched a series of big-ticket economic initiatives in Africa.
During his second term, Mr. Obama has rediscovered Africa. He delivered a stirring speech at the memorial for Nelson Mandela, where he was enthusiastically received, but there has been little substantial policy involvement in Africa aside from closer military links with governments willing to wage war on groups designated as terrorists by Washington.
The current five-day trip, likely Mr. Obama’s last visit to Africa as president, includes stops in Kenya, the birthplace of his father, and in Ethiopia.
So while Kenyans rejoiced in the return of the man they regard as one of their own, there were murmurings of disquiet and disappointment among Africans seeking an end to the plague of Big Man rule that still dominates much of the continent and hoping for more than dancing from the first American president with African roots.
Mr. Obama “choose to wine and dine with dictators” said Merera Gudina, vice-chair of Ethiopia’s Medrek opposition coalition, after the President twice called the Addis Ababa regime “democratically elected.”
In his farewell speech in Addis Ababa on Tuesday, in the gleaming new, Chinese-financed African Union headquarters, Mr. Obama did deliver a clear call for Africa’s Big Men to surrender power peacefully and democratically.
“I have to also say that Africa’s democratic progress is also at risk when leaders refuse to step aside when their terms end,” Mr. Obama said, adding he had been “a pretty good President” who could win a third term, if it wasn’t constitutionally forbidden. And then, fingering just the latest in a long line of African leaders who defy their own constitution to stay in power, Mr. Obama said: “When a leader tries to change the rules in the middle of the game just to stay in office, it risks instability and strife – as we’ve seen in Burundi.”
Mr. Obama was applauded by the audience in the 54-nation African Union’s Nelson Mandela Hall, but the President’s message rang hollow for some in a continent where authoritarian regimes far outnumber functioning democracies.
Two days ago, “he was a tricky and mischievous politician,” said Yonathan Tesfaye, a spokesman for Ethiopia’s opposition Blue party, referring to Mr. Obama’s description of Ethiopia’s government. “Today he has become a passionate inspirational human-rights activist.”
“Which one should we believe?”
Rights groups roundly condemned Ethiopia’s last elections as a sham where the party won all 547 seats while democratic activists and journalists are routinely repressed, threatened and imprisoned.
“I don’t bite my tongue too much when it comes to these issues,” Mr. Obama claimed at a joint news conference with Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, whose party has held unbroken sway for a quarter of a century.
Still, Mr. Obama heaped praise on the Ethiopian government for its stunning economic growth and for having one of the “most effective militaries on the continent” that takes a leading role in the war against al-Shabab, the Islamic group controlling parts of Somalia which has staged violent attacks in Kenya and other East African nations. “We don’t need to send our own Marines, for example, in to do the fighting. The Ethiopians are tough fighters,” Mr. Obama said.
In Kenya, where his half-sister, Auma Obama, introduced him as “my brother, your brother, our son” to thousands of Kenyans at an indoor arena, the President urged them to root out the “cancer of corruption” but softened the blow by saying “there are many countries that deal with this problem … so I don’t want everybody to get too sensitive.”
Meanwhile, the nasty fact that until last December, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta was facing indictment by the International Criminal Court for post-election atrocities in 2007, including murder and rape as “indirect co-perpetrator,” was ignored. ICC Chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, had blamed Kenyan officials for obstruction and witness intimidation in thwarting her investigation.
The dropping of those charges, coupled with Mr. Obama’s second-term focus on legacy shaping, opened the door for the President to visit Kenya.
“I’m proud to be the first Kenyan-American president,” Mr. Obama announced with a nod to the symbolism. It was the first time he has publicly described himself that way.
While this visit to Kenya, the first time a U.S. president has ever visited the country, was clearly an emotional moment for Mr. Obama, his powerful connection to the nation first emerged publicly in the autobiographical Dreams from My Father in which he recounts being asked, on an 1987 visit as an unknown university student, if he was related to “Dr. Obama.”
“This had never happened before, I realized; not in Hawaii, not in Indonesia, not in L.A or in New York or Chicago. For the first time in my life, I felt the comfort, the firmness of identity that a name might provide, how it could carry an entire history in other people’s memories, so that they might nod and say knowingly, “Oh, you are so and so’s son,” the future president wrote.
But the emotional connection hasn’t so far shaped the President’s priorities. Mr. Obama’s foreign-policy focus has largely been on Asia, fitting perhaps for a man who grew up in Hawaii and spent some of his childhood years in Indonesia. Mr. Obama’s “pivot to the Pacific” and repeated references to the 21st century as “America’s Pacific Century” have defined his foreign policy. Africa has been, mostly, an afterthought.
Still, Mr. Obama has now racked up a series of African firsts, even if they are mostly symbolic. His current visit is the third, the most ever by a sitting U.S. president, to Sub-Saharan Africa. The stops in Kenya and Ethiopia were both firsts. His speech to the African Union was also a first by a sitting U.S. president.
Obama loyalists insist there is substance as well as symbolism and more than soaring speeches to the President’s African legacy.
Although his Power Africa, an electrification effort, and Feed the Future, the administration’s flagship development program aimed at small farmers, have yet to make any marked difference, officials claim they will deliver in the long run.
“President Obama’s record on Africa will not only match that of his predecessors but, I will predict with confidence, will exceed it,” says Susan Rice, the White House National Security Adviser.
As for Mr. Obama, he promised Kenyans “I’ll be back.” But the next time it would be as an ex-president with a smaller security entourage and perhaps a chance to visit his ancestral village of Kogelo.
July, 2009: Ghana
June-July, 2013: Tanzania, South Africa, Senegal
July, 2015: Kenya, Ethiopia
George W. Bush
July, 2003: Nigeria, Uganda, Botswana, South Africa, Senegal
February, 2008: Liberia, Ghana, Rwanda, Tanzania, Benin
March, 1998: Senegal, Botswana, South Africa, Rwanda, Uganda, Ghana
August, 2000: Tanzania, Nigeria
George H. W. Bush
December-January, 1992/93: Somalia
March-April, 1978: Nigeria, Liberia
Franklin D. Roosevelt
January, 1943: Gambia, Liberia