Skip to main content

Ghanaians eagerly greeted U.S. President Barack Obama during his visit to Accra on July 11, 2009. He has not returned to sub-Saharan Africa since.JIM YOUNG/Reuters

Just months after taking office, President Barack Obama flew to Ghana for a victory lap. His limousine was greeted by thousands of ecstatic Ghanaians, who danced and sang praise songs for him. Some had travelled for days in hopes of seeing him.

In his speech in Accra, he told his audience about his Kenyan ancestors, and the "blood of Africa" within him. "Yes we can," he told the crowd, echoing his famous campaign slogan, as they interrupted his speech with ovation after rowdy ovation.

It was a rapturous beginning to the Obama presidency and its African relationship. Yet since that day in 2009, Obama fever has slowly faded in the continent. The optimism about Africa's place on the U.S. agenda is gone, replaced by disappointment and a sense of neglect.

In the three years since his Ghana visit, Mr. Obama has not returned to Africa. His brief 20-hour stopover in Ghana remains his only visit to sub-Saharan Africa as President.

In the presidential debate on foreign policy on Monday night, Mr. Obama did not mention a single country in sub-Saharan Africa. It was his opponent, Mitt Romney, who made the only references to a sub-Saharan country – a couple of passing mentions of al-Qaeda terrorists in Mali.

Africans were unimpressed. After the debate, one Ghanaian tweeted: "No real mention of Africa in the debate tonight, hope fellow Africans took note, only Africans can develop Africa."

In South Africa, the famed cartoonist Zapiro published a sketch showing Mr. Obama ignored by passing voters, with his campaign posters amended to read: "Yes we can, but we didn't."

Unlike his predecessors, Mr. Obama has not introduced any high-profile Africa initiatives. Bill Clinton, who visited eight countries in sub-Saharan Africa during his presidency, launched an innovative African trade law that helped triple Africa's trade with the United States. George W. Bush, who visited 10 sub-Saharan nations during his term, introduced a widely praised $15-billion HIV/AIDS program and a malaria campaign in 15 African countries, both of which are widely credited with saving the lives of millions of Africans.

In contrast, Mr. Obama's policies in Africa have been much more modest. He announced a $3-billion plan to fight hunger in the developing world, yet most of the money was provided by private corporations and African critics have complained that it could pave the way for a corporate "takeover" of Africa.

"The President's Kenyan heritage inspired unreasonably high hopes for a robust Africa policy, but his administration has failed to meet even the lowest of expectations," says Todd Moss, vice-president of the Washington-based Center for Global Development, in a commentary this month in the journal Foreign Affairs.

"Even Obama's most vocal supporters quietly admit that he has done much less with Africa than previous presidents have. … The White House has, at best, overlooked Africa's significance or, at worst, consciously downgraded it on the list of priorities."

Mr. Moss noted that the Obama administration delayed for more than three years in filling a senior Africa-related vacancy at the U.S. foreign-aid agency, USAID. Another post was left empty for nearly a year. "This is part of a trend of sluggishness: The White House did not get around to releasing an official Africa strategy until June, 2012. And African leaders know an afterthought when they see one," he said.

Mr. Romney's interest in Africa might be little better. His official website does contain an Africa plan, but it's a mere three paragraphs, filled with vague platitudes about creating "business-friendly environments" and pursuing "strong co-operative military and diplomatic relationships."

Criticism of Mr. Obama is harsher because of his African roots and the soaring rhetoric of his Ghana visit. "Africa's enthusiasm is no more," wrote Dann Mwangi, a lawyer, in a commentary in a Kenyan newspaper. "The Obama administration has not in any way improved relations with Africa. … His one-term African record remains opaque."

In his speech in Accra in 2009, Mr. Obama lectured Africans on the need for democracy and human rights. "Africa doesn't need strongmen, it needs strong institutions," he said.

Yet since then he has continued to support many of Africa's worst dictators, especially those from countries with oil or strategic value. Some have been invited to luncheons with Mr. Obama or even been rewarded with red-carpet welcomes at the White House.

"If you are a sub-regional power, help hunt al-Qaeda or have substantial oil reserves, you may commit horrendous crimes and still get the prized White House photo op," said Patrick Bond, a political economist at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa.