A different brand of engagement

Four years after briefly stopping off in Ghana on his way home from a G8 summit, President Barack Obama lands in Dakar on Wednesday night at the start of his first extended visit, in his current capacity, to the continent of his Kenyan father’s birth.

The land of his father’s birth, its president under indictment from the International Criminal Court, he will be giving a miss. Barring any untoward event, he will spend Saturday in Johannesburg and Sunday in Cape Town, and then head to Dar es Salaam, his third and final stop, first thing Monday.

In the US, at least, the trip has been in the news chiefly thanks to leaks about the lengths to which the Secret Service is going to ensure the First Family’s safety. There is predictable harrumphing from Tea Party types about the cost (between $60-$100 million, the Washington Post estimates) at a time when budget cuts have forced the White House to suspend public tours.
The flap has been useful. It has obliged the White House to sharpen its talking points on the trip’s rationale from a cost-benefit perspective. In a vigorous response to journalists last Friday, deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes put it this way:

“Several of the fastest-growing economies in the world are in Africa, and if Africa does take off economically you’re going to have a rapidly growing middle class and market for US goods … and what we hear from our businesses is that they want to get in the game.

“There are other countries getting in the game — China, Brazil, Turkey — and if the US is not leading in Africa, we’re going to fall behind in a very important region…It would not be in our interest to pull back at precisely the time when we see other nations stepping into Africa and increasing their own investments.

“This is a very important signal for the president to send — that we take this region very seriously, that we have significant interests here, and that we see this as fundamental to maintaining our leadership in the 21st century.”

If Mr Obama’s trip is about showing determination to compete in Africa, it is also about differentiating America’s brand of engagement from that of competitors like China.

“China has pursued a range of economic interests that have led to a significant investment in Africa,” Mr Rhodes said. By contrast, the US focus is “on support for African democratic institutions, for the models of economic growth that will be broad-based and will bring opportunities to more people.”

The Obama administration sees itself as working to “unleash economic growth”, in Mr Rhodes’ phrase, by helping create conditions and build capacities that attract private capital flows and make it possible for African governments to mobilize domestic resources to tackle poverty and scourges like HIV/AIDS.

In Senegal, Mr Obama will give a speech to regional jurists about the rule of law and will take part in forum on improving African food security. In South Africa, he will discuss regional security with President Jacob Zuma and, separately, African Union secretary general Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.

He will hold a town meeting at the University of Johannesburg with young African leaders who , in the words of national Security Council senior director for Africa Grant Harris, are “are already shaping the political, social and economic realities on the continent and (are) key to the long-term growth and prosperity of the region.”

In Tanzania, he will meet business leaders, both African and American, and visit the Ubongo gas fired power plant.

The centrepiece of the trip will be the speech he is due to deliver on Sunday at the University of Cape Town where Robert Kennedy gave his famous “ripples of hope” address in 1966. Look for him to tie Africa’s progress to the inspiration of Nelson Mandela, whose Robben Island jail, along with Agang supporter Desmond Tutu, he will have visited earlier in the day.

His message, Mr Rhodes said, will be that, for Mr Mandela’s legacy to endure, “there need to be strong democratic institutions; it’s not enough to have elections, it’s not enough to have democratically elected leaders, you need to have independent judiciaries, you need to have confidence in the law, you need to have efforts to combat corruption.

“Not only is that good for democracy and respect for human rights, but it’s critical to Africa’s economic growth, because where you have clear rules of the road and efforts to combat corruption, businesses will invest, and jobs will be created, and both will take off — and that’s what we want to see.”

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