As Barack Obama winds up, what can he do for Africa?

Wednesday July 22 2015

US President Barack Obama holds a press conference at Camp David in Maryland on May 14, 2015. PHOTO | NICHOLAS KAMM

US President Barack Obama holds a press conference at Camp David in Maryland on May 14, 2015. PHOTO | NICHOLAS KAMM | AFP

More by this Author

In his first four years in the White House, President Barack Obama spent less than 24 hours visiting Africa, and that was only while on a brief stopover in Accra, Ghana, on his way home from a much longer visit to Europe.

As he visits Kenya for the first time as President and Africa for the third time, it is time to take stock of the Obama administration’s policy towards the continent of his forefathers.

It is important, right from the onset, to note that it was always going to be difficult for anyone to meet the high expectations that greeted Mr Obama’s election to the White House. As America’s first Black President, his election was historic and he carried the hopes of millions of African-Americans that he would improve their lot. 

Similarly, he carried the hopes of a billion Africans who, through Obama’s Kenyan ancestry, laid their own claim to a distant American dream, but also expected some elevation of the African agenda in US foreign policy.

It has been a mixed bag. On that brief visit to Accra, President Obama hinted on a pro-democracy agenda on the continent.

“Africa doesn’t need strongmen,” he famously said, “it needs strong institutions.”

The Obama administration has openly opposed President Pierre Nkurunziza’s bid to run again in Burundi and plans in Rwanda to remove term limits to allow President Paul Kagame stay on, but critics accuse it of double standards.

For instance, while the US did not invite Sudan’s Omar el-Bashir, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and Eritrea’s Isaias Afwerki to the US-Africa Summit last year, it saw nothing wrong with inviting Teodoro Obiang Nguema, the despot of Equatorial Guinea.

The US has also looked the other way while the Egyptian military under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi rolled back the Muslim Brotherhood revolution that had toppled one of Africa’s longest-serving strongmen, Hosni Mubarak.

Similarly, Ethiopian exile groups in the United States say President Obama’s visit to Addis Ababa, where he will fly after Nairobi, will serve as an endorsement to a regime that, for all its impressive economic development, stands accused of widespread human rights violations and recently won 100 per cent in the country’s elections.

In June 2012 the Obama Administration unveiled the US Strategy Towards Sub-Saharan Africa, a policy document that outlined four specific policy objectives towards the continent: strengthening democratic institutions; spurring economic growth, trade and investment, advancing peace and security; and promoting opportunity and development.


The most important achievements, arguably, have been the continuation of the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa) and the President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief (Pepfar), the two flagship programmes initiated by the Clinton and the Bush administrations, respectively.

Agoa allows many African products duty-free access to the American market (many worry that the Trans-Pacific Partnership currently being discussed will give the same preference to Asian countries that are more competitive), while Pepfar keeps many Africans alive by paying for their life-prolonging anti-retroviral medicines.

The Obama administration’s own initiatives are, in many cases, too recent for any measurable impact. The Young African Leadership Initiative, which trains and mentors young achievers on the continent, has only been running for a couple of years.

Similarly, Power Africa, President Obama’s initiative to increase, by 60 million, the number of homes and businesses with access to electricity in sub-Saharan Africa, only dates back to 2013.

However, critics say Power Africa did not provide much in the way of new funding, and that the billion-or-so-dollar deals announced at the US–Africa Business Summit last year pale in comparison with the $32 billion Japan pledged in 2013 and the additional $10 billion China announced in 2014, adding to the vast amounts already made available to fund infrastructure projects on the continent.

Those with a more favourable view say the greatest impact of the Obama Administration’s approach is in adopting a business-led approach, which focuses on opening up Africa to American investors, rather than a charity-led approach in which the continent is a passive recipient of aid.

To that end, the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Nairobi this week is a sign of Africa being seen for its promise and potential, not its stereotype of pain and pestilence; it is seen as open for trade, not waiting for aid.

The US remains a key security ally for many African nations, supporting anti-terrorism operations in Somalia and the hunt for Joseph Kony and the remnants of the Lord’s Resistance Army in the Central African Republic.

However, the Obama administration has been careful to pick its battles, for instance sitting out the fighting in Mali and not playing a prominent role in Nigeria’s battle against Boko Haram.

This is no doubt informed by President Obama’s instinct to pull back from unwinnable foreign wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and from debacles like the attack on US diplomats in Libya.

With 18 months left to the end of his term, President Obama can pay more attention to flagship causes without caring too much about domestic political squabbles. The resetting of relations with Cuba, and the nuclear deal agreed with Iran this month, are bold, assertive foreign policy initiatives. What bold announcements will President Obama make in Nairobi?

Like his visit, it’s, for many, been a long wait.


Agoa has helped grow Kenya’s textile exports through EPZ firms

In 2014, Kenya asserted it’s position as the top apparel and garment exporter to the US under the African Growth and Opportunities Act (Agoa), which came into operation in 2001.

The country’s total apparel exports from Kenya to USA increased to $389 million (Sh39 billion), rising 22.8 per cent over the 2013 exports of $308 million (Sh31 billion).

Articles of apparel and clothing, the bulk of which originate from Kenya’s EPZs (80 per cent) is currently Kenya’s third largest merchandise export, after tea and horticulture, and comprises 90.8 per cent of the country’s national apparel exports.

Kenya’s exports in terms of Square Meter Equivalents (SMEs) also increased to 107.906 million square meters in 2014, an increase of 14.14 per cent over 2013 production of 92.629 SMEs.

This escalated Kenya to the number one position of apparel exports from sub-Saharan Africa under the duty-free, quota-free provisions of Agoa, surpassing its nearest competitor, Lesotho, which took the second position, having exported 65.36 SMEs of apparel worth $290.3 million in 2014.

Kenya’s EPZ garment sector is critical in the country’s economic development as it is characterised by labour intensiveness, and hence a suitable industry for a country with high demand for youth employment.

The sector employs over 80 per cent of the total workforce within the zones and accounts for over 50 per cent of exports and 34 per cent of investment in the EPZ.

The signing of the Preferences Bill, HR 1295 to law by President Barack Obama, which extends Agoa to 2025, was approved by the US Congress last month and was awaiting the US President’s signature to become law.

Kenya has remained an eligible beneficiary of the scheme for the last 15 years and was the first Sub-Saharan African state to meet the accreditation criteria stipulated under the Act for textile export into the US.