The best thing that Africa could do is to expect and ask nothing of Obama

Wednesday July 03 2013

So, the son of the soil, US President Barack Obama, finally did the Africa trip. He went to Senegal, South Africa, and Tanzania.

Obama’s trip allowed Africa to learn a little bit more about itself; to be reminded about what the rest of the world thinks of it; and to get a glimpse into how Obama sees his father’s continent today.

Some of the things we have learnt are cheerful, others are depressing.

To begin with, on social media, and in the African and Western press, there was the view that as America’s first black president, and the son of a Kenyan, Obama erred in delaying to visit the continent as president. That he should have come in his first term.

And, finally, when he came it was “too little too late”, as one publication put it. In other words, he did not bring enough goodies with him for Africa.

Underlying all this, were two things. First, when especially the international press thinks of Obama and Africa, they cast him in the role of an African Big Man, a chief.


And in return, because he is black, it seems many Africans view him the way they view African presidents.

Why is this odd? Well, in 2011 Obama, who has Irish roots (on his mother’s side), visited Ireland. It was still in the grip of the financial crisis.

However, no one asked if he had carried any groceries and other gifts for the Irish. And the Irish didn’t expect him to bring them goodies either.

With Africa, we are still viewed as a continent of beggars and an American president with African ancestry is like a chief who must bring something to feed his hungry subjects. It is essentially a racist narrative, and Africans buy into it rather easily.

Personally, I find the idea that as a black president, and because his father was Kenyan, Obama owes Africa, to be quite offensive.

As it happened, Obama sidestepped the “too little too late” issue, and offered a “new model” of doing business with Africa based on trade, not aid.

As part of that, he announced $7bn five-year public-private initiative to double access to electricity in sub-Saharan Africa.

One reason for that, of course, is that he came at a very different time from that which Bill Clinton, for example, found in 1998.

It is hard to believe that just 15 years ago, a man like Clinton had to make a big announcement on tackling HIV/Aids, and back debt forgiveness for the very many near-bankrupt African countries.

The very survival of Africa itself was being questioned by some, so talking about a pan-Africa power grid would have seemed quite out of touch.

The fact that Obama didn’t have to announce an emergency food aid programme on this trip, therefore, underscored just how much progress Africa has made in recent years.

Then, the whole trip was big on youth. In a week, Obama probably spoke to more young people than your typical African president does in a whole term in office.

Ahead of, and during, his visit, the question was whether the US had finally woken up to fact that China was “taking over” Africa, building roads, bridges, dams, and clinching resource deals in the billions of dollars.

The Chinese are not foolish. They know that the best way to win over a country for the long-term is to capture its mind — especially when it is youthful.

China’s most important investments in Africa today are the things that don’t get reported in the media: The China-Africa friendship societies and scholarships are the largest such relationship any country in the world has collectively with Africa.

And all over Africa, Confucius study centres are mushrooming at universities.

Obama’s youth pitch suggests that, like the Chinese, the Americans know that that is where the “battle for Africa” will be won, and not in the mines and oil-fields.

Finally, Obama suggested he might return to Africa before the end of his term. If he does, and the visit was ignored, it would suggest that Africa would have grown so much, an American president would be too small to merit much attention.

That is why I think the best thing Obama has done for Africa is to stay away, and to dole out so few hand-outs.