Obama spurs US ties with sub-Saharan Africa (The Financial Express (Bangladesh))

In the 21st century, China has had a strong foothold in sub-Saharan region of the Africa continent by increasing direct investment across the continent 30-fold from 2005 to 2009 while it has replaced the United States in terms of trade with these countries. China has also turned out to be the biggest trading partner and established close links with these countries when leaders of the United States were sleeping.

For example, with Chinese assistance and labour, a railway line was built between Tanzania and Zambia 40 years back. It covers 1,160 miles connecting between Dares Salaam of Tanzania and Kapiri Mposhi of Zambia. Chinese President Xi Jinping visited these two countries in 2013 while his predecessor President Hu Jintao paid a visit to eight African countries from January 10 of 2007. Prior to the visit, China hosted a summit of Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in Beijing in November, 2006. The Chinese investment in sub-Saharan African states has reached at $ 150.4 billion from 2006 to 2014.

Against the backdrop of this scenario, President Barack Obama, first African-American, being a son of Kenya, travelled to African countries to promote further his country’s relations with these countries since taking over presidency in 2009. Today’s African continent is complex from different perspectives. Some parts are rising economically, while other parts remain poverty -ridden and lawless. Some parts are showing maturity in embracing democracy while others are still dominated by dictatorship.

Although we are critical of President George Bush’s action in Afghanistan and Iraq, the fact remains he had re-established relationship with the African continent. As a part of his policies, he had undertaken visits to Benin, Tanzania, Rwanda, Ghana, and Libera in February, 2008. He also visited Senegal. The President also visited Gore Island, the port in Senegal from where slaves had been shipped to the Americas. According to Condoleezza Rice, President Bush’s former National Security Advisor and Secretary of State on second term of his presidency,” it was a deeply emotional experience for me (she is African-American) as I walked through the archway that had led the slaves to the transit ship”. President Bush’s action to oust President Charles Taylor of Liberia out of power will remain a testimony to Liberia for his courage to introduce democracy there. The reason of ousting Taylor was devastating humanitarian and political crisis that had gripped Liberia. Bush’s Millennium Challenge Programme now contributes to economic development of that country. Senegal in fact was the first African country to qualify to enjoy benefit from this programme.

President Obama first visited Ghana in July of 2009. But this time President Obama made Kenyans happy as he met their expectations that he would undertake his first visit to Kenya, being its son. While addressing the Ghanaian Parliament on July 11, Obama in fact eulogised Ghanaians for turning page of autocracy towards democracy. He was on record as saying: “Africa does not need strongmen. It needs strong institutions”. Possibly President Obama pointed to Ghana President Nkrumah. He was impressed to see economic growth in that country. He stressed the need for developing people-to-people relations. But he sought a partnership that must be grounded in mutual respect and responsibility.

Sudan under Omar al-Bashir and Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe remain dictatorial while African people in Guinea-Bissau, Central African Republic, Cote D’Ivoire, Mali and Madagascar did not enjoy seeing any President successfully serving the interests of the people because military coups discouraged development of democracy. As Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton paid visits to several African countries to renew contacts with African leaders and people and also counter growing influence of China in the continent.

Although late in connecting with the African continent, President Obama began his journey from 2009 to 2013 and 2015 to the African continent to expand people-to-people relations plus increasing trade and economic relations. His efforts in organising the first-ever US-African leaders’ summit in Washington DC for three days in August of 2014 were remarkable. It yielded new public and private investment in economic, agriculture, and health development totalling $ 37 billion. This apex meeting took place after 18 years of hosting such a summit by China in 2006.

His first-ever visit to Kenya, birthplace of his father, as US President from July 24 to July 26 became memorable as huge crowds in Nairobi welcomed him. It was memorable for Obama to see his old half-sister Auma Obama whom he embraced emotionally. The government offices were closed, banks shut down at mid-day and the city’s empty streets wore with American flags and posters conveying the message ‘Welcome home, Obama.’

However, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta embraced Obama’s push for democracy and entrepreneurship but his lecture on the people to be treated differently did not go well with the Kenyan President because homosexuality is constitutionally illegal in Kenya. The US President got a sharp blow for promoting rights of gays. But he signed a number of agreements with Kenya relating to fighting terrorism, obstructing corruption, and promoting trade and investment. Recently Nairobi was the victim of terrorist activities: Al-Shabah’s attack on Westgate Mall of Nairobi and Garissa University where they killed Christian students.

The 2015 global entrepreneurship summit took place in Nairobi connecting Kenyan entrepreneurs with business leaders, international organisations and governments. This global entrepreneurship summit introduced by President Obama in Cairo in 2009 has had immense success in Nairobi. This has been reflected by participation of around 1,500 entrepreneurs from America and different countries of Africa to establish networking with each other, interact with US start-up executives from companies such as Airbnb and Uber and capitalists from Silicon Valley.

President Obama addressed the leaders of African Union at its headquarters in Addis Ababa on July 28 as the first President of the US, but the massive headquarters of the African Union was built with Chinese assistance and labour. Twenty-eight countries of the African continent are members of the African Union. Only three countries Kenya,Uganda and Ethiopia attended the meeting in Addis Ababa. In his speech, Obama said Africa would not realise its full potential without democratic reforms. He criticised the way journalists are being jailed. He said this does not speak of good governance. He was critical of Presidents who stayed beyond constitutional terms to remain in power. He asked them to respect term limits and democratic rights of the people. In a veiled reference, President Obama criticised Chinese contribution to development of the economies of Africa by saying economic relations could not simply be about other countries building infrastructures with foreign labour or extracting Africa’s natural resources. The President also met these leaders to discuss war-torn situation in South Sudan and expressed the hope to reach a peace deal by August 17 deadline.

President Obama came under scathing attack from human rights groups to declare at a press conference with Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn where he called the Ethiopian government as democratically elected one. The fact is that elections in Ethiopia were held in May last year which was described as illegal. During bilateral talks, President Obama urged the Ethiopian Prime Minister to clean up its record on human rights for good governance and allow journalists and opposition political parties to operate with freedom. He said creating space for those voices would be strong rather than inhibiting the ruling party’s agenda. In Ethiopia, Obama announced $ 140 million investments to a programme aimed at getting climate-resilient seeds to smallholder farmers in 11 African countries. He spent some time with workers at an Ethiopian food processing plant Faffa Food which is partly funded by the US government.

It will be difficult to bring awareness and success in the form of democratic reforms in the African continent by visits of US Presidents alone. Development of economic and democratic institutions along with good governance and establishing rule of law could lead to democratic trends in Africa. American economic assistance, despite corruption, exceeded $ 677 million by 2014 in sub-Saharan African countries and it has had great success in reducing poverty, battling HIV and improving access to health care, primary education and providing electricity.

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