Barack Obama cannot do much more in Africa. DW’s Frank Sieren thinks that Asia, especially China, is so far ahead that the United States won’t be able to catch up.
Last weekend, US President Barack Obama traveled to East Africa with a big business delegation. In the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, he co-hosted this year’s Global Entrepreneurship Summit, which took place in sub-Saharan Africa for the first time. He also signed agreements expected to ease future investments in Kenya by US firms.
After Kenya, his journey took him to the capital city of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa, where he visited the African Union headquarters in the capital city.
Obama has come to Africa a bit late. Just two days before he arrived, China granted $17 million (15 million euros) to Kenya for a new Confucius Institute, humanitarian aid for refugees from Somalia and the refurbishment of Kasarani Stadium – where Obama made a speech to thousands of onlookers.
The timing was not coincidental. The Chinese government wants to show the US who is calling the shots and paving the path to successful cooperation with African states. Beijing understood Africa’s value from the point of view of natural resources much earlier than Washington. Africa’s population of 1.1 billion and its booming middle class offer a new market for Chinese products. Trade between China and Africa reached $222 billion in 2014 – about three times more than trade between Africa and the United States.
Too late, Obama
The US president, whose father was Kenyan and who still has family there, has failed to enable his country to benefit from Africa’s boom. It was only last year that the United States woke up and invited all African states to its US-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington. Here, too, the United States was no pioneer. China and Japan have done this for years. India and South Korea also have long-established business connections with Africa.
Now, it’s too late for Obama to benefit from Africa’s boom. His visit has had little value in both ideological and economic terms.
The first black president of the US, Nobel Peace laureate and beacon of hope for millions could have sunk his teeth into the matter earlier. Instead, Obama avoided Africa during his first years in office and took too long to visit. Finally, in summer 2013, not long after his second term began, he made an official eight-day trip to Africa, stopping off in Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania.
Yet to shine
Obama could have stepped on the gas during his second term, and the fact that he did not is a big minus. Especially considering the extent to which Africa will continue to play a role in the future. People will ask why Obama did not understand this earlier. The initiatives that he announced with great rhetorical brilliance – Power Africa, to bring electricity to the whole continent, and the African Growth and Opportunity Act, to offer tax advantages to African goods on the US market – have yet to shine.
The United States cannot offer as much as China or India to Africa in terms of developing infrastructure – apart from the oil infrastructure. When it comes to bridges, roads, rails, ports and water plants, Asian companies have more knowledge because they are currently helping to build up their own countries. China has political reasons for wanting to finance projects in Africa – Chinese companies can bring money in fast and with no red tape.
Moreover, in recent years China has profited from the fact that its relationship with the African continent is not historically loaded. This is in contrast to the United States, which engaged in the trading of slaves from Africa from its days as a British colony until well after independence. That history has had the United States on the defensive with Africa from the outset.
China and India have firsthand experience of many of the problems developing states in Africa are facing. Therefore, they have pragmatic solutions to offer.
Last but not least, Beijing – like it or not – has not based its development policy and support on conditions such as democracy or human rights, as the United States and many European nations have done.
China is present in Africa. Though Obama might have achieved a great deal with Iran and Cuba, he has achieved very little in Africa, not compared with Asia, at least – not even compared with many European states, which are not always very quick on the mark either.
In 50 years’ time, when Africa is playing a central role as the world’s factory and has a huge middle class that is happy to consume, historians will wonder how of all people Barack Obama was able to faff cooperation with the world’s last emerging continent.