Missing in Africa: How Obama Failed to Engage an Increasingly Important Continent
Africa is more important than ever to the United States. The continent, home to six of the world’s ten fastest-growing economies, is booming. And democracy has become the African norm rather than the exception. This year alone, no fewer than fifteen sub-Saharan countries will hold elections. With their combination of liberal politics and market economics, countries such as Ghana and Botswana are attracting frontier investors. Huge potential markets like Nigeria and Ethiopia are leveraging modest reforms into big economic opportunities. These trends all suggest that Africa is on a path to prosperity, and that it is ripe for U.S. investment, trade, and partnership.
At the same time, danger zones across the continent pose a growing security concern for Washington. Terrorist groups in Somalia and northern Mali are direct threats. In addition, pockets of weak governance in West Africa and in the Horn lead to cross-border problems such as narcotics trafficking and the spread of infectious diseases. In short, while Africa is making democratic and economic strides, it is also increasingly a locus of terrorism and transnational threats.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has, to her credit, visited fifteen African countries on four separate trips. But her presence has been overshadowed by President Obama’s absence. Obama has set foot on the continent just once: for a mere 20 hours in Ghana in July 2009 where he gave a speech on democracy that resulted in no substantial action. The president’s Kenyan heritage inspired unreasonably high hopes for a robust Africa policy; but his administration has failed to meet even the lowest of expectations. Even Obama’s most vocal supporters quietly admit that he has done much less with Africa than previous presidents have.
Compare Obama’s approach to Africa with that of his predecessors. President Bill Clinton exuded enthusiasm for the continent. His Africa policy was defined by the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which reduced trade barriers on more than 1,800 products exported from the continent to the United States. Partly as a result of the act, trade between the U.S. and Africa has more than tripled since 2000 to more than $90 billion. More important, Clinton approached Africa as a partner, not just as a receiver of goodwill.