Obama in Africa

Their Future in Their Hands

Obama Kenya polaris_distort
Going back to his roots: Barack Obama speaking in Kenya.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Many African countries are benefiting from China’s no-strings-attached aid but it is making them less reliant on themsleves and more insecure.

  • Facts


    • African trade with the U.S. has shrunk to $60 billion (€54.67 billion) over the past ten years.
    • Former U.S. presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush are held in high regard by Africans for their aid efforts.
    • In Nairobi, Kenya at the weekend Mr. Obama’s address focused on fighting Islamist extremism, tackling corruption and progress.
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There was great jubilation six years ago when U.S. President Barack Obama first paid homage to his African roots on a whistle-stop visit to Ghana. For the economically depressed continent, the son of a Kenyan and an American seemed to herald a political as well as an economic turning point for them.

Many Africans were deeply disappointed things turned out so differently. When the global financial crisis hit at the start of his presidency, Africa quickly disappeared from Mr. Obama’s radar. But now, with the end of his time in office approaching, he hopes at least to send a signal with his visit to Kenya and Ethiopia.

Both of Mr. Obama’s predecessors were far more committed to Africa. Bill Clinton oversaw the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act, a generous free trade agreement allowing the duty-free export to the United States of more than 6,000 African products through 2015.

And the oft-reviled George W. Bush remains a hero to many Africans because he did more than any other politician to battle the AIDS epidemic.

The nations of Africa have an obligation to create better incentives for a stronger partnership with the private sector.

In the following years however, despite the United States having its first black president, it was China who became Africa’s largest trading partner. This happened because the continent, at least until recently, threw itself uncritically into China’s arms and neglected its old ties to such an extent that trade with the United States has dwindled to $60 billion (€54.67 billion) over the past ten years.

In contrast, Africa’s exchange of commodities with China since 2000 has increased from $10 billion to almost $200 billion.

What also appeals to the ruling powers in Africa is that the Beijing government doesn’t give lectures about increasing democracy and transparency – in stark contrast with Washington – and even works with the worst dictators, for example in Zimbabwe and Sudan.

On the other hand, during his flying visit to Ghana in 2009, Mr. Obama said Africa’s recovery would be dependent in part on the replacement of its often-corrupt elite.

Video: President Obama speaks at an official dinner in Kenya.

Trade, security, the dangers of corruption and better human rights were all on Mr. Obama’s agenda in Kenya. Islamic terror in Africa likely will dominate his visit to Ethiopia on Monday and Tuesday. Ethiopia has been America’s most important partner in the fight against jihadists on the continent for quite some time.

But it is Kenya and its tourism industry that have suffered for years from continual attacks by the al-Shabaab militia in neighboring Somalia. Observers already fret about Kenya’s northern coast degenerating into something similar to northern Nigeria, where stone age Islamists from Boko Haram have been murdering for years and threatening the unity of Africa’s most populous nation.

Currently, more than a dozen countries south of the Sahara are threatened by radical Islam. Almost all of them lie along the Sahel, the southern edge of the Sahara, stretching from the stomach of the continent in the West all the way to its horn in the East.

It’s increasingly clear radical Islamism has become the new protest ideology of many young and unemployed people against an outdated elite, who are clinging with all their might to the spoils of their office.

This is why the United States and its Western allies are largely on their own in the fight against the radicals. France’s emergency operation two years ago against advancing Islamists in Mali is impressive evidence of this.

Yet weapons alone won’t be enough to win this battle. Equally important are an increase in democratic institutions and free trade. For that reason alone, the nations of Africa have an obligation to create better incentives for a stronger partnership with the private sector while not strangling these attempts with excessive bureaucracy.

Africans would be well advised to remember Mr. Obama’s exhortation: It isn’t the West with its aid money that holds the future of their continent, but themselves.


To contact the author: drechsler@handelsblatt.com

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