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The Obama on a third business date with Africa

Tarikua Getachew, for Addis Standard (@tarikawipeace)
No other visit to anywhere from sitting presidents, US or otherwise, has caused as much of a stir as Obama’s upcoming visit to Africa. From human rights organisations to individual letters his third visit to Africa, and in particular his Addis Ababa, stop has received both praise and vilification.

But while most have rather focused on advising whether he should go or how his going will be interpreted or even what he should say if he does go, I have not come across anyone asking what kind of man is returning to Africa.


The first Obama as it were was as a president-hopeful Senator. He had come curious for this continent that runs in his genes without much more meaning and a little apprehensive for how these genes might play out in the long battle to come.
The victorious black man president that spoke from our TV screens and parliaments brought tears of joy. The ideals he exhaled reminded us why we Africans feel a special connection to the history of the United States. He promised to “stand on the side of history and with the people of Africa” and that human rights were going to be the inalienable values of his presidency. There he was the son of Africa who was to save our motherland and we had, already then, felt redeemed.


Today, one cannot help but think about all the things that happened in Africa since Obama last came to see us. The Arab Spring and the eventual hard crush back to reality; the “fall” (or is it “downfall”) of Libya and the rise of African ISIS on its ashes, the football like games that Al Shabab plays and its evil resilience, the genesis and endurance of Boko Haram, the surprise that Burkina Faso pulled and the shock that Gambia (and now Burundi) have turned out to be. The continent’s life over past Obama’s term and a half cannot be summarized in one paragraph.

But through it all the “inactive actions” of the US which its foreign policy advisors call African policy can only be summed up as betrayal. Neither the African Union nor the “big countries” of Africa, South Africa, Nigeria, Egypt or even Ethiopia could do anything for their neighbours and counterparts. Toothless condemnation, ill-advised praises and military interventions not carefully thought through was all that Africa has received from the US.

So we are very far from the “principles and values” that Obama committed will guide his foreign policy to Africa. Even previous democracies such as South Africa and the greater Southern African region have slid into mis-directions with corruption and attacks on press freedom.

Yet, this should be no surprise. It should not surprise us not because politicians have rarely been seen to live up to their ideals but because the Obama administration has been consistent. The trend beginning with Burma, passing through Cuba and much recently Vietnam have painted a picture of a wilful U-turn of US foreign policy well summed up by Obama’s public confession in June this year that “if they [the US] do not write the rules China will”.


In other words, to wrench back its economic hegemony the US will work with dictators, bring back dictators and praise dictators. Even a naive look at Obama’s Feed Africa and Power Africa initiatives shows that these are primarily plans to sell US goods and services (technology, human resources) to what many believe will be the next big market.

In 2012, after a year of silence surrounding the Feed Africa initiative I wrote a letter to the White House asking what was in store for the food security plan. Quite unexpectedly I received a signed response from the president which stated among other things: “By opening and building markets for our goods and reducing the uncertainty and cost of doing business overseas for our companies, our international development efforts benefit the American private sector and create jobs.”

Ethiopia for example has envisioned becoming the hydroelectric power hub of the horn of Africa and has embarked on the construction of one of the biggest dams the region has ever seen. This is an eventual market paradise and the US is not the only competitor. It has lost many markets to China in Ethiopia before – the provision of e-technology to its large public banks, the provision of infrastructure and related technology to its sole telecom provider- Ethio-Telecom, significant sections of the construction of dams are just a few of the examples.


Of course there are security interests related to Somalia, South Sudan and even Kenya if we are being honest. But these are problems that the US for the past ten to fifteen years handled quite well remotely. In a long interview with the BBC Obama has said that US President visits to countries like Russia, China, Burma and Ethiopia where “institutions are not ideal” and “where the times are not at their best” has allowed for “conversations on human rights and other values” to begin. But the previous visits to these countries have resulted in little or no gains on human rights and values. So there is no illusion that this visit brings us first and foremost the salesman Obama.

Back in Ethiopia the talk of his visit has led to the release of one journalist and four out of the 9 bloggers and journalists collectively known as Zone9 bloggers. But the timing of these releases, which further undermine the advocacy efforts for the respect of the rule of law, only serves as a reminder that the first US black president comes back “home” tail between legs or as Ethiopians say “having washed his eyes with salt”.


Photo credit: huffingtonpost




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