Obama’s visit to Africa: Why now?

According to the White House, the President of the United States of America and his wife have scheduled a weeklong trip to Africa specifically Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania from June 26 to July 3. This will be the longest single trip of Obama’s presidency according to the NY Times Politics blog called the Caucus. The question is why is Obama visiting Africa and why now? Prior to this Africa trip, Obama met with Xi Jinping, President of China on June 7 and 8 at a summit in Southern California. It seems the USA Today got it right when they wrote beforehand, “President Obama is planning major diplomatic initiatives with China and Africa…”

International affairs is always about strategic interests. Why is Obama meeting up with Xi Jinping? Among other reasons, it might have something to do with China’s growing importance economically in the globe plus the fact that China holds the greatest percentage of US debt. How about Africa? What is the USA’s strategic interest in Africa? This is the golden question. If African leaders understood the answer to this question, they would begin to think differently, lead responsibly and take advantage of the shifts taking place in the global landscape to the benefit of their people. Africa has the opportunity if she manages the competing interests in her political economy well to lift millions out of poverty while providing them with better standards of living.

What is so special about Africa?

Officially, the press statement from the White House states the trip “will reinforce the importance that the United States places on our deep and growing ties with countries in sub-Saharan Africa…”. To decode this statement, one must cast their minds back to statements made by Secretary of State John Kerry a while back when as yet the public was unaware of this trip. These statements were captured in a C-SPAN video and in the Politico. Here are Kerry’s statements with regards to Obama’s trip to Africa:

“Africa we need to be deeply engaged in and intend to be. And the president will travel there. We have a lot to do,” Kerry said in response to questions from Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.) Kerry continued, “Six of the 10 or 12 fastest growing countries in the world are in Africa,” The Secretary of State added “We all are concerned about our economic future. China is investing more in Africa than we are and it doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game. We have to recognize where our future economic interests and capacity may lie.”

The US President is visiting Africa because the US sees the continent as important for its economic future.  President Obama’s trip is about safeguarding America’s economic future, and her economic interests bearing in mind where her future capacity may lie. This is what the press statement loosely framed as “to discuss our strategic partnerships on bilateral and global issues…” while “…broadening and deepening cooperation between the United States and the people of sub-Saharan Africa”. Africa is the new economic frontier and the US doesn’t want to be left out while China is capitalizing on her African partnerships.

John Kerry alluded to the fact that some of the fastest growing economies are found in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). This is correct according to the World Bank’s Africa’s Pulse Volume 7 released April 2013 and its predecessor from the previous year. SSA economies have maintained a consistent solid expansion for over a decade right through what is termed the global downturn. The International Monetary Fund’s April 2013 World Economic Outlook (p.67) forecasted similar growth trends for SSA as the World Bank did. Figure 2 in the World Bank Africa’s Pulse is a brilliant graph depicting how seven SSA countries outgrew China last year and ten out-performed India. This is history in the making and Africa could miss it if she is not awake and focused on what is transpiring in the table of nations. Africa needs desperately to harness her strengths and exploit the opportunities now available in such a way that it generates better Human Development dividends for her masses who are projected to double in a mere 37 years according to United Nations Statistics Division. We’ll leave the reasons for the phenomenal growth for later discussion but let us take a look at the principal sources of the growth.

What is the source of this growth?

To understand this adequately one needs to consult the fantastic Africa Progress Report launched by the Africa Progress Panel chaired by Mr. Kofi Annan on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum on Africa in Cape Town. The report explains, “On one estimate, extractive industries have accounted for around one-third of regional GDP growth over the past decade – more than transport, telecommunications and manufacturing combined.” It further clarifies that the 20 countries the IMF identified in their Regional Economic Outlook on Sub-Saharan Africa April 2012 as resource intensive in SSA account for about 56 per cent of the region’s population and around a whopping 80 per cent of its GDP. The good thing is that the growth phenomenon is not limited to resource intensive countries. It extends to much of SSA according to Fig 2.15 of the April 2013 IMF’s World Economic Outlook. Naturally China is a big part of the increased economic activity in this region. It makes absolute sense then that the US presidency will allocate its longest single journey during the summer season to go politik in Africa.

A great opportunity for Africa: Sagacity required

It is high time Africa realises the shiftings taking place in the globe and the unique opportunities they present to Africa. African leaders, civil society and the many youths that make up majority of SSA’s population must “wise-up” and “shine their eyes” to use a Nigerian colloquial expression. A better future could be within reach in less than one generation if SSA leaders will continue to improve state capacity, promote good governance, transparency, accountability, and long-ranged public policies aimed at promoting industrialization, alleviating poverty, creating jobs, eliminating illiteracy etc. All of this and more are elucidated in the 2013 Africa Progress Report which champions equity in extractives. At the end of the day, if the wealth generated from the solid expansion is not equitably redistributed to the benefit of the all, development will remain at best but a mirage and that would be a huge travesty which future generations would hold the present generation accountable for. Do ponder on the words of the US Secretary of State, “We have to recognize where our future economic interests and capacity may lie.” At the end of the day, it’s all about interests. As the USA considers her interests and rightly so, African leaders should also consider the interests of their people and negotiate on a peer to peer basis.

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