President Obama met on Thursday with the leaders of four small countries in sub-Saharan Africa that the White House sees as models for the region — a limited encounter that some analysts called typical of the administration’s relatively hands-off approach to the continent.
Obama met with Ernest Bai Koroma, president of Sierra Leone; Macky Sall, president of Senegal; Joyce Banda, president of Malawi; and Jose Maria Pereira Neves, prime minister of Cape Verde.
The leaders, Obama said, exemplify a commitment to democratic government and economic growth that are central to Africa’s future.
“My main message to each of these leaders is that the United States is going to be a strong partner,” Obama said after the meeting at the White House. “Not based on the old model in which we are a donor and they are simply a recipient, but a new model that’s based on partnership and recognizing that no continent has greater potential or greater upside than the continent of Africa.”
The meeting comes as Obama is considering a trip to Africa later this year, following the second-term pattern set by presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
Experts who follow U.S. relations with Africa expressed disappointment after Obama visited Ghana for less than a day during his first term. Many Africans had expected more sustained engagement from a president whose own father hailed from Kenya and who had said that he would visit the country before he left the White House.
“There’s been a lack of high-level engagement made worse by the unrealistically high expectations that a president with an African father would be more engaged,” said J. Peter Pham, director of the Ansari Africa Center at the Atlantic Council, a nonpartisan think tank. “In more than four years as president, Obama has spent less than 24 hours in sub-Saharan Africa. A photo-op in the White House is not going to make up for that lack of engagement.”
Some experts say the United States needs to intensify its engagement with the region in part to compete with China, which is dramatically expanding trade and investment there. New Chinese president Xi Jinping traveled to Africa this week as part of his first international trip — a sign of the significance the superpower assigns to the continent.
In addition to economic concerns, the meeting on Thursday also focused on national security issues. Nigeria and Somalia are increasingly hotbeds for terrorism, while Mali is in the throes of a violent conflict.
“Many of the threats are transnational. You’ve seen terrorism infiltrate into the region. We’ve seen drug cartels that are using West Africa in particular as a transit point. All of this undermines some of the progress that’s been made,” Obama said. “And so the United States will continue to cooperate with each of these countries to try to find smart solutions so that they can build additional capacity and make sure that these cancers don’t grow in their region.”
John Campbell, senior fellow for Africa policy studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that the Obama administration’s efforts in the region, from pushing to expand trade to fighting terrorism, shouldn’t be understated.
“What more is being looked for? Very often [people talk] of a kind of Marshall plan or something like that,” Campbell said. “You have to wonder how much American political support there would be for something of that sort.”