The people of Ghana laid out the red, yellow and green carpet for President Obama’s first, brief trip to sub-Saharan Africa in 2009.
Addressing parliament, Obama stood in front of the nation’s tricolor flag, a banner reading “Yes Together We Can” hanging from the balcony.
“I have the blood of Africa within me,” Obama declared during a 30-minute address in which he hailed “a new moment of great promise” for the continent.
The feeling was mutual. “We Africans celebrated him as one of our own,” Robert Alai, a well-known Kenyan blogger, recalled recently of the first black U.S. president, whose father was from Kenya.
Four years later, as Obama heads back to the continent Wednesday for a week-long trip to Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania, he can expect a welcome that is still warm and enthusiastic — but tinged with an unmistakable sense of disappointment after a first term that many Africans believe did not live up to Obama’s lofty promises.
The Obama administration’s record, policy analysts in Washington and Africa said, has not been defined by greater economic investment and diplomacy. According to the Congressional Research Service, U.S. aid to Africa rose from $1.1 billion in 2006 to $8.2 billion in fiscal 2009 — an amount set during George W. Bush’s final year in office — before dipping to$6.9 billion in 2011.
The president’s food security, global health and climate change initiatives have been overshadowed by more aggressive U.S. military operations to establish a hub for counterterrorism operations on the continent, including drone bases and increased Navy warship missions. At the same time, other countries, led by China, India and Brazil, have ramped up their investments and trade partnerships with a continent that boasts six of the world’s 10 fastest-growing economies, albeit each one still very small compared to other regions.
The contrast will be highlighted during Obama’s journey by a simultaneous trip to Africa by Bush, who is scheduled to be in Tanzania at the same time. The two men have no plans for a joint appearance, but their wives, Michelle Obama and Laura Bush, will take part in a first ladies summit there hosted by the George W. Bush Institute.
What makes the criticism of Obama’s record particularly stark is that his two most recent predecessors — Bush and Bill Clinton — are remembered fondly for their ambitious health initiatives in Africa, including a major fight against HIV/AIDS.
“Africans still consider Clinton their president. If you go to Africa and mention Clinton, he is a hero, even today,” said Mwangi Kimenyi, a Kenyan who is the director of the African Growth Initiative at the Brookings Institution. “I don’t think President Obama is going to approach the level of President Clinton at all, in terms of respect, in terms of what they feel.
“What I see when I go to Africa is people are very cynical,” Kimenyi continued. “There is not that feeling that we have our son there. There’s probably more [a sense] of a prodigal son.”
It is a developing legacy that Obama is eager to turn around in his final 3 1 / 2 years, and this week’s trip is intended as a clear signal that things will be different going forward, senior administration officials said.
“The questions we get are, ‘Why has the president not been to Africa more?’ ” deputy national security director Benjamin Rhodes said. “That tracks with our belief that there is extraordinary potential on the continent. If we look back in 20 years, 30 years from now, we may see this as a potentially pivotal moment in which Africa took off.”
Aides sketched out an ambitious itinerary for Obama, including bilateral meetings with the presidents of the three countries, as well as visits to Senegal’s Supreme Court to emphasize the importance of an independent judicial system and to a Tanzanian power plant to highlight programs to increase access to electricity.
Obama also plans to speak with youth leaders in Cape Town, South Africa, building on the administration’s focus on developing the next generation of political leadership on a continent where nearly one-third of the population is between the ages of 10 and 24. He will deliver a major address at a prominent university in that city to lay out his second-term Africa policy.
At a broader level, administration officials said, the trip is designed to establish a new paradigm in U.S.-Africa policy — moving away from the donor-recipient relationship based on aid programs that defined the Clinton and Bush eras. Instead, the Obama administration aims to create a more equal, and mutually beneficial, trade and development partnership as African nations increase their own capacities, said Gayle Smith, director for development and democracy on the National Security Council.
To that end, Obama will bring with him several high-ranking administration officials, including U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman, as well as a group of private-sector business leaders who will focus on economic opportunities for U.S. companies.
“If you look at what’s fueling development now versus 10 to 12 years ago, assistance is the smallest piece of the puzzle,” Smith said. “It is private capital and it’s domestic resources. Because with a lot more countries that have growing economies, governments are investing more and more, so there’s a momentum going that we are tapping into.”
Critics of the president’s Africa policy said it is well past time for such a pivot. While there are still conflicts and despots, democracies are flourishing and the continent is home to vast reserves of oil and other mineral sources.
At the same time, Africa has become an increasing source of transnational security threats. From Somalia to Mali to Nigeria, anti-Western radical Islamists are waging insurgencies against American allies. Weak states in West Africa and in East Africa have allowed the smuggling of drugs and weapons to flourish, as well as the spread of infectious diseases.
Obama visited Africa as a senator in 2006, including a stop in Kenya, where thousands greeted his arrival and media coverage was glowing. But, aside from the 22-hour stopover in Ghana on the way home from a European economic summit, he has not been back since.
The Chinese, meanwhile, have been sending several high-level delegations each year to Africa.
“Diplomatically the U.S. has not stepped up to the plate,” said Elizabeth Sidiropolous, who heads the South African Institute of International Affairs in Johannesburg. “On the continent, this is something that does not go unnoticed.”
Aides noted that Obama faced an international economic crisis upon assuming office, along with two wars — in Iraq and Afghanistan — that he was intent on ending. But analysts said that was little excuse, especially since Bush, who faced a major geopolitical challenge in the fight against terrorism after Sept. 11, 2001, still found time to focus on Africa.
Bush’s Africa policy is widely considered one of the biggest foreign policy successes of his administration. His signature achievement — the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief — is estimated to have saved the lives of several million people through treatment and prevention of HIV/AIDS, analysts have said.
By comparison, some of Obama’s highest-profile projects have achieved only marginal results, including a 2010 global climate change initiative to expand renewable energy in Africa. White House aides pointed to the president’s push to help African nations increase their agricultural production, which has included pledges of $3.5 billion in aid from the international private sector.
But Alai, the blogger, pronounced himself disappointed.
“I expected more and I think Africans expected more from Obama,” he said. “You don’t feel the voice of the United States.”
Raghavan reported from Nairobi.