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Foreign Policy

Obama in Africa

Jul 23 , 2013
  • Robert I. Rotberg

    Founding Director of Program on Intrastate Conflict, Harvard Kennedy School

President Obama visited three countries in Africa in June and July, following in the footsteps of President Xi Jinping, who had visited three African nations in March. China’s trade with Africa in 2012 was more than double that of US trade with Africa over the same period. China buys Africa’s oil, gas, and minerals; some of its agricultural produce; and a variety of processed or manufactured goods. Additionally, very few sub-Saharan African countries today lack a new road, stadium, power plant, or ruling party headquarters constructed by China.

Robert I. Rotberg

Sub-Saharan Africa is growing economically by more than 5 percent annually, largely because of Chinese resource purchases, Chinese investors, Chinese visitors and tourists, and Chinese attention. Entire countries such as the Sudan, Zimbabwe, or even Kenya depend on China for their new-found prosperity.  Impoverished Mozambique’s chances for unexpected riches and the alleviation its poverty  depend on Brazilian exploitation of coal resources for export to China and the harnessing of new off-shore natural gas deposits by China (and others). Even nations without oil, gas, or minerals, such as Malawi, rely on China for concessional loans and purpose-built infrastructural improvements that would have been unthinkable a few years ago before China began wooing Africa.

But President Obama has refused to be threatened by China and its acquisitive instincts in Africa. He and the United States are not, he says, competing with China for Africa’s petroleum and iron ore, for its wealth and riches more generally, for its global foreign policy support, for its friendship, or for assistance in the war against terror.  If more countries invested in Africa, Obama said, it would be good for an Africa that desperately needs and wants to be integrated more fully into the global economy.

Without saying so explicitly, President Obama’s visit to Africa acknowledged China’s interest in the countries of the continent and accepted comfortably that Africa contained underground and undersea riches sufficient for the industrial and mercantile needs both of the United States and China.  He was not engaged on behalf of Washington in a race for oil, ferrochrome, platinum, and so on. There was enough for both powers, and for European and other importers.

That was the point of traveling to Africa with an entourage of more than 500 American businessmen, all looking for new opportunities to invest in Senegal, South Africa, and Tanzania as countries emblematic of the rest of sub-Saharan Africa. (President Xi visited South Africa, Tanzania, and the Republic of Congo.) No big deals were announced by President Obama, but he and his followers focused on supporting Africa’s overwhelming need for new sources of energy and power.  Much of Africa is frequently without steady electricity; Spain generates enough electricity on its own to supply the current power capacity in all of sub-Saharan Africa. A small British or Canadian city like Bradford or Waterloo uses electric power equivalent to Nigeria’s current generating capacity.

President Obama promised $7 billion worth of investment over five years to increase the production of energy in sub-Saharan Africa and to strengthen Africa’s access to electricity. America’s goal, as enunciated by President Obama, is to double the availability of power in six potentially well-governed and energy-hindered countries: Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria, and Tanzania.  This initiative is intended to assist Africa, particularly the six selected model case countries, to develop the means to support itself. Furthermore, this initiative is a public-private one, with $9 billion of private (corporate) money pledged to support the $7 billion of official funding.

Rather than handing over finished projects and departing, President Obama indicated – without necessarily looking at or comparing his proposals to those of China’s – that the United States intended partnering with Africa to build and invest together for the future, and for the kind of clean and sustainable energy that would benefit all Africans, not just the ruling classes. He did not specifically argue in favor of alternative sources of energy such as wind power and solar power.  Most of Africa is now powered by fossil fuel burning of coal or oil. Nor did he say anything about the many hydroelectric generating dams that China is now constructing throughout Africa; some are environmentally questionable and not supported by the World Bank or USAID.

President Obama and the symbolism of his visit also celebrated and for American audiences drew attention to sub-Africa’s new promise as a land of opportunity, not necessarily a land of conflict, gloom, and poor governance. As Representative Karen Bass, a leading member of the House sub-committee on Africa and a strong backer of President Obama, said recently: “We as Americans must lose our tunnel vision and learn to see Africa as a continent of immense opportunity. The data speaks for itself.”

Robert I. Rotberg is the inaugural Fulbright Research Chair in Political Development at the Balsillie School of International Affairs and Visiting Fulbright Scholar at CIGI. Robert is the founding director of the Program on Intrastate Conflict and Conflict Resolution at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, and was previously professor of political science at MIT, academic vice president of Tufts University and president of Lafayette College.

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