Barack Obama’s June 27-July 2 three-African-nation tour is only his second visit to the region since becoming the U.S. president in 2008, a brief visit to Ghana in 2009 being the other one. This time, his agenda is headed by the U.S.’s ambition to advance trade and investment and to move the development debate away from state-led commercial contracts.
He is unlikely to return to Washington with a sheaf of closed deals. The U.S. faces a high-stake battle for influence in one of the world’s fastest growing sets of emerging economies where Washington has lost clout, a consequence of the Obama administration’s scant involvement there and years of the region’s low ranking in Washington’s priorities.
Symbolic of those attitudes, though in March, is the meeting the U.S. president had at the White House (photo above) with Sierra Leone’s President Ernest Bai Koroma (2nd R), Senegal’s President Macky Sall (L), Malawi’s President Joyce Banda (2nd L), and Cape Verde’s Prime Minister José Maria Pereira Neves(R). He assembled them all at once in a way that he wouldn’t have done with, say, the leaders of Belize, the Bahamas, Barbados and Haiti, four Caribbean countries of similar economic size.
The U.S. now looks to be coming late to a table now presided over by China and, to a lesser extent, the rest of the nations that are known as the BRICS — Brazil, Russia and India (we exclude South Africa for the obvious reason). They are already strategically positioned in the continent and are pushing ahead determinedly with trade, investment and development aid to Africa. Countries like Turkey and Iran are following in their wake. (Read more: Brazil cancels Africa’s debt and shows its quiet rivalry with China.)
Sub-Saharan Africa is home to some of the fastest growing economies in the world. Their economic growth over the past decade is not simply because of their riches of natural resources. Vibrant business climates are taking hold in many of the continent’s nations.
Part of the continent’s growth, although not equal distributed, has been nurtured by the relations it has forged with the ‘global south.’ These countries, some of which are political foes of U.S., have the advantage of access to large pools of finance and state cash reserves, letting them offer incentives and subsidized support at a time when the U.S. is cutting federal spending across the board due to the automatic spending cuts, known as the sequester.
Even within Washington, there is an unspoken feeling that the U.S. is having to play catch-up. Rosa Whitaker, a former U.S. diplomat and now an Africa trade consultant, summed it up by recently stating, “Africa is the swing vote. And right now it isn’t swinging our way.”
In his visits to Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania Barack Obama will explain the new U.S. strategy toward sub-Saharan Africa that was announced in June of 2012. This moves away from classic aid to focus more on how to increase trade and investment. Former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, outlined the strategy in her ten day trip in August of last year , following the presentation of the revised action plan. She also shared her notes on how other countries operate in the region. It’s up to Obama to put it in to practice.
The centerpiece of the commercial relationship between the U.S. and Africa is the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), passed by the U.S. Congress in 2000 to promote open economies and free markets in Africa. In all likelihood Obama will bring it up since it expires in 2015. Renewing it would demonstrate his commitment to the continent. Failing to due so would only push the region further in the direction of the BRICS and beyond.
The message Obama sends by visiting those three counties — one in the West, one in the South and the other in the East — is that he’s prioritizing good governance and that he wants to secure existing good economic relations. This is especially telling for South Africa, since annual bilateral trade between the countries totals $22 billion.
It might have been savvy of Obama to visit the African Union’s headquarters in Ethiopia. There, he could have delivered the keynote speech of his trip — the one that he is expected to give in Cape Town on June 30 — and outlined his ideas on foreign trade relations to the entire region.
Obama will likely highlight the U.S.’s postion as a global leader and the role Washington should play as the preeminent diplomatic, security and development partner for many Sub-Saharan countries. By emphasizing long-term economic growth and development — and the institutional governance needed to support that — he could distance himself from the state-led aid and investment models of the emerging nations, notably China, who are seen by some African leaders as just sucking out the continent’s natural resources and flooding it with cheap manufactures.