U.S. Army file photo.
President Obama’s recent Africa tour could be of great significance.
Much of the media focus was on the “family reunion” dimension of Obama’s journey to his father’s country, and the symbolism of his trip as the first sitting president to visit Kenya and Ethiopia and to address the African Union. But the president should aim to achieve more than symbolism. What can he do to leave a positive, concrete legacy in the region?
Obama can start by helping transform the image of Africa in the Americanmind. U.S. news coverage of the continent is stuck on terrorism, disease and dictators. In recent years, the American media has focused on Boko Haram’s depredations, the Ebola outbreak, and despots from Sudan to Zimbabwe. But the bigger and more important story is the progress that has occurred across the region in the last decade or so, much of which has had little to do with U.S. assistance. As Obama noted in a speech in South Africa two years ago, “Africa is on the move.”
Other nations have recognized this and have rapidly begun to build partnerships and engage in major investments in the region. The so-called BRIC nations of Brazil, Russia, India and, especially, China are quite visible and active in nation after nation. According to Foreign Policy magazine, China currently has three times the trade with Africa as the United States. In my recent visits to Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Chinese construction projects, in signs written in Chinese, were ubiquitous, from hospitals and roads to soccer fields and airports.
This is where the United States can really be useful. After centuries of plunderous colonial rule and postcolonial underdevelopment, African infrastructure needs are great. Most African governments, even in countries where economies are booming, do not have the funding or expertise for these massive building projects. The building of infrastructure will spur development and trade.
Finally, the Obama administration can engage more closely — and encourage engagement with — African civil society. The single best way to address corruption, human rights violations, social needs, and terrorism is the involvement of those most affected. Numerous civil society groups and institutions have helped Africa endure in difficult periods in the past.
By joining these efforts, the United States could go a long way to helping Africa achieve its full potential.
Clarence Lusane is a professor of political science and international relations at American University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.