Missing in Africa

How Obama Failed to Engage an Increasingly Important Continent

U.S. President Barack Obama's ongoing trip to Senegal, South Africa, and Tanzania is his best -- and perhaps last -- chance at Africa policy redemption. After the five disappointing years of false starts, inattention, and policy drift that I wrote about below, this visit could set the stage for a strong finish.  

The trip itself might be merely symbolic, but symbols can say a lot about whether the United States is finally taking its partnership with the continent seriously. It is a chance for Obama to make the case to the American people that Africa is strategically important, not just a target for charity. (Many Americans still hold the outdated view that Africa is the land of AIDS and civil war, not the home of emerging entrepreneurial dynamism and six of the world’s ten fastest growing economies.) Further, a strong set of new policy ideas from the administration could blunt the sharp contrast between China’s active engagement in Africa and the United States’ (so far) lame response to Africa’s economic resurgence.

In that respect, Obama’s June 30 announcement of an African electricity initiative, which would target six countries with billions of dollars in private and public investment, is potentially game changing. Some 85 percent of Tanzanians still have no regular access to electricity (in Senegal, the figure is 58 percent; in South Africa, 25 percent). Possible announcements on trade or other investments in Tanzania would also signal the start of a more modern business relationship.

If the new power initiative does help increase access to electricity and spur new private investment, Obama’s trip will be viewed as a turning point in the U.S.-African relationship. If the United States fails to follow through on it, though, the country risks being left behind -- and missing a critical opportunity to lead in a region on the rise. 


A Madiba mosaic portrait of president Obama. (tsevis / flickr)

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