Why we should be paying attention to Obama’s time in Africa
President Obama just completed an historic trip to Kenya, his ancestral home and the land of his father’s family.
And we need to pay attention to his journey to the African continent this time around, and for a number of important reasons.
For this Commander-in-Chief, there were several firsts. To begin with, this was the first time a sitting American president ever visited the East African nation.
Further, this was Obama’s first trip to Kenya as president. For the president, this was his fourth trip to sub-Saharan Africa while living in the White House.
The first trip was in 2009, when while visiting Ghana — a trip which was perceived as a snub by Kenya and Nigeria — he criticized African leaders for becoming president for life and emphasized the need for strong institutions. The president also provided the continent with a “tough love” lecture that essentially stressed the need for Africans to take responsibility as a condition for U.S. aid. In addition, he visited Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania during summer 2013 for meetings related to African economic growth, the development of young leadership and democratic institution building. Further, he traveled to South Africa in December of that year to attend the funeral of Nelson Mandela.
This time around, President Obama’s journey to Kenya that was part official visit and part family reunion.Delivering a speech to an arena of 4,500 people, Obama was introduced by his half-sister Auma Obma, who leads a foundation. In his address, the president spoke of his first visit to Kenya as a young man.
“That was the first time that my name meant something,” he told the crowd. He also spoke of the humble origins of his family, including his grandfather, who was called a boy when he served as a cook in the British military, although he was a grown man.
But President Obama took the opportunity to speak some hard truths. “I don’t want everybody to get too sensitive,” Obama said, “but here in Kenya it’s time to change habits.” He referred to corruption as “an anchor that weighs you down.”
And as family is known to do, he provided criticisms which reportedly resonated with the people there, including comments on the treatment of women and gay rights in Kenya. “As somebody who has family in Kenya and knows the history of how the country so often is held back because women and girls are not treated fairly, I think those same values apply when it comes to different sexual orientations,” President Obama said. He also characterized anti-gay discrimination as “the path whereby freedoms begin to erode and bad things happen.”
Also worth noting is that the president referred to himself as the first Kenyan-American president. Speaking at a dinner with Kenyan officials, he offered a jab at his GOP and tea party detractors: “I suspect that some of my critics back home are suggesting that I’m back here to look for my birth certificate.” Jokes aside, Obama is the first president who can claim — or at least has claimed —African ancestry and direct ties to the motherland. As the first African-American president, he has changed the game when it comes to who can become the leader of the nation.
Moreover, Obama is the first sitting U.S. president to visit the African Union, which is headquartered in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. He ended his trip with a warning to the African nations that their countries will not advance if their leaders do not follow their constitutions and give up power when their terms have expired.
“Nobody should be president for life,” the president said to the 54-member AU body, adding, “I don’t understand why people want to stay so long, especially when they have got a lot of money.” Obama shared that he believes he could have been reelected. “I actually think I’m a pretty good President. I think if I ran, I could win. But I can’t,” Obama ad-libbed during a speech in Ethiopia. “There’s a lot that I’d like to do to keep America moving. But the law is the law, and no person is above the law, not even the president.”
“Sometimes you will hear leaders say ‘I’m the only person who can hold this nation together.’ If that’s true, then that leader has failed to truly build their nation.”
The leader of the free world lecturing to African nations might smack of cultural imperialism, particularly coming from a nation that has more than its own share of human rights abuses and unresolved problems. If you need proof of that, just look at America’s festering wounds of racism, with the most recent examples in the form of the Charleston massacre at Emanuel AME, the Confederate flag and the death of Sandra Bland.
During his Kenya visit, President Obama did acknowledge America’s shortcomings. And Obama came to Africa at perhaps the blackest time of his presidency, where he has spoken out against police brutality and the racially disparate treatment of African-Americans in the criminal justice system and has led the charge on ending mass incarceration.
However, this does not alter the fact that African nations have many challenges, including terrorism, and the type of strife, unrest and civil war that has led to millions facing displacement and suffering from the “worst refugee crisis of our era.”
And yet, there are investment and growth opportunities in Africa, which could position African-Americans rather nicely, with their obvious connection to Africa and over $1 trillion in spending power. However, China is beating out the U.S. in trade and investment in Africa, with trade between China and Africa totaling $200 billion in 2013, more than double the level of activity between the U.S. and the continent. Moreover, while the president announced last year that companies committed $14 billion in investment in Africa, China has invested around $75 billion in Africa between 2000 and 2011. Africa’s largest trading partner is China, which has an estimated 1 million nationals living on the continent, conjuring up images of neocolonialism and economic exploitation — as Africa depletes its raw materials to satisfy the needs of others, in this case, China.
President Obama’s visit reminds us that Africa matters, and it is time we rediscover it.
Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove