President Barack Obama returns to his roots this weekend with a visit to Kenya, where much of his father’s family remains. The trip will, no doubt, be poignant for personal reasons. Obama highlighted a previous pilgrimage in his first memoir, Dreams from My Father. On a return trip in 2006, then-Senator Obama was warmly received.
Now, however, he is being greeted by Kenya, and by Africa in general, with a heavy dose of skepticism. With time running out on his two terms, it is clear that Obama has been a disappointing U.S. president–for Africa, too.
Even the Politico–normally an Obama-friendly outlet–has noted the mood, in an article by Edward-Isaac Dovere. “Despite family ties to Kenya, Barack Obama has arguably done less for the continent than his predecessors,” the sub-headline reports. And in spite of boasts by Obama adviser Susan Rice (whose own record on Africa is abysmal), “on the streets and among African leaders, there’s deep frustration,” Dovere writes. Obama is perceived to have ignored Africa (as well as his Kenyan family, reportedly neglected by their American cousin).
African judgments of American presidents should always be taken with a grain of salt. The continent still loves Bill Clinton, whose record on Africa is mixed at best. He signed the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act, which provided African exports preferential access to American markets. That helped spur economic growth in many places.
Still, Clinton was responsible–and has apologized–for failing to intervene in the Rwandan genocide, partly on Rice’s advice. He also failed to anticipate or stop the spread of al Qaeda’s terror network in East Africa.
The consensus among policy experts is that George W. Bush was Africa’s best president. He embraced a generation of new African leaders and supported their efforts to achieve what South Africa’s then-president, Thabo Mbeki, called the “African Renaissance.” He helped broker an end to civil war in the Sudan, and later spoke out against genocide in Darfur. Crucially, he led efforts to introduce Aids drugs to Africa–over the objections of Mbeki, who allowed hundreds of thousands to die while he claimed, bizarrely, that Aids was not a viral disease at all.
Yet Bush’s contributions have largely been forgotten, thanks to the fact that Africa’s political and media elites are inescapably trapped in leftist propaganda–a vestige of the Cold War, whose ideas still form the basis of civic education in much of the region. Bush is remembered as having invaded Iraq, against the will of elite Third World opinion.
(True, many ordinary Zimbabweans hoped Bush would topple their own dictator, Robert Mugabe. But it was not to be: Zimbabwe has tobacco, not oil–and Bush trusted Mbeki to fix Mugabe, a serious error.)
Africa loved Obama, and had high hopes in his ascent, seeing him as something of an adopted son, if not quite a native one. Yet Obama has never really taken an interest in Africa’s priorities.
While China has been spreading investment, trade, and influence far and wide across the continent, Obama has pulled America back on the world stage, Africa included.
His one major intervention was the war in Libya, where his failure to follow up with a serious rebuilding effort allowed the spread of terror across North Africa and the Sahel, including Boko Haram.
Obama has shown little love for the great causes of democracy and human rights, in Africa as elsewhere. Almost exactly a year ago, Obama hosted some of Africa’s worst dictators at the White House during his U.S.-Africa Summit. They posed proudly for pictures with Obama, no doubt projecting those images back home as proof that their regimes had America’s stamp of approval.
In Egypt, prior to the Arab Spring, Obama cut funds for promoting democracy; later, he embraced the Muslim Brotherhood rather than Egypt’s struggling liberal democrats.
The only cause that Obama has taken–somewhat–on the road in Africa is gay rights, which has triggered outrage in Kenya and elsewhere, as it conflicts sharply with Africa’s conservative social mores.
The U.S. media are focusing on Obama’s first trip “home” as president, which will no doubt produce some nostalgic and even touching moments. The story of the Obama family is tinged with both sadness and greatness.
Yet as far as Africa is concerned, Obama has “lost” it to the Chinese, missing a unique opportunity. The next president will do better–by default.