President Barack Obama’s arrival this week in Kenya will be an emotional and historic moment.
His visit to the land of his father’s birth will be a celebration of the growing ties between African nations and the United States. Meanwhile, Americans and Africans are today being drawn together as never before by our common fight against poverty and conflict, by the threat of terrorism, and most of all by exciting new economic possibilities.
But instead of a victory lap for a new age of closer cooperation, Obama’s trip will likely be a reminder of so much unfulfilled promise.
President Obama came to office promising to build on his predecessors’ efforts and take U.S.-Africa relations to the next level. His advisers pledged to boost American efforts to prevent humanitarian crises, combat security threats, and promote even greater trade and investment.
Even allowing for unrealistic expectations, Obama’s first term was a flop. Initiatives on health and clean energy were quickly abandoned. A food security effort limped along. White House staff pointed to African youth engagement as a defining first-term accomplishment. (This is a fine program, but one more appropriate for FLOTUS than POTUS.) And, in what was taken as a direct insult by leaders across Africa, the President’s sole visit to the continent was a single drop-in to Ghana for a grand total of less than 24 hours. In stark contrast, China, India, and even Europe, were all ramping up. Africans openly wondered if America was abandoning them.
Fortunately, Obama’s second term has been much better. The President made a multi-stop visit to Senegal, Tanzania, and South Africa and then hosted the first ever U.S.-Africa leaders summit. This week’s final visit — with stops in Nairobi and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia — is intended as the capstone for his Africa policy recovery. But what will be Obama’s lasting legacy?
The spread of technology, transnational threats, and markets have each made what happens in Africa of rising relevance to Americans. In each of these trends, the President will have a few modest accomplishments — alongside major missed opportunities.
The President can rightfully claim leadership on using his power to respond to humanitarian crises. He established an Atrocities Prevention Board and reacted forcefully to brewing problems in the Central African Republic and Burundi. Following public outcries, he deployed special forces to hunt for the Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony (remember #kony2012?) and to search for kidnapped Nigerian girls . Sadly, Kony is still at large, and nearly all of the Chibok girls remain missing, making the United States appear weak and White House decision-making overly influenced by short-term social media trends.
The Ebola outbreak last year was another gaffe. It took months for the White House to fully react, and when they eventually sent 3,000 troops to build special clinics, U.S. teams arrived after the virus had largely subsided.
Counterterrorism is also mixed. The U.S. expanded forward drone bases and increased our military activities. However, security cooperation is narrowly focused on technical and kinetic operations. Meanwhile, American capabilities to help meet the long-term challenges of violent extremism in places like Mali, Somalia, Congo, and Nigeria remain woefully reliant on blunt instruments and outdated ideas.
Obama’s African economic record is better, but again has the whiff of too little too late. The continent’s economies have been growing at more than 5% per year while Obama has been in office. And while the administration talked a good game about trade and investment, it failed to sign even a single new free trade agreement or bilateral investment treaty with any African country. Meanwhile, Canada, Germany, and China now have investment treaties with the majority of Africa’s emerging markets.
The President’s greatest, and probably last, chance for an enduring legacy is Power Africa. Launched in July 2013, this multi-agency effort aims to bring electricity for the first time to 60 million African households and businesses. Electrification was a foundation for America’s own rise from poverty, while energy is among the highest priorities for our African allies. It’s also an area where the United States has expertise and can assist without taxpayer expense.
Power Africa is ambitious and, so far, off to a good start. It has helped to seal deals on new natural gas power plants in Nigeria and Ghana, a huge geothermal plant in Ethiopia, and a wind farm in Kenya that will be the continent’s largest. Yet Power Africa remains hampered by an inexcusably weak defense of the federal agencies tasked to implement it: The Export-Import Bank may not survive, USAID is a beleaguered shell of its former self, and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation is far too small and far too constrained.
Bipartisan congressional support would help ensure that Power Africa survives beyond 2016. But while this is well within reach, the White House has made little effort to secure legislation.
President Obama’s Africa trip this week will be billed as a triumph of American leadership and partnership for the 21st century. The President will point to the continent’s new markets, our growing security cooperation, and the thickening cultural bonds between America and our friends across Africa. Hanging over the lofty rhetoric, however, will be a woeful longing for what