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Trade, not heritage, dominates Obama Africa trip

Four years after his first presidential visit to sub-Saharan Africa, US President Barack Obama is back in the continent of his father. But his three-stop Africa trip is as much about countries he is skipping as those he is visiting.


In the western Kenyan village of Kogelo, birthplace of US President Barack Obama’s father, Obamamania may have dipped since the 2008 presidential campaign fever pitch, but the rapidly-developing village is still running a temperature. Barbershops, grocery stores, dusty lanes and little boys still bear the US president’s name – a nomenclature mania that persists across Kenya.

Over the past five years, Kenyans have watched as the first African-American president has largely overlooked sub-Saharan Africa, making a brief 20-hour visit to Ghana in 2009, when he famously proclaimed, “I have the blood of Africa within me”.

But then Obama - who is better known for his cool, rational outlook than warm-blooded style - left Africa and did not visit the continent for the next four years.

This time, Kenyans are feeling the snub more acutely than in 2009.

On the final leg of his three-nation Africa tour, Obama will land in the Tanzanian capital of Dar es Salaam, just over an hour’s flight from the Kenyan capital.

But the “native son” – as Kenyans call Obama – will not set foot in his father’s homeland, a country that has long been the darling of the West and is often called East Africa’s “anchor state”.

In many ways, Obama’s latest Africa tour is defined as much by the countries he is skipping as those he is visiting, as a Washington Post editorial noted Wednesday.

First stop: Senegal

On the first stop of his weeklong Africa trip, Obama and his family arrive in the West African nation of Senegal, where he will visit Goree Island, a former slave processing spot from where Africans were sent into slavery in the New World.

A little over a year ago, Senegal hovered on the brink of a political crisis, when the aging incumbent Abdoulaye Wade decided to run for the 2012 presidential election in an apparent violation of the country’s constitution. A crisis was averted by the victory of Macky Sall and smooth post-electoral transition in a region where military coups, violence and political instability is not uncommon.

Responding to a question about the Obama administration’s choice of countries, US deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes noted that, “we purposefully designed the itineraries to be able to reach West Africa, South Africa and East Africa, and in West Africa, to visit Senegal, a French-speaking, Muslim-majority democracy that is an important partner of the United States and also provides a platform for the president to speak to the broader region.”

Military cooperation and anti-terror operations in West Africa

The West African region has been in upheaval over the past few years, following a 2012 military coup in Mali, which sparked an Islamist takeover of Northern Mali and a subsequent French-led military intervention earlier this year to regain the territory from jihadist control.

Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, has also been battling a brutal Islamist insurgency by the Boko Haram group, which has conducted multiple deadly attacks in northeastern Nigeria.

As the remote Sahel region becomes the focus of the anti-terror fight, Washington has increased its military presence in Africa, with US military trainers spread out across the continent and a new agreement to build a drone base in Niger, run by the Pentagon’s expanding Africa Command.

Senegal’s record as a relatively developed, stable Muslim-majority nation also ties into the theme of Obama’s 2013 Africa trip, which is focused on promoting US trade and investment in a continent that is finally experiencing rapid economic growth, a potential that has already been tapped by China, which has a $200 billion annual trade with the continent – twice that of the United States.

Mandela’s health overshadows South Africa leg

Washington’s choice of South Africa, the continent’s economic powerhouse with a post-apartheid history of a stable democracy, is an obvious one.

But Obama’s visit threatens to be overshadowed by anti-apartheid hero Nelson Mandela’s failing health.

“The White House has had to field a lot of questions over the past few days as to whether a meeting might take place between former South African President Nelson Mandela and US President Barack Obama,” said FRANCE 24’s Washington correspondent Philip Crowther. “The White House has maintained that all of this is up to Nelson Mandela’s family."

In its statements to the press, the White House has said it is monitoring Mandela's health, but has not provided details of whether his condition would affect Obama’s planned two-day visit to the country, which includes a visit to the former president’s jail cell on Robben Island.

Trade in Tanzania – and a snub to Kenya

Trade and economic ties are likely to dominate the last stop on Obama’s Africa trip, when he lands in Tanzania.

At least that has been the official White House line over the past few months.

US interest in the East African nation’s untapped natural gas reserves is likely to dominate the discussions in a region that has seen an increase in Chinese-funded infrastructural projects.

“South Africa is the major US trading partner on the continent and democracy in Senegal is something to be celebrated. The interest in Tanzania is a little different – it seems to be here the rivalry with China [is evident] and [the White House is] trying to establish better trade relations. But it’s a balanced trip: West Africa, South Africa and East Africa,” noted Douglas Yates, an Africa expert at the American University in Paris.

But across Lake Victoria, along the Yala River - which flows into Africa’s largest lake - lies the village of Kogelo and residents here know that Obama’s Tanzania visit is a diplomatic slap to his father’s homeland.

In the March presidential election, Kenyans elected Uhuru Kenyatta, the millionaire son of founding father Jomo Kenyatta who faces crimes against humanity charges at the ICC (International Criminal Court).

Speaking at a press briefing earlier this week, US deputy national security advisor Rhodes noted that the US, “as a country have a commitment to accountability and justice as a baseline principle. And given the fact that Kenya is in the aftermath of their election and the new government has come into place and is going to be reviewing these issues with the ICC and the international community, it just wasn’t the best time for the president to travel to Kenya at this point.”

Nearly five years after the country declared a national holiday following Obama’s 2008 election victory, Kenyans are trying to be stoic about the snub. But at times, it obviously smarts.

“Just come and visit your grandma, Obama!” chided the headline of a respected blog posted on Capital FM’s website.“I know that Kenyans have moved on from the disappointing news,” wrote Cyrus Kamau in his blog, before adding, “I also know that his feet will not set foot in the great city by the lake wherein his roots lie.”

The Kenyan commentator went on to note that Obama’s decision to skip Kenya would be easier to understand if he did not have relatives in the East African nation. “…the fact that his paternal Grandma lives in Kenya, makes it difficult to understand how he can make a stop in the neighborhood and completely ignore her. That is completely un-African.”

That may be the case, but as many critics and defenders of the USA might add, it’s also completely American.

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