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Assessing the Substance and Symbolism of Obama’s Africa Trip and Outreach

July 2, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
How was President Barack Obama received on his three-country tour of Africa, and did he succeed in what he set out to accomplish? Gwen Ifill gets views from Chris Fomunyoh of the National Democratic Institute, Emira Woods of the Institute for Policy Studies and Mwangi Kimenyi of the Africa Growth Initiative.
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GWEN IFILL: For more on how the president was received, we turn to Mwangi Kimenyi, director of the Africa Growth Initiative at the Brookings Institution, Emira Woods, director of foreign policy in focus at the Institute for Policy Studies, and Chris Fomunyoh, regional director for Central and West Africa at the National Democratic Institute.

Welcome to you all.

Emira Woods, start with you. What is your sense of whether the president accomplished what he set out to do on this trip?

EMIRA WOODS, Institute for Policy Studies: Well, I think clearly this trip was met with mixed reviews. There were many who were exuberant when President Obama first ran for office and won office and then even winning a second term.

But we saw during this trip that the exuberance has really waned in a number of ways. There is a bit of discontent that there’s a continuation of some of the policies from the Bush administration to the Obama administration that may not have served the interest of Africa, nor, quite frankly, the interest of the U.S.

So I think there’s excitement about the rhetoric and real exuberance that Obama did make a visit not just to one country or two countries, but really to three countries in different parts of the continent, but essentially that the policies of the Obama administration, what many had hoped would be reset in the second term, still have a long ways to go to meet the needs and interests of the majority of people on the African continent.

GWEN IFILL: Chris Fomunyoh?

CHRIS FOMUNYOH, Regional Director for Central and West Africa, National Democratic Institute: Well, I take a different view, because I think that this trip has been very successful both on the substance, as well as on the symbolism.

In terms of the substance, I think President Obama really spoke to the things that Africans care about today, issues of good governance, the fight against corruption, the need for more accountability and transparency. He talked about the rule of law. He met with civil society organizations and talked about citizen engagement.

He also talked to Africa’s future, laid a lot of emphasis on the younger generation. This is a continent on which 60 percent of the population is 35 years or younger. And he also talked about his youth initiative, the initiative for young African leaders both in the political, as well in the economic arenas.

So, I think he spoke to the Africa of today, as well as to Africa of the future. And the symbolism was really strong in terms of the visit that he paid to Goree Island in Senegal, Robben Island in South Africa, and together with the former President Bush laying the wreaths at the monument in Tanzania in respect of the people who lost their lives out of the 1998 bombings.

So, I think, overall, it was a successful trip.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Kimenyi, but we — before you left — he even left on this trip, you wrote an article and the headlight was — headline was “Guilt Trip,” previewing this. Do you think, in retrospect, that now that the trip is over, that that’s what this was?

Mwangi Kimenyi, Director, Africa Growth Initiative, Brookings Institution: Well, let me say this.

For a president who has been really absent in Africa, this was a good thing. It was a good start. It was a good signal. But you really have to …

GWEN IFILL: When you say absent, you don’t count the 2009 trip to Ghana?

MWANGI KIMENYI: Well, absent in terms of real change in policy.

If you really study the policies of the Obama administration and say what are — when we talk about U.S.-Africa policy, what are we really talking about, you trace it to Bill Clinton, you trace it back to George W. Bush, and very little of President Obama.

In that sense, I mean, Obama has not been felt in Africa. So, in that sense, I think going to Africa has been important. Now, we need to distinguish between making pronouncements and actual substance of what’s going to happen. Now, we can’t tell. We have to wait and see.

So, my evaluation is that it’s going to — this is a very important trip because he went to Africa and visited three countries. That’s — a bit is better than one country, sub-Saharan African country. So, in a way, I would say it’s been good, but it’s still not what Africans expected.

GWEN IFILL: Well, I want to talk about expectations, because I wonder if the expectations are different because we have a president of African descent.

EMIRA WOODS: Without a doubt, Gwen.

There was such excitement, a son of Africa, his father from Kenya, reaching the highest office on the planet, the White House, such enthusiasm throughout the continent really for Obama and really throughout the African world. But I think that enthusiasm has waned, when you see a continuation of a real focus, almost narrowly, some say, on the so-called war on terror. What you see is still a militarization of U.S. engagement with Africa.

It is not only the continuation of the Africa Command started under George Bush, continued under President Obama, but we see, quite frankly, that — you know, the new announcement of a drone base in Niger. You see steady flow of weapons into the region, the resistance of the administration to be a signatory on a U.N. arms trade treaty, recognizing that arms coming into the continent are what’s fueling much of the conflict.

So you see really a continuation of policies that have done much more harm than good.

GWEN IFILL: Does it make a difference where he chose to go, in going to Senegal and going to South Africa and going to Tanzania, not going to Nigeria or Ethiopia or any more troubled democracies? Is that significant?

CHRIS FOMUNYOH: It’s very significant because I think many Africans see this as an extension of the first trip that he made to Ghana and the pronouncements that were made in that speech in Ghana, which in many ways have been reflected in his policy with regards to democratization and good governance, with regards to trade and investment and helping build the capacity of African security services to better protect people across the continent.

So, the choice really coincides with the rhetoric that this administration has had. And it’s a choice that many Africans viewed favorably, because I think if he had traveled to some of the other countries with unsavory leaders, it would have been very difficult to match that with the policy that he’s put forward.

GWEN IFILL: What is it that the U.S. should be doing here? The pivot is supposed to be from aid to trade.

MWANGI KIMENYI: Yes.

GWEN IFILL: Is that something that we have heard him talking about?

MWANGI KIMENYI: Well, he has talked a lot about that. And that’s what the position that we have been talking about, that what we really need is more commercial engagement.

And that — he has tried to do that. But what we don’t know are the actual substance of it and how much we will see …

GWEN IFILL: What should he — what would you like to see him talking about?

MWANGI KIMENYI: Well, I think what we have been talking about since he came to office was that he was to be a leader that would go with emerging Africa.

Africa has — listen, but he had been looking at Africa as the hopeless continent, you know, the old Africa of aid Africa. But all other countries that are looking at Africa are looking at Africa as a hopeful continent, a rising Africa. Let’s do business.

Fortunately, he seems to have at least started to see this. He’s talking that language, but whether he carries it through, we will have to wait and see.

GWEN IFILL: He’s talking about a $7 billion dollar investment in electricity in sub-Saharan Africa. Is not that the good news you’re talking about, rising Africa?

EMIRA WOODS: It could be.

I think we have to look carefully to see what that actually means. If it means a continuation of coal-fired plants, then there could be a problem, because it is contributing even further to global warming. And as the president so beautifully stated in his speech at Georgetown before he went to Africa that the U.S. has to do more, both within its borders and internationally to curb this crisis of the climate that the planet is facing.

So I think the concern is with coal-fired plants. The concern is also with hydroelectric power. We see, you know, one key ally of the U.S., Ethiopia, receives tremendous amount of assistance from the U.S. Moving steadily towards hydroelectric power could create major problems, essentially damning the Nile, could create problems between Egypt and Ethiopia, you know, and displacing communities.

So the concern is that the power is needed, but in ways that are renewable, in ways that protect the planet for now and for future generations.

GWEN IFILL: The president said in one of his speeches that America has to up its game when it comes to Africa. Do you see the United States doing that, Chris Fomunyoh?

CHRIS FOMUNYOH: Well, I think that’s there’s been — there’s a lot of promise coming out of this trip.

And when we take the — if we take the electricity, the Power Africa initiative, which he just launched, it sets the ground rules such that there will be U.S. investors in the power sector, in the energy sector in Africa, but it would also foster into African trade.

And I think that the involvement of the African Development Bank, which is going to be part of this initiative, would really be very helpful in that regard.

GWEN IFILL: But is China already beating us to the punch on that?

MWANGI KIMENYI: Well, yes.

Again, we really need to look at this in relative terms. When we talk about U.S. doing a lot, what are we talking about? I mean, think about what Japan is doing in terms of geothermal. It’s doing a lot in geothermal production.

So I think we need to interrogate the numbers. We need to know what exactly is the new one. We know that a lot of this investments actually in electricity are already committed like OPIC and Ex-Im Bank. So, I mean, there may be a game here also. We need to interrogate those numbers. And once we interrogate them, we will know whether there’s a real change.

GWEN IFILL: Mwangi Kimenyi, Emira Woods — Emira Woods, pardon me — and Chris Fomunyoh, and thank you both, all three, so much.

EMIRA WOODS: A pleasure. Thank you.