Foreign Policy Blogs

Obama’s 2013 Africa Visit

President Obama Meets With Leaders of Sierra Leone, Senegal, Malawi, and Cape Verde (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Obama Meets With Leaders of Sierra Leone, Senegal, Malawi, and Cape Verde (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

It was a story that many people missed. United States president Barack Obama met with four African leaders in Washington in late March 2013: President Sall from Senegal, President Banda from Malawi, President Koroma from Sierra Leone, and Prime Minister Neves from Cape Verde.

A positive step in the right direction for America in Africa, but it is time for Obama to return the favor and once again set foot on the continent.  It was announced late last year that Obama was planning a long overdue African tour sometime in 2013. As a specialist in U.S.-Africa relations and an American living in Africa, I remember thinking simply “Amen!”

There are dozens of reasons why Obama needs to be “here” but to only mention a few. Firstly, there has been a large amount of key personnel changes when it comes to American foreign policy and its African “leadership.” It would prove beneficial for these individuals to accompany Obama on Air Force One for the ride across of the Atlantic, which in turn would help smoothen the transition.

The individuals I speak of are John Kerry, who replaced Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State. The trip should also include the head of the State Department’s Africa Bureau, which until recently was held by Ambassador Johnnie Carson, who formally retired on 29 March.

Although no formal nomination has been announced, it is likely the new Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs will have the surname “Smith.” Top guesses for Carson’s replacement include either Gayle Smith, a special assistant to Obama and senior director at the National Security Council, or Shannon Smith, the top staff member for Africa at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who worked closely with Secretary Kerry.

General David M. Rodriguez who assumed control of U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) from General Carter F. Ham in Stuttgart last week, should also form part of the delegation. The General is Africom’s third commander, and he previously served as the Commanding General of U.S. Army Forces Command, and deputy commander of U.S. Forces-Afghanistan from November 2009 to July 2011.

Closer to “home,” America has a new ambassador to South Africa, Patrick Gaspard. Born in the DRC and known as a policy man, Gaspard is the former executive director of the Democratic National Committee and formerly the director of the Office of Political Affairs in the White House. He is viewed as being close to Obama, as is former U.S. ambassador to South Africa Donald Gips, who recently vacated his post in Pretoria. Mr Gips served as Assistant to Obama and ran the office of Presidential Personnel, overseeing the selection of 1000s of political appointments for the Obama Administration prior to serving as the ambassador to SA from October 2009 to January 2013.

The second reason why Obama needs to visit Africa is the economic ground America is losing, and not just to China, with its President Xi Jinping recently visiting Tanzania, South Africa and Congo Brazzaville. The fifth BRICS Summit held in Durban highlighted the influence that Brazil, Russia, India and others like Turkey have in Africa. This influence is strengthened through institutions like Beijing’s Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC). Moscow has a similar situation through its Russia-African business forum. Adding to this dangerous mix for America is African countries’ continuously wondering [and worrying] if Washington will extend its African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) when it expires in 2015.

Then there are the vast security concerns from Mali to Somalia to CAR to the DRC that needs to be discussed with key stakeholders. Obama has strengthened Washington’s efforts to stem the spread of violence on the continent. He recently sent 100 troops to construct a new drone base in Niger to target Al Qaeda. Obama also determined that Somalia may now receive U.S. military assistance meaning the Somali government is eligible for “defense articles and defense services” under American arms export and foreign aid laws.

Both the economics and security concerns boils down to good old-fashioned politics, and Obama needs to smoothen relations with individuals like new Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta. U.S. Vice President Joe Biden represented Obama at Kenyatta’s swearing in ceremony in Nairobi this week.

Obama told the four African leaders back in Washington that he intended to continue to engage with them through a range of programs such as America’s agency for development (USAID) and their HIV/AIDS initiatives. “But we’re also looking for new models that can potentially improve our bilateral relations even more,” Obama stipulated.

Washington launched the doing business with Africa campaign late last year through its Department of Commerce. This led to a Doing Business in Africa Forum at the White House in February. The U.S. also has its upcoming AGOA forum that will take place shortly in Ethiopia, It will bring together over 600 government leaders and private sector stakeholders from the U.S. and Africa, as well as promote discussion on the future of AGOA. And then there is the ninth Biennial U.S.-Africa Business Summit run by the Corporate Council of Africa being held in Chicago on 8-11 October 2013.

Although this may sound like enough, it is not. Washington must launch “new models” for U.S.-Africa cooperation like Obama described. One might start with America establishing a strong FOCAC type setup that can help strengthen the current initiatives and therefore the political and economic dimensions of US-Africa relations.

U.S. Senator Chris Coons, the Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on African Affairs has also put forth realistic recommendations in his 7 March 2013 report “Embracing Africa’s Economic Potential” that should be carefully examined.

Overall, much has changed in recent months and one can see how the U.S. is losing ground on a continent that has an enormous amount of potential. I am not just talking about mineral and oil resources, but opportunities in financial services, tourism, telecommunications and retail. All of these sectors are further strengthened due to the continent being full of hard working and ambitious youth. If these opportunities are seized, it will undoubtedly have positive implications for the African people such as job creation and a growing middle class. This serves not only America’s political and economic interests, but ultimately its security interests as well.

President Obama, I look forward to hopefully seeing you in Pretoria soon.



Scott Firsing

Dr. Scott Firsing, an American residing in South Africa, is an expert on US-Africa relations. He is the Director of the North American International School (NAIS) in Pretoria, an Adjunct Research Fellow at Monash University, South Africa, an Executive at the Aerospace Leadership Academy and CEO of LINK Advisory, a consultancy helping American businesses enter Africa. Also a founder of the African NGO Young People in International Affairs, Scott is the former Head of International Studies at Monash, a former employee of the United Nations, Department for Disarmament Affairs, and a former fellow at the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA).