Obama’s Africa Visit and its fallout

Okot Nyormoi
Okot Nyormoi, University academic, outdoor enthusiast.




Any visit to Africa by an American President who also happens to have an African father is bound to generate heat. Obama’s recent visit to Africa that took him through Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania did just that. He tellingly excluded Kenya, the birth place of his father; and neighboring Uganda, a country fighting a proxy war in Somalia for America.

The President’s many detractors at home went on the offensive as they were sure to do. They attacked him for reportedly spending $200 million on the trip they claim has no value beyond cheap politics, when America they say is broke.

The president’s supporters said, nothing beyond racial hatred for a black man who twice trounced them at the polls motivates these critics. Other Americans saw the trip as long overdue. Obama as President has visited Africa only once and other continents multiple times.

In Africa the response to the President’s visit was also divided. One side alleged it was yet another attempt to deepen American exploitation of Africa. While others were enthusiastic; they saw the President as one of their own, a son of Africa.

Many in Africa who dismissed Obama’s visit come from countries which were not on the President’s itinerary. They were angry at being left out. In Kenya people were disappointed that their own son did not honor them with a visit. Obama’s explanation:

This is not the time; you have just elected an inductee of the International Criminal Court as your leader. Give me a break!

In neighboring Uganda, officials were openly dismissive of Obama. They organized their own show, a local East African Summit to precede Obama’s visit by a matter of days. Tellingly they omitted from their guest list Tanzania, a country Obama was due to visit. One can understand Uganda’s anger. Here is a country doing America’s dirty job in Somalia and the man can’t even wink at them!

But Obama was not about to fly into the capital and embrace of a country with Uganda’s well known record of impunity and human rights violations.

Look we are friends, we can do business together, but I cannot shake your dirty hands. I am sorry!

Some African-Americans wanted President Obama to do more for Africa, but how? Reparations! Now that he was coming home to Africa many in Africa expected the world from Obama. What did the President bring?

Obama may be the son of an African, but he is an American, elected by American people, to be their leader. He is duty bound to promote and protect American interests. He cannot give to Africa whatever Africa wants. He is not a strongman in the manner of the African leader who goes around with loads of cash and deploys his country’s resources as though they were his personal property. Africans who expected Obama to come to Africa with bags full of goodies are victims of their own naivety.

During his first trip to Africa Obama remonstrated and pleaded with African leaders to adhere to the rules of good governance and the rule of law. Some people in Africa hit back and said Obama should mind his own business and let Africa solve its own problems. But this was not the voice on the street; it was the well oiled voice on the corridors of power.

What was wrong was not Obama’s criticism of bad governance in Africa. Anyone has a right to air their views. What is wrong was Obama’s readiness to do business and do deals with the same autocratic and corrupt leaders he criticized. In doing so America kept Africa down while promoting and prolonging the tyranny of these rulers.

Some in Africa and elsewhere saw Obama’s visit as America playing catch up to China, a country that has made great inroads on the continent and is now Africa’s number one trading partner. Many in Africa now thought they had a new opening. They can play China off against America and win. But this is an old game played before in the days of Soviet Union when Africa played the East against the West and still lost. Lesson: in the Global World Africa can only win by becoming competitive in the global marketplace through large scale creation of values in Africa. Sorry you can’t play anybody anymore.

Midway through his African odyssey Obama reintroduced his old program: Young African Leadership Initiative (YALI) that he first launched in 2010. The stated goal of the program is to support young Africans in business and entrepreneurship as a way to promote democracy, peace and prosperity in Africa.

If people noticed a similarity between YALI and the earlier American program of the sixties that went by the name African Scholarship Programs of American Universities (ASPAU) they would be right. Allegedly funded by the CIA, the program was supposed to train the new men that would run Africa now that it was independent. In the end the ASPAU made no significant contribution to Africa. Many of the people it trained ended up working in America and contributing to American economy.

If the YALI can succeed where the ASPAU could not, well and good and the President could in a couple of years retire from his demanding job a happier man.