TRALAC - Trade Law Centre

Has Obama been good to Africa?

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Source: Daily Nation (Kenya)

US President Barack Obama's record on Africa during his first year in the White House is drawing mixed reviews from analysts in Washington and Nairobi.

There is general agreement in Washington that Kenyans and other Africans held exaggerated hopes for a US president of African descent that could not possibly be fulfilled.

In Nairobi, the government downplayed Mr Obama's failure to visit Kenya during his tour of Africa, instead saying that the country had gained a lot during the US president's first year in office.

Foreign Affairs minister Moses Wetang'ula praised Mr Obama for "exemplary performance" in his first year in office. The minister was speaking in Naivasha on the sidelines of a parliamentary committee meeting on constitution review.

He said the 2009 Nobel Prize win for the US president and the progress made so far in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were the major achievements of President Obama's first year.

"He has so far carried himself properly when dealing with Kenya," he said. Mr Wetang'ula said America

Mr Wetang'ula said America will remain Kenya's ally when it came to trade and the fight against piracy in the risk-prone Indian Ocean Coast.

The Africa Growth Opportunity Act (Agoa) conference held in Nairobi last year, is also a hallmark of President Obama's commitment to his ancestral land, the minister said.

However, he warned the US against venturing on the "sovereign no-go zones" as was the case with the recent visa bans on corrupt government officials.

A top Foreign Affairs ministry official speaking separately explained that the decision by president Obama - whose father was Kenyan - not to visit the country last year should not be misconstrued to imply that he had snubbed Kenya.

"President Obama's decision not to come to Kenya on his first tour of Africa was very strategic. If he did come, he would have played along the stereotype prevailing then that Kenya was going to be given special preference by the US," said Prof Egara Kabaji, the Director of Communications at the ministry.

Visit Egypt

The US president chose to visit Egypt and Ghana, leaving out Kenya during his tour of Africa last year.

Prof Kabaji noted that Mr Obama's first year in office had seen the number of tourists visiting the country especially from the US rise sharply, with Kogelo village in Siaya district - the birthplace of Obama Snr - becoming a major tourist attraction.

"Today I can proudly state that it is Kogelo that is driving the Western tourism circuit, and this just within a year of his administration. Kenya is also suddenly attracting thousands of scholars from all over the world, thanks to the fact that the leader of the most powerful nation in the world traces his roots here," he stated.

Prof Kabaji also denied that the Obama administration was exerting undue pressure on the government especially in the area of governance.

"US is not unfairly hard on Kenya. Given the democratic space prevailing in Kenya in relation to other African countries, it is only reasonable that the Obama administration pushes us even harder so that we expand our democratic space further," he said.

"Expectations in Africa that he would treat Africa differently from his predecessor were based at least partly on race," says John Campbell, a former US ambassador to Nigeria and now an Africa expert at the non-governmental Council on Foreign Relations. "The president himself and the American political system are actually considerably more complicated than that."

In the specific case of Kenya, observes expert Joel Barkan, President Obama's lineage served to reinforce the view in both Washington and Nairobi that the two countries share a "special relationship" dating to the time of independence. "That resulted in higher expectations on the part of Kenyans and also deeper disappointments with how the United States evaluates Kenya."

Economic reforms

Both Mr Campbell and Mr Barkan give Obama's first-year Africa policy a positive rating. Each analyst points in particular to the president's July speech in Ghana in which he promised that his administration would be most responsive to those African countries that moved further and faster in achieving political and economic reforms.

President Obama did not intend to insult Kenya by travelling to Ghana rather than his father's homeland on his first African safari as president, Mr Barkan says.

The president was simply stating a fact when he referred in his speech to corruption in Kenya as an obstacle to development.