As U.S. President Barack Obama’s presidency winds down, we at Africa Agenda feel it is important to look back at what he and his administration did – or didn’t do – for the African continent over the past 8 years or so.
Obama himself is half African; born to a Kenyan father and an American mother. It stands to reason that, from a personal standpoint, he would be invested in the welfare of the continent. Indeed, Obama did have aspirations for the continent from early on.
While campaigning for his first term, he talked about how, if elected, he would help to end the genocide that was occurring in Darfur, help Africans reach prosperity, and increase foreign aid.
Of course, as every follower of U.S. politics knows, it is easier for a politician to make a promise than it is for them to keep it. Politics can be a delicate and complicated business, and the person making the promises is not the only one responsible for its implementation. Still, Obama did put a focus on Africa during his campaign, and also during his presidency. It is important for us to look back at what he has done. We will do this by examining three areas of action over the next few weeks.
First, the official visits made by members of the Obama administration to Africa. Second, official U.S. foreign policy towards Africa, and third what social and aid programs were established or expanded in Africa by the Obama administration.
Before examining Obama’s trips to the continent, we need to take a look back at presidents before him. For a surprisingly long time in U.S. history, presidents did not visit other countries on official business. Instead, they sent representatives to these other nations on their behalf. Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th President of the United States, was the first sitting president to make an official visit to a foreign country. He did so in 1906 when he visited Panama in order to observe construction on the Panama Canal.
After Roosevelt, presidents generally made sure to make at least a few official visits while in office. As a result of the first World War, Woodrow Wilson was the first to travel specifically to meet with foreign leaders, address foreign governments, and take part in international conferences. A sitting U.S. president would not visit Africa until wartime, once again, making international travel a necessary part of the job.
In 1943, Franklin D. Roosevelt became the first sitting president to visit the African continent, although his visit was unofficial and, at the time, secret. He traveled to Morocco to meet with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and discuss plans for the ongoing war. He also made quick stops in Gambia, Liberia, and what is now Senegal while on his way to and from Morocco. Roosevelt also made official visits to Egypt and Tunisia later that year.
Richard Nixon also made an official trip to Egypt during his presidency.
The first President to make an official visit to Sub-Saharan Africa was Jimmy Carter when he visited Nigeria and Liberia in 1978. Ronald Reagan did not visit the continent, and George H.W. Bush made one visit to Somalia in early 1993. Presidents after the elder Bush seem to have realized that Africa matters, as Bill Clinton and George W. Bush each made numerous visits during their presidencies.
President Obama himself made numerous official visits to foreign countries around the world during his time in office. Five of these trips were made to Africa, during which he visited seven African countries. Trips were made in 2009 to Egypt and Ghana; in 2013 to Senegal, South Africa, and Tanzania; and in 2015 to Kenya and Ethiopia.
No trips to Africa were made in 2010, 2011, 2012, 2014, or 2016.
In total, only a handful of U.S. presidents have visited Africa. At this point in time, only 18 of Africa’s 54 countries have been visited by a U.S. president. Barack Obama was the first sitting president to make visits to Ethiopia and Kenya. The numbers are low and discouraging, but it is important to keep historical context in mind. Africa has only come to the attention of American presidents in the last 25 years.
A hundred years ago, presidents didn’t even leave the country. Clinton, Bush, and Obama have largely been the ones to visit these 18 countries, and have been the ones to bring African issues into U.S. politics. It is likely that future presidents will continue this trend and add more countries to those that have been visited.
Of course, the president isn’t the only member of his administration that makes official visits to other nations.
As Secretary of State, one of Hillary Clinton’s duties was to travel abroad on behalf of the president. During her tenure, she visited 22 African countries. John Kerry replaced Clinton as Secretary of State in 2013 and has made visits to 12 African countries. In addition, a number of African presidents and prime ministers have visited the U.S. over the years. Some visits were on their own, while others were for events such as the United States-African Leaders Summit in 2014 or the Nuclear Security Summit in 2010.
Trips made by an official to a foreign nation can occur for a number of reasons. They can occur as part of negotiations, to meet with US military troops overseas, to view progress on a project or program, to take part in a conference, to give a speech, or simply as a gesture of goodwill. They are important for building international relationships and for improving the standing of both countries involved.
Obama’s visits to Africa were not only diplomatic but also designed to encourage the people of the host country as well. He also became the first sitting president to address the African Union, showing that the United States is finally taking Africa, and its potential, seriously.
Obama’s visits to Africa might have been few in number, but they were always important. He recognized that, while aid to the continent is still important, Africa is an emerging player on the world stage and that diplomatic relations with the continent should be treated with dignity. Whoever follows Obama as the president needs to understand this, so that relationships between the U.S. and Africa can continue to grow.