Once ebullient, a now-disappointed Africa awaits Obama’s visit

06/25/2013 3:43 PM

06/29/2013 4:11 PM

Barack Obama shares his family roots and the color of his skin with much of the African continent. The result: Africans had enormous expectations when Obama was first elected four and a half years ago.

Yet he’s never expressed much of an interest in African policy. He’s barely set foot there since he became the first black president of the United States. On the continent, the euphoria over his triumph quickly turned to disappointment as Obama failed to pay high-profile attention to their part of the globe.

Against that unique personal backdrop, Obama will travel to Africa on Wednesday to start a three-country, seven-day trip with his wife and daughters along, a tour that will try to build on that complicated relationship.

Massive and enthusiastic crowds very likely will greet him at planned stops in Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania. He’ll visit some of the iconic touchstones of the continent’s racial history, including the spot in Senegal where slaves were shipped off to North America and the island prison in South Africa where Nelson Mandela was held for 18 years.

He also will meet with government leaders in each nation and deliver a major speech to the continent while in South Africa. Throughout, he’ll stress investment, trade, energy and democracy. He isn’t expected to unveil any significant new programs.

For the man whose identity itself carried such a strong message to Africa, though, the trip also is designed to start making up for the neglect of sub-Saharan African in his first term.

“This is a deeply substantive trip and one that has been highly anticipated on the continent,” said Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser to the president. “And frankly, there’s been great disappointment that the president hasn’t traveled to Africa until this point, other than a brief stop in Ghana.”

Some Africa experts say Obama’s inaction can be excused because he confronted a series of domestic and international crises elsewhere, including the worst recession since the Great Depression and ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Others say the president stayed clear of the continent to avoid assisting a part of the world where members of his father’s family still reside or calling more attention to the false charge that he was born in Kenya and thus not eligible to be president.

Regardless of the reason, after more than four years of Obama in the White House, Africans still think of Bill Clinton as the president who forged a long-lasting relationship with the continent and George W. Bush as the president who helped them tackle problems such as HIV/AIDS and malaria with increased U.S. aid. Coincidentally, Bush will be in Tanzania at the same time as Obama.

Mwangi Kimenyi, the director of the Africa Growth Initiative at the left-leaning Brookings Institution, said Africans didn’t think that Obama’s trip – only his second to sub-Saharan Africa as president – would be enough to make up for the detachment in his first term.

“It’s really about guilt more than anything else,” he said. “They see this (trip) as fairly cosmetic.”

Obama’s ties to the continent do run deep on his father’s side.

His grandfather was a cook for the British, who ruled Kenya until its independence in 1963, and he was briefly imprisoned during the nation’s struggle for freedom. Obama’s father grew up herding goats in a tiny Kenyan village before becoming a Harvard-educated economist.

After his father married a white woman from Kansas, Barack Obama was born in Honolulu. His parents divorced when he was young and his father moved back to Kenya, where he died in a car accident in 1982. Obama himself was raised in Hawaii and Indonesia, largely by his mother and her family.

.Obama traveled to Kenya in 1998 to meet his paternal family while researching his African heritage for his book “Dreams from My Father.” He later traveled to five African nations as a senator from Illinois and met Mandela, the former South African president and anti-apartheid leader. Obama isn’t scheduled to see the 94-year-old Mandela, whose health is failing, on this trip.

None of that history translated into policy when Obama arrived at the White House.

“Nothing in his record would give one reason to believe he would be engaged,” said J. Peter Pham, an Africa specialist at the Atlantic Council, a Washington research center. “The expectations were based on what he looked like and who his father was.”