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.
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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.”
In Obama’s first term, he spent less than 24 hours in sub-Saharan Africa, stopping in Ghana on his way back from Europe in July 2009. He visited the dungeons of Cape Coast Castle, where many Africans were loaded onto slave ships, and spoke to the Ghanaian Parliament in a way no other president had. In a controversial speech, he challenged Africans to look to themselves to shape their destiny.
“We must start from the simple premise that Africa’s future is up to Africans,” Obama said.
Charlotte Florance, a research associate for economic freedom in Africa and the Middle East at the right-leaning Heritage Foundation, said the president’s trip to Ghana was supposed to set a tone for his administration’s policies in Africa, but that he’d never followed through. His secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, appeared to make Africa a priority, visiting nearly half of its 54 nations, though experts say her activity didn’t make up for his inactivity.
“There was an idea he was going to engage in the continent,” Florance said. “But the focus and attention just wasn’t there.”
Africa, long known for corruption and wars, is now home to some of the fast-growing economies in the world, an exploding youth population and emerging democracies.
Obama laid out a vision for Africa while he was in Ghana that included democracy, opportunities for trade, access to public health care and the peaceful resolution of conflicts. He reiterated those same four pillars in the U.S. Strategy Toward Sub-Saharan Africa released last year, a document that included laudable but modest goals.
Jennifer Cooke, the director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic International Studies, said Obama might have been trying to lower expectations since he was unable to provide significant aid to Africa during the United States’ economic downturn. But, she, said his African strategy came much too late.
As America stepped back, other countries – including China, Brazil and Turkey – stepped in and made major investments in Africa. China overtook the U.S. as Africa’s largest trading partner. It bought 20 percent of Standard Bank of South Africa, and its president and vice president have visited more than 30 African countries in recent years.
The White House picked a trio of nations known for democratic ideals for Obama’s visit this week: the economic powerhouse of South Africa, the western country of Senegal – a former French territory – and Tanzania, the home of many U.S. programs and a frequent stop for American presidents. Obama is skipping Kenya, where a relatively peaceful election this year was marred by criminal charges against the winner, though he’s mentioned a desire to visit there before his term ends.
Obama only occasionally mentions his African heritage when speaking – and usually only when he’s talking about Africa.
“I have the blood of Africa within me,” he said in 2009. “My family’s . . . own story encompasses both the tragedies and triumphs of the larger African story.”
What he doesn’t say is what Africans most want to hear: whether he’ll engage the continent now as president.