President Obama and the first family on Wednesday will embark on his first extended trip to Africa, the ancestral homeland of his father and a continent that erupted in street parades of adulation and joy over his election in 2008.
The trip seems only natural for the first black president, but coming as it is in the fifth year of Obama’s presidency, it’s also anti-climactic for many disappointed Africans who expected far more attention far sooner from this president.
When it comes to making Africa a priority, Obama has taken a backseat to Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush.
In fact, Obama will be forced to share the African stage over the next week with Bush, who is traveling to the region on his own humanitarian mission to combat cervical cancer there, and whose presence will inevitably highlight his legacy of combating AIDS in the region.
Before him, Clinton garnered an enormous following across the continent by becoming the first American president to make more than one trip to Africa and for signing a bill that eliminated trade restrictions on more than 6,000 exports to America from 35 countries.
“African leaders, the African public have been wondering where the U.S. president has been,” Ben Leo, global policy director for the anti-poverty group ONE, told Reuters in the days leading up to the trip. “This trip has been designed to address some of those perceptions, those concerns, hopefully reset the engagement trajectory over the next couple of years.”
White House aides say the president will tout democratic developments in Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania and promote free trade and U.S. business investment.
Even on these issues, by Obama’s own admission, the U.S. is playing catchup as Chinese and other countries’ investors have swooped in over the last few years to cultivate some of the newly stabilized and still-underdeveloped areas of the continent.
“There are other countries getting in the game in Africa – China, Brazil, Turkey,” Ben Rhodes, deputy White House national security adviser, told reporters before the trip. “And if the U.S. is not leading in Africa, we’re going to fall behind in a very important region of the world.”
While the U.S. has been distracted by two wars in the Middle East and steadying the U.S. economy after a free fall, China’s trade with Africa has surged from about $10 billion in 2000 to $166 billion in 2011, and $200 billion last year, according to official figures from Beijing.
The White House has laid out a frenetic African itinerary for Obama and the first family that will take them to Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania, all countries with functioning democracies that the president can showcase as fertile ground for economic growth and investment.
The president will be traveling with an entourage that includes his trade representative and the heads of the U.S. Export Import Bank and the Overseas Private Investment Corp.
The itinerary has one notable omission: Kenya, the birthplace of Obama’s father. Kenya’s president is facing charges of crimes against humanity in the International Criminal Court – not the kind of upbeat photo-op the president wants from the trip.
The seven-day jaunt’s enormous price tag, estimated at somewhere between $60 and $100 million, has already fueled a run of negative stories. And, while overseas, Obama will still be forced to contend with the continued fallout over the exposure of classified information by former U.S. spying agency contractor Edward Snowden, who has led U.S. authorities on a “catch-me-if-you-can” global chase.
But the trip won’t be without its poignant and historic moments. Obama likely will be in the sub-Sahara while South Africa’s revered former leader Nelson Mandela, who is approaching 95, is in critical condition.
The White House has said Obama will respect the wishes of the Mandela family in determining an appropriate way to pay tribute to the anti-apartheid leader, one of Obama’s personal heroes.
While there, Obama also will visit Goree Island in Senegal, where Africans were sent into slavery, and Robben Island in South Africa, where Mandela spent 18 of the 27 years he served behind bars before the fall of apartheid.