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Obama and the Politics of Africa Visit

Jideofor Adibe

The planned visits to Egypt and Ghana by President Obama on June 4, 2009 and July 10-11, 2009 respectively, have been generating some excitement, angst and recriminations. For the favoured countries, especially Ghana, there has been a certain chest thumping, a belief that the choice is a reward for good governance and/or an enhanced strategic importance of the country to the USA. Among the countries not favoured, in particular Nigeria, which prides itself as the giant of Africa, there is palpable anger among the citizens. The general consensus seems to be that the country was snubbed as a way of sending a powerful message to the government of the day that it has not lived up to expectations. Nigerians appear particularly slighted that it was ‘little’ Ghana that was chosen over their country, an apparent indication of how much their country has been diminished by a visionless leadership.
I beg to disagree with the above analyses.
One, a country’s strategic importance to the US does not necessarily determine the order in which an American president arranges his overseas trips. For instance while no one doubts that Britain enjoys a special relationship with the USA, Britain is not always the first country in Europe to be visited by an American President. When George W Bush made his first European visit in June 2001, he visited Spain, Belgium, Sweden, Poland and Slovenia. None of Europe’s leading powers – Britain, Germany and France- was visited during that period or took offence that they were not visited. This means that it is rather very simplistic to tie a visit, or non-visit by an American president to a country’s strategic importance in the world.  The tradition has been that Canada, America’s northern neighbour, gets the first visit, but even this tradition was broken in 2001 when George W Bush chose Mexico as his first overseas trip.

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Two, the good governance argument, (i.e. that a visit by an American President is used as a tacit reward for good governance and democracy) is overstated. An American President could decide to snub a foreign leader to register America’s displeasure over the foreign leader’s specific action. But the same leader could also choose to visit the country to cultivate personal friendship and persuade the recalcitrant leader to drop his/her unwanted line of action. This was perhaps what happened in 1978 when Jimmy Carter visited Nigeria as the first sitting American President to visit sub-Saharan Africa. President Carter’s visit to Obasanjo could have been aimed at persuading Obasanjo to soften his harsh rhetoric and radical policy on apartheid South Africa, which conflicted with America’s policy of covert engagement (or secret collaboration as it was accused by Obasanjo). Carter’s visit could also have been to tacitly ensure that the Obasanjo-led military junta did not renege on its promise of handing over power to civilians in 1979.

In fact if the democracy and good governance argument were to be the yard sticks for prioritising which countries an American President would visit in Africa, then South Africa (which is also the home of the iconic Nelson Mandela), and Botswana would be in pole positions to receive Obama. Similarly it is doubtful that Egypt could have made the list – if we were to believe the democracy and good governance argument.
Three, just as it is sometimes difficult to fathom out the exact reasons why a particular country is visited and another not visited by an American President, it is also equally difficult to figure out the politics that informs the invitation of some African Heads of State to the White House. For instance, the first African Head of State to visit Obama was President Jakaya Kikwete of Tanzania, not the president of a major African power. It was reported that Obama and the Tanzanian president, "debated some of the African continent's biggest challenges, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Darfur, Somalia and the current political situation in Kenya." Is the Tanzanian President the most strategic person to discuss such issues with an American President?


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