Saul Loeb / AFP / Getty Images

What exactly is Obama’s Africa legacy?

Washington’s engagement with the continent continues to prioritize security over human rights and economic partnership

July 28, 2015 2:00AM ET

President Barack Obama today concludes his triumphant fourth trip to Africa, which featured a return to Kenya and a controversial stopover in Ethiopia, the seat of the African Union. During the visit, he attended an entrepreneurial summit in Nairobi and held discussions with Kenyan, Ethiopian and other regional leaders on matters ranging from U.S.-Africa trade and investment and regional security to human rights.

Obama is the first sitting U.S. president to visit the two countries. And as the first African-American president, he is still a subject of pride to Africans and their vast diaspora. Yet the question must be asked: What exactly is Obama’s Africa legacy? What are the symbolism and substance of what is likely his final trip to Africa as president? Did the U.S. Africa policy evolve or regress during his administration? Although I would like to join those celebrating the homecoming of a local son, I am filled with melancholy and mixed emotions. Obama’s presidency has fallen short of our admittedly high expectations.

It is inevitable to compare Obama’s Africa legacy with his immediate predecessors’. President Bill Clinton oversaw the “Blackhawk Down” debacle in Somalia, a botched military intervention in which Somali militias shot down two U.S. helicopters; apartheid’s end in South Africa; and the Rwandan genocide and its effects on the Democratic Republic of Congo. East Africans remember the Clinton administration’s christening Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, Eritrea’s Isaias Afworki and Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi as a “new generation of African renaissance leaders” before they joined the ranks of Africa’s Big Men — tyrannical, predatory and unaccountable. Clinton helped pass the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), which offers incentives for African countries to build free markets and open their economies, in his final year as president. AGOA provides tariff-free access to the U.S. market for 40 African countries and has created thousands of local jobs since 2000, significantly boosting U.S.-Africa economic relations.

President George W. Bush’s “war on terrorism” set in motion a bloated security regime across the region. But the reauthorization of AGOA, the Millennium Challenge Corp., which aims to eradicate poverty, and the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, a robust U.S. government initiative designed to address the HIV/AIDS epidemic and help save the lives of those suffering from other diseases in Africa, cemented his positive Africa legacy.

This is why Bush was given a warm welcome on his final trip to Africa as president. “George Bush is a hero in Africa,” Sudanese philanthropist Mo Ibrahim said in 2012. “In his last trip to Africa, I think he was absolutely struck by the warmth of people and how he was treated as a hero when things were really going wrong in Iraq … I think it was probably the happiest of his trips abroad.”

Obama’s two main pet projects, Power Africa, a partnership with African governments that aims to double access to power in sub-Saharan Africa, and the Young African Leaders Initiative (which aims to strengthen U.S.-Africa partnerships by investing in “the next generation of entrepreneurs, educators, activists and innovators”) don’t measure up to his predecessors’ bold initiatives. The U.S. responded vigorously to the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, but during Obama’s tenure, many African states — notably South Sudan, Libya and the Central African Republic — have become failed states. A part of Somalia, where the U.S. funds a multinational peacekeeping force, is still under the grip of Al-Qaeda-affiliated militants.

Obama’s historic visit to the seat of the African Union, in which he shockingly referred to Ethiopia as a democracy, might be remembered most for choosing ‘to wine and dine with dictators.’

Africa has registered tremendous growth in the last two decades. However, Washington’s engagement with the continent continues to prioritize security over investment and economic partnership. The U.S. is now being forced to play catch-up with China, which invests billions of dollars on building Africa’s infrastructure and maintains robust trade and investment relations with many African states. (China overtook the U.S. as the biggest trade partner with Africa in 2009.)

During a press conference with Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn in Addis Ababa on Monday, Obama stressed the Ethiopian military’s ruthless “efficiency” in fighting Al-Shabab in Somalia and Addis Ababa’s contribution to United Nations peacekeeping efforts. The emphasis on security cooperation speaks to the fact that, from the fight against Nigeria’s Boko Haram to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Somalia’s Al-Shabab, under Obama, the U.S. has increased its military footprint in Africa.

U.S. strategic priorities in sub-Saharan Africa have largely knocked democracy promotion and human rights off the radar. Obama’s trip to Addis Ababa comes in the aftermath of a lackluster May election, in which the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) “won” all 547 seats in the national parliament, improving on 2010’s 99.6 percent rate. This is why Ethiopian human rights and free press advocates fear Obama’s visit will be construed as an endorsement of the EPRDF’s quarter-century hold on power.

The EPRDF has devastated free press and civil society through a slew of draconian laws that equate dissent with treason. The political space has significantly narrowed. Opposition politics is criminalized. Ethiopia’s civil society institutions are brittle. The country’s storied economic progress, including double-digit GDP growth over the last five years, has benefited only those who are politically connected. Resentment is rife over EPRDF hard-liners’ domination of the top brass of the military, the security forces and the commanding heights of the economy.

Obama’s trip to Africa has been dismissed as a legacy hunt, but he could still redeem his record. Beyond private discussions, Obama needs to openly and publicly press African leaders to relax oppressing their people. In Kenya, Obama urged his hosts “to end corruption, treat women as equal citizens, overcome tribal and ethnic rifts.” In his first public comment in Ethiopia, Obama appeared restrained by diplomatic niceties and the quid pro quo necessitated by the “war on terrorism” and the two countries’ strategic relations.

Africa’s despotic leaders may not listen, but Obama could still inspire a young generation of Africans, who are hungry and yearning for change, to fight for their future. Unfortunately, his otherwise historic visit to the seat of the African Union, in which he shockingly referred to Ethiopia as a democracy, might be remembered most for, as opposition leader Merara Gudina put it for Reuters, choosing “to wine and dine with dictators” who steal elections behind the cover of economic development.

Hassen Hussein is an assistant professor at St. Mary's University of Minnesota.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

Related News

Africa, Ethiopia, Kenya
Human Rights
Barack Obama

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter