The visits to Kenya and Ethiopia are likely to be the president’s final trips to Africa. What can we say about his legacy on the continent?
Hope is catching
On November 5th 2008, I made my first visit to East Africa. The day after my plane touched down in Uganda was the day that Obama was declared as the 44th President of the United States of America and the very first African-American to assume the highest office.
All over the world, people celebrated the result. Under George W. Bush, the USA had undergone an unprecedented slip from favor in the eyes of the rest of the world. Obama was seen as a tonic for the toxicity of the neo-conservative GOP. For Africans, long ignored and mistreated by American foreign policy, Obama was a historical turning point.
In my new neighborhood, a local bar was renamed Obama’s Club. On the other side of town, I saw a freshly painted sign for The Obama Grocery. Everywhere you went, people seemed proud to see a man of African heritage ascend to the White House. His victory was partly theirs.
Some American friends immediately made plans to celebrate Obama’s inauguration in the Luo homelands of his Kenyan family. When they came back they said it was a beautiful, transcendent experience – they cried with happiness along with complete strangers, for something that had happened halfway across the world.
It was peak Obamamania. Expectations couldn’t have been much higher.
Summary of the visits
Obama made his first state visit to Africa in 2009 when he visited Ghana. While focusing largely on generalities about self-determination, speaking about the economic hope for the continent and praising the history of good governance and democracy in Ghana. He was received incredibly positively and referred to as a ‘brother’ by his hosts.
He also made a largely overlooked 9 hour stop-over to Egypt during the same trip. The media paid more attention to his sight-seeing than to the conciliatory speech he made addressing ‘great tension between the United States and Muslim around the world’. During that speech, he mentioned the fact that it had been possible for him to be elected as US President despite his Arab sounding middle name. The crowd spontaneously burst into a round of applause.
He revisited the continent in 2013, taking in trips to Tanzania, South Africa and Senegal. During this trip, he avoided Kenya, supposedly because of ICC allegations against Kenyan President, Uhuru Kenyatta, and Vice President, William Ruto.
Finally, Obama went to Kenya and Ethiopia in 2015. In 2015, Obama still refused to see Ruto in any one to one meeting. Unlike Kenyatta, Ruto’s charges in The Hague have not yet been dropped. For a comprehensive round up of all the reaction and coverage, see this Storify. In Ethiopia, Obama defended visiting a dictatorship by comparing it to China, visits to which ‘nobody questions’.
Obama has actually made fewer visits to African countries than either of his two predecessors. Bill Clinton visited eight states in tours in 1998 and 2000 while George W. Bush made it to 10 different countries during tours in 2003 and 2008. In terms of real impact, many see that the AGOA trade agreement, originally made fifteen years ago by Clinton, as the most important US policy for the continent. As Wycliffe Muga, the Weekend Editor of the Star Newspaper in Kenya, put it, “if President Obama is coming to announce a new initiative… he has a very hard act to follow in what the two previous Presidents did for Africa.”
This proved a prescient prediction. The major development from Obama’s final trip to Kenya and Ethiopia, from a policy perspective, was his renewal of AGOA. At least Bill Clinton’s legacy in Africa is secure.
A conservative backlash
On the eve of the first ever visit to Kenya by a sitting President of the United States, it is probably fair to say that Nairobi was gripped with Obamamania, but a much gentler version than I experienced back in 2008.
Firstly, there is a slight reticence to allow Obama to coast on his parentage. As Dr Adekeye Adebajo wrote in The Guardian, many people have lost “the unrealistic expectation that the US president would transform American policy towards Africa”. Before the trip, a prominent Kenyan blogger laid out a list of topics for Kenyatta to discuss with Obama during his visit. Every single one of the topics focuses on failings of the USA: the massive prison population, racial police violence, weak trade agreements, a failure to obey international law.
Obama was certainly not returning to his homeland as a beacon of hope, somebody to raise African issues up into the international light. This was business.
Secondly, Obama’s presidency has coincided with an enormous upswing in anti-homosexual sentiment in many African countries. Ironically, this has been largely fomented by right-wing American Evangelical Christians – the very same group that drove the Tea Party to prominence back in 2010. What was once something of a non-issue has became a major sticking point for the newly radicalized anti-homosexual activists and politicians (including William Ruto) in several African states, Kenya included.
Obama was even threatened with a 5,000 strong rally of naked protesters on arrival and was warned by the main national daily not to ‘lecture’ anybody about gay rights. When he brought the topic up in his televised speech it was dismissed by President Kenyatta, curtly, as a “non-issue’for Kenya”.
This is not to say he is unpopular. Africans remains fervent fans of Obama. In Nairobi, the Obama visit was generally warmly received. #ObamaHomecoming trended on Twitter immediately following his arrival. The hashtag spotlights Obama’s position in Africa rather well – he’s popular because of perceived kinship, not for his politics.
Africa was never going to come first
Obama’s ultimate legacy on the continent was undermined by sky-high expectations from the very beginning. But history was against him.
He was elected as an outsider, an unusually named son of a Kenyan. This strangeness led to the further shift rightwards of the GOP, notably in the near fever-pitch xenophobia of the Tea Party which rose to prominence in Obama’s first mid-term elections. Domestic politics under Obama became a historically divided battleground. In 2014, Pew Research found that “Republicans and Democrats are further apart ideologically than at any point in recent history.”
Add to this the massive economic crisis that Obama had to deal with in his first term and it’s clear: inevitably, domestic politics was always going to dominate his attention.
And there was still so much else fighting for a look-in.
The NSA and torture scandals, the massive outbreak of violence in the Middle East that has sucked the USA further into conflict in the region, the re-emergence of Russia as a threat to NATO protected areas – all of these foreign policy issues, realistically, had to take precedence over African affairs. There is only so much a President can focus on. As a result, Africa has remained only symbolically linked to the Obama presidency.
All over Africa, you will still find clubs, shops and children named after him. People are proud of his legacy for the same abstract reasons they were excited about in 2008: his skin color, his heritage, his name. In real policy terms, his record for the continent is minimal.
During the Obama presidency a major global power did decide to embrace Africa, to invest heavily and fight to raise its global importance. In a few decades time, people most likely won’t be writing about Obama’s impact on African politics between 2008 and 2016. They’ll be writing about China.