Ahead of official trip this week, Adekeye Adebajo says US president has done little to correct America’s approach towards his ancestral home
Barack Obama is heading to Kenya – the birthplace of his father – this week, his first visit to his ancestral home during his presidency. But coming at the tail end of his second term, the trip is the ultimate show of the symbolic, rather than substantive, approach that has characterised Obama’s engagement with Africa.
The president clearly identifies with the continent, as is evident from his journey of self-discovery to Kenya as a 26-year-old. As he explained in his elegant memoir written as he launched his political career in 1995: “The pain I felt was my father’s pain. My questions were my brothers’ questions. Their struggle, my birthright.”
But like many African Americans, Obama had a somewhat romanticised view of Africa, noting that the continent “had become an idea more than an actual place, a new promised land, full of ancient traditions and sweeping vistas, noble struggles and talking drums”.
During that first trip to Kenya in 1988, Obama seemed to want to don the robes of an African identity. In his book he recounts how he enjoyed the extravagant hospitality and warmth of his large extended family; picked up phrases in the Kenyan language Luo; rode in matatus (taxis); ate goat curry and ugali (corn meal); and went on safari. He also explains how he was exposed to the corruption and ethnic tensions of the country’s politics, and was appalled by the pernicious socio-economic impact of British colonialism on Kenya.
When he visited again in 2006, this time as a US senator, he was received like a rock star. His condemnation of human rights abuses and corruption in Africa was widely applauded.
When he was elected as the first black US president in 2008, a wave of “Obamamania” again swept the continent. He visited Egypt and Ghana in 2009 to call for democratisation in Africa and the Middle East, noting that Washington would support “strong institutions and not strongmen”. But by the time Obama visited South Africa, Senegal and Tanzania in 2013, the dream had worn off, and the unrealistic expectation that the US president would transform American policy towards Africa had not even come close to being fulfilled.
‘We must hold his feet to the fire’
Despite Obama’s ancestry, as president his approach to African issues has been characterised by vague policies. Of course, he’s had other pressing challenges, such as the fragile US economy, Russia, China, Iraq and Afghanistan. He also successfully concluded the most sweeping healthcare reform in recent US history; renewed diplomatic ties with Cuba; and recently clinched a nuclear deal with Iran.
But in Africa, he hasn’t been so successful. He hosted the first US-Africa summit in Washington last August, but this was effectively a talking shop involving empty pledges. His Power Africa initiative promised electricity to 20 million Africans, but remains largely unfunded.
Obama has, in fact, continued several of George W Bush’s most egregious policies: 1,500 American soldiers remain in Djibouti’s Camp Lemonnier as part of the never-ending “war on terror”; US drones continue to attack targets in Somalia and Mali; and the country’s troops participated in the 2011 Anglo-French intervention in Libya that has left that country anarchic and caused instability across the Sahel region.
Despite the Egyptian regime’s killing of at least 800 opposition Muslim Brotherhood protestors in August, under the leadership of president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi Obama has continued to supply arms to the country: a strongman has yet again trumped strong institutions.
More positively, Obama has continued the generous funding of Aids programmes in Africa, increasing the number of people receiving treatment from 1.7 million in 2008 to 6.7 million by 2013, according to figures released by the White House. He also showed strong leadership during last year’s Ebola crisis, deploying a 3,000-strong military contingent to build emergency hospitals in Liberia.
In true African tradition, we should welcome Obama to his ancestral home, but in his final year in office we must also continue to hold his feet to the fire, and encourage more action, not gestures.