The following article appeared in the July-August 2013 NewsNotes.
President Barack Obama’s second safari ("travel" in Swahili) to Africa as head of state – scheduled June 27-July 2 – raises several interesting questions: Who will accompany him and his family to Senegal, Tanzania and South Africa? With whom will Obama meet while in Africa? What issues will be discussed in public and in private? These questions may be a guide to what to look for in the Obama visit. The following piece is written by Maryknoll Fr. Dave Schwinghamer, who served in East Africa; he will join the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns team in July.
Since his last trip in 2009, the president has articulated a comprehensive policy strategy towards Africa based on a philosophy of mutual partnership. This new strategy can be reduced to a political and economic logarithm that reads: good political institutions + commitment to rule of law = prosperity + stability + less conflict + enduring security. Hardly anyone would be against such bland goals but global partnerships also require respect, mutual understanding and honest dialog based on sensitive listening. Will the presidential travel list contain not only politicians and business men but experts who have knowledge of the cultures of Africa, wide ranging local contacts in African society, and linguistic abilities that will insure Obama hears from a diverse cross-section of the societies with whom he will interact? French, Wolof, Afrikaans and Ki-Swahili speakers could help make this trip more than a political junket. Experts in Islamic affairs who understand the complex nature of the religious tension between Christianity and Islam in Africa would also be good additions to the trip.
As head of state, President Obama will naturally be given the due diplomatic respect he deserves. He will be the guest of various African governments and unavoidably be "captured" by the hospitality of their leaders. Will the charismatic U.S. president with African ancestry be able to break through the normal celebrity bubble that insulates famous "wageni" (visitors) from ever getting in touch with the ordinary people, or will he be limited to the usual official receptions with government leaders at air-conditioned hotels? Who he rubs shoulders with says as much about U.S. "partnership" with Africans as the grand policy statements that the ordinary people, let alone most of the political leaders, will never read.
Unlike the Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who follows a more practical, less idealistic conception of how to relate to Africa, Obama faces a critical challenge. In voicing his support for an authentic, sustainable form of human development, the United States must learn how to combine a knowledge of the traditional ways of governance that have sustained many African nations during decades of political turmoil and economic downturn with a technological worldview that is essential for success in the globalizing world order of the 21st century. The logarithm posting that development through strong, accountable and democratic political institutions equals social security and political stability must somehow come into dialogue with the grassroots strategies of creative, non-governmental peoples’ organizations that have emerged all across the African continent in response to the failure of western-style governments to promote institutions that deliver real benefits to ordinary citizens. To come into contact with these people Obama will have to break through the celebrity bubble that often surrounds visiting heads of state.
The final question to ask about Obama’s trip to Africa is what issues will be discussed during his brief stay. No doubt, he will be pressured by business leaders who accompany him to promote the expansion of economic opportunity for U.S. companies and to counter the effects of Chinese investors. Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE), chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on African Affairs, made that clear in March in the report Embracing Africa’s Economic Potential. The military and national security institutions will want him to stress the importance of Africa’s role in helping the U.S. combat terrorism through the expansion of AFRICOM. Will Tanzania be asked to host bases for AFRICOM’s activities in the Indian Ocean? Mainland Tanzania is the only land mass which connects the Indian Ocean with Central Africa, one of the richest regions in the world.
But what are the issues that African nations want to discuss? Will the stricter regulation of global financial transactions be on the agenda? Will the devastating effects of the demand for hard drugs and the consequent flow of these drugs through African countries to markets in Europe and the U.S. be up for discussion? And what about the effects of global warming on tropical agriculture? And the push to "invest" in Africa’s agricultural land by outside interest? And limits on African immigration?
Let’s hope Obama’s efforts to build a partnership with Africa is based on sound knowledge about the reality that exists in this continent of one billion people.