In Focus

Obama’s Africa tour momentum continues despite one large looming question mark

drfirsingBefore United States President Barack Obama departed on his historic Africa tour in June and July of this year, critics argued the trip was not worth the large amount of American taxpayer money being spent. Others saw it as an opportunity for American foreign policy to gain momentum in many of Africa’s 54 countries.

Unlike Syria, which has garnered unprecedented worldwide media coverage, Africa has once again made its way back down the publicity ladder. With nearly three months since Obama’s African visit, now is an ideal time to answer a very valid question: what were the major outcomes of Obama’s African visit, was it worth it, and is the momentum still there?

To quickly answer the first part of the three part question, some of the notable items announced during President’s Africa trip included:

  • The new Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders to help bring more than 500 young African leaders to the US each year.
  • The appointment of Linda Thomas-Greenfield as the new US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, as well as Patrick Gaspard as the new US Ambassador to South Africa.
  • The US committing US$7 billion toward Obama’s new initiative, Power Africa, to double access to electricity, as well as private American companies committing more than $9 billion via strategic partnerships.
  • The launch of Trade Africa, a new partnership between the US and sub-Saharan Africa to increase internal and regional trade, starting with the East African Community.

One of the main concerns frequently raised during Obama’s tour was the future of the African Growth and Opportunities Act (AGOA). It was often discussed, but Obama ultimately couldn’t put the issue to rest as this is for the US Congress to decide.

Since his departure from Tanzania back to Washington for the annual American 4th of July Independence Day celebrations, the debate on AGOA has not stopped. The 12th AGOA forum took place in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia from 09-12 August, with senior members of the Obama’s economic team joining ministers, civil society, and business leaders from across sub-Saharan Africa. The focus was on “Sustainable Growth through Trade and Technology” as well as the future of the Act itself. The main outcome was a strong tone for a 15-year extension before the current Act expires in September 2015.

The main African partner under the AGOA spotlight is South Africa; a country with a large question mark hanging over it because of its economic size and diversification. Some feel that South Africa should now be an official AGOA graduate and move on, but there is disagreement from Pretoria. And they are currently in Washington to argue their case to those who need to hear it.At the time of publication of this article, South African Minister for Trade and Industry, Dr Rob Davies, is highlighting the benefits of AGOA for the US, which is what the Americans want to hear:

  • Job creation, citing a US information note presented at the AGOA forum showing AGOA creating over 100,000 jobs in the US;
  • Improved security and stability in Africa;
  • The “goodwill” spinoffs towards the US and its companies in Africa, with the ability to deepen trade and investment.

At the same time, meetings are taking place in both the US and Africa in order to expand trade relations. For instance, the US has expressed interest in increasing agricultural imports from sub-Saharan Africa, which was highlighted during a recent meeting in Pretoria between South Africa’s Deputy Minister Pieter Mulder for agriculture and US agriculture department deputy secretary Krista Harden in Pretoria. Harden was accompanied by a large agricultural business delegation in order to help broaden trade.

Promoting trade and investment and economic partnership was the main thrust of Obama’s visit and one can see that it continues until this day. Yet economics, politics and defence relations remain intertwined. And on the military side, the positive drive in enhancing engagement has also continued.

A bilateral training exercise between the American military and South African Defence Forces (SANDF) took place from 24 July- 05 August to help improve defence relations between the two countries. The exercise involved more than 4,000 troops who performed a wide array of tasks from live fire scenarios and airborne operations to a large-scale humanitarian aid project. They also worked to improve inter-operability between the two militaries.

Politically, the important bilateral meetings continue with the US having a number of bilateral commissions with strategic countries. This includes the United States-Nigeria Bi-National Commission (BNC), which recently concluded its 9th meeting in late August with discussions about extra security training and education needed to help fight insurgency in the north of the country. The US and South Africa have a similar arrangement via the US-South Africa Strategic Dialogue that plays a large role in smoothing out bilateral bumps when they arise.

The new US Ambassador to South Africa, Patrick Gaspard, born in the Democratic Republic of Congo to Haitian parents and a former White House political director and Executive Director of the Democratic Party, has a strong role to play in this. He will need to be vocal and continue to promote more trade and investment between the two countries. And all indicators point to this coming to fruition.

In his prepared text after being nominated as ambassador by President Obama before the US Senate foreign relations committee, he told the panel that America has to go "Beyond our aid assistance and technical expertise, our greatest contribution will be in stimulating private investment and trade. This will be a major priority for my mission if I am confirmed…. There are more than 600 American companies already based in South Africa and I will work to see the number grow."

One can see the forward movement in US-South Africa relations and US-Africa relations as a whole. This article has focused on it, and owning a consultancy assisting American businesses enter Africa and vice versa, as well as being researcher very much involved with the topic, I personally see it.

To US congressman: not extending AGOA for South Africa will be hugely detrimental to US-South Africa relations. Moreover, it will have a massive negative political and economic ripple effect that will not only be felt in South Africa and the SADC region, but across the entire continent as well.

Nevertheless, I am optimistic that the US and Africa will keep this strong momentum going, but if things start to go off track, officials and diplomats please remember Stephen Covey’s 4th habit: think win-win.

Dr Firsing is the Director of the North American International School in Pretoria, as well as CEO of LINK Advisory, a consultancy helping American businesses enter Africa. He is also an adjunct research fellow at Monash University, South Africa and an executive at the soon to be launched Aerospace Leadership Academy.

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