President Barack Obama completed his second term on January 20 with good domestic political ratings at 56 per cent, but will be remembered in Africa for cutting aid while pushing for trade opportunities.
Obama’s presidency was marked by intense engagement with the continent, culminating in the US-Africa Leaders’ Summit in Washington in 2014 — the largest event held by a US president with African heads of state and governments.
It became an annual affair, through which the Obama administration pushed for trade opportunities between the continent and US companies.
The summit, built on Obama’s policy of “Africa: Trade, not Aid,” saw the US announce several initiatives for the continent including the Doing Business in Africa Campaign, Power Africa and Trade Africa initiatives.
“People are not interested in just being patrons or being patronised and being given aid, they’re interested in building capacity,” President Obama told the BBC in an interview in 2015.
According to White House press secretary Josh Earnest, $33 billion in commitments — including $14 billion in private sector deals and commitments — were made to support economic growth across Africa at the first summit.
“Over the past two years, the Department of Commerce has tracked nearly $15 billion in additional private sector deals reached between the US and African partners, and from 2008 to 2015, US direct investment in Africa rose from $37 billion to $64 billion on a historic-cost basis — an increase of more than 70 per cent. That’s more than double the total global official development assistance that went to Africa in 2015,” Mr Earnest said.
In 2015, the US spent $8 billion in aid to sub-Saharan Africa but, last year, new commitments for the trade deals with the continent rose to $9.1 billion, to be spent on telecommunications, energy, health, agriculture, manufacturing and transportation sectors.
The trade deals have also seen the US Commerce office expand its presence and economic engagement in Africa, opening new offices in Angola, Tanzania, Ethiopia and Mozambique, expanding its presence in Ghana and re-establishing a presence at the African Development Bank.
“During Obama’s term, we have seen the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) open offices in Kenya, South Africa and Cote d’Ivoire, tripling its portfolio: investments in Africa now represent nearly a third of OPIC’s total portfolio with more than $7 billion in financing and insurance to projects,” Mr Earnest added.
Since Obama came into office, Export-Import Bank of the United States authorisations doubled in sub-Saharan Africa. In the past five years, Ex-Im Bank has approved more than $6.3 billion in financing for US exports to sub-Saharan Africa.
Over the same period, the US African Development Foundation’s commitment to Africa has grown with its entry into eight new countries, managing nearly $25 million’s worth active projects on the continent.
On the diplomatic front, Obama made four visits to Africa — more than any other US president — and became the first sitting American president to visit Kenya and Ethiopia. He has engaged with African leaders at various forums and held bilateral discussions, more than any other sitting American president.
“We believe in Africa’s potential and promise. We remain committed to Africa’s future. We will be strong partners with the African people,” Obama said in Ghana in 2009, on his first African visit.
South Sudan crisis
However, the South Sudan civil crisis of 2013 was one of the biggest tests of his administration. The US was defeated at the UN Security Council meeting last December when it failed to persuade Council members to impose an arms embargo on South Sudan and place sanctions on its national leaders.
When he came to office, Obama appointed General Scott Gration Special Presidential Envoy for South Sudan, whose mandate was to ensure the implementation of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement. However, after the 2013 escalation of hostilities, the US’s role was questioned and Obama was criticised for having been ”too soft” on the South Sudanese leaders.
Although the outgoing US ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, found it hard dealing with South Sudan, she succeeded in assisting in the restoration of civil order in the Central African Republic, where the Obama administration successfully pushed for the authorisation of a peace force led by France.
Obama has also pushed for a greater US role in African conflicts, sending more than 100 military experts to Uganda to hunting and capture the leader of the Lord’s Resentence Army, Joseph Kony, albeit with little success. His biggest success has however been his military support to Kenya and Amisom forces fighting Al Shabaab in Somalia.
He increased military support to Somalia, using drone attacks to neutralise Al Shabaab’s effectiveness, while offering military advisory services to the armies of Cameroon and Chad on fighting Boko Haram.
Intensified competition with China in Africa also saw Obama establish military outposts in more than 10 African countries including Uganda, Gabon, Ghana, Mali, Senegal, Djibouti, and setting up a $100 million drone base in Niger.