Obama in Africa: resources, China and Islamist militants
12 Jun 2013|

President Barack Obama speaks to the crowd at the departure ceremony at Accra airport in Ghana, 2009.President Obama and the First Lady will travel to Africa later this month, with visits to Senegal, Tanzania and South Africa planned. According to the White House, the trip is intended to

… reinforce the importance that the United States places on… deep and growing ties with countries in sub-Saharan Africa, including through expanding economic growth, investment and trade; strengthening democratic institutions; and investing in the next generation of African leaders’. .

This will be Obama’s first extensive trip to sub-Saharan Africa as President; his previous trip included only a one-day stay in Ghana. He’s scheduled to meet with a broad range of government, civil society and business leaders. This trip is close on the heels of Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Africa last month. The statements made by John Kerry and others during his time in Ethiopia suggests the issues that President Obama might seek to address on his upcoming tour.

So why have Senegal, Tanzania and South Africa been chosen as the President’s destination spots? South Africa is an obvious choice since it is the continent’s largest economy, has considerable trade relations with America and has come to play a leading role in African organisations and initiatives. Tanzania is rich in natural resources and is a potentially stable ‘regional hub’ which borders both the more troubled areas of Eastern Africa and the conflict prone Horn of Africa, as well as the somewhat explosive areas of the Great Lakes region,  including Eastern DR Congo. (Interestingly, the Chinese President also visited both Tanzania and South Africa in March on his first trip as head of state.) Senegal has an established trade relationship with the US and can be used as a  locale from which to view and engage with the troubled and Islamist terrorist prone areas of West Africa and North Africa.

The Secretary of State’s visit to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in May was to attend the celebrations of the fiftieth anniversary of the African Union. The celebrations were held in the new $200 million dollar Chinese constructed African Union headquarters. The Americans appear to be feeling the pressure of growing Chinese influence in Africa. In April during discussions on Capitol Hill about the possibility of a Presidential trip to Africa, Kerry said:

Six of the 10 or 12 fastest growing countries in the world are in Africa… We all are concerned about our economic future. China is investing more in Africa than we are and it doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game. We have to recognize where our future economic interests and capacity may lie .

This pressure may have been heightened by a recent statement made by the Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, in an address to the African Union Summit;

It is encouraging to note that some of our friends and partners have given priority to infrastructure development in Africa in terms of their strategy partnership with our continent… In this regard I wish to take this opportunity to express my deepest appreciation to China for investing billions to assist us in our development endeavors.

In this regard, Obama’s visit is a means of keeping pace with fast growing Chinese influence in Africa. Chinese President Xi Jinping, visited Africa on his first official trip as the new head of state and Hu Jintao visited Africa several times during his Presidency. This represents a continuity of presence by the Chinese leadership and is a case of a future super power gaining ground on a current super power.

Obama is likely to focus on security while in Africa. During Kerry’s visit, he spoke specifically about the security situations in the Sudans and Nigeria, expressing a commitment to work on ’easing tensions’ between North and South Sudan. New American envoys are to be deployed to both countries. Kerry expressed his support for the Nigerian governments fight against Islamist extremist group Boko Haram, but also cautioned the Nigerian government against committing atrocities itself.

In North and West Africa the threat posed by Islamist militants operating under the ‘umbrella’ of the al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) remains significant. These groups are operating in parts of Libya, Algeria, Niger, Mauritania and Mali. There’s also the continued presence of al-Qaeda affiliated Al-Shabab in Somalia. The President of Ghana, John Dramani Mahama, recently warned that Islamist militants ‘could destabilize the whole of West Africa’ and added that urgent cooperation is needed on a regional and global scale to counter this threat. In July a United Nations Force will be deployed to Mali.I It will composed of many West African troops already on the ground and be assisted by 1,000 remaining French troops.

In Africa, the current to medium term issues relate to security, resource extraction and community cohesion. Australia has the capability and the opportunity to be constructive partners with China, the United States and African nations to seek outcomes that address these challenges and also to develop trade and service business opportunities. Australia, given its pivotal role on the Security Council where African issues predominate and its deep understanding of Chinese–American issues in the greater Asia context, should be able to play an important role.

Sabrina Joy Smith is a PhD candidate with the Centre for the Study of the Great Lakes region of Africa at the Institute for Development Studies and Management, Belgium. She is currently based in New South Wales. Image courtesy of The White House.