If US leaders only visit 'good' Africa, then Obama trip signals new American realpolitik in dealing with continent

Countries that were not stable enough, or not shattered or failed enough to warrant an American presidential visit, are getting on the itinerary.

US President Barack Obama arrived in Ethiopia on Sunday, beginning a two-day stay and becoming the first American leader to visit Africa’s second most populous nation, and a key ally in the fight against terrorism in the Horn of Africa.

Obama, who arrived in neighbouring Kenya on Friday, left for Ethiopia’s capital Addis  for a two-day visit, where he will also be the first US leader address the African Union, the 54-member continental bloc.

“This is the first time a sitting (US) president is visiting Ethiopia,” Ethiopian foreign ministry spokesman Tewolde Mulugeta said. “This will bring the relationship between our two countries to a new high.”

Obama has travelled to Africa more than any other sitting US president, and talked about the “deep” ties between Africa and the United States before setting off on the trip.

However, in the past 70 years, US presidents have visited just twelve African countries – thirteen if you count the low-key overnight stop that Franklin D. Roosevelt made in Bathurst, The Gambia en route from a conference in Morocco in 1943. The question is if there is anything in the pattern of visits over these 70 years, that could broadly represent a century of US-Africa policy.

The chosen 12

In terms of number of visits, the twelve countries represent 42 visits in total from US presidents. It reveals that US presidents rarely departed from the beaten path, visiting the same countries over and over again.

With the exception of Benin where George W. Bush visited in 2008, and a three-day trip to Somalia in 1993 by his father George H.W. Bush to visit US troops stationed there, all the other countries have hosted a US president more than once. 

In fact, one country – Egypt – accounts for 38% of African trips of US presidents, having hosted five American presidents for a record 16 times in total. But to American strategic thinking, Egypt is seen as a Middle Eastern country and so we can set it aside for now - thus, for example, Egypt is the only country on the continent that is outside the area of responsibility of the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM).

The rest the 12 have had at least two or three visits from a sitting American head of state. Senegal, South Africa, Tanzania, Ghana, Nigeria and Liberia have each been visited at least three times by a US president; Rwanda, Uganda and Botswana have each been host twice.

But there is more, other than the fact that up to that point America presidents rarely departed from the script when it came to engaging with Africa.

Clinton first all-in

In the first place, US heads of state only started visiting the continent in a substantive way with the presidency of Bill Clinton (1993-2001); before then, though Africa served strategic interests in the Cold War era, it hardly had enough game-shifting clout to warrant a personal visit by a sitting US president.

But the other interesting thing is what the twelve countries have in common. They are all either beacons of stability and/or democracy in Africa, or were visited when they had recently emerged from conflict, or had dramatically overcome an existential struggle with a deadly disease (e.g. Uganda with HIV/AIDS), so a visit by a US president can then be taken as a golden star of approval or affirmation.

Liberia, for example, has long historical ties to the US, having been founded by freed American slaves in 1847. Jimmy Carter visited in 1978, but it would be 30 years before an American president would step on Liberian soil again – in those three decades, Liberia descended into coups and brutal civil war that tore the country to shreds.

Bush and Liberia’s Sirleaf

 Bush’s visit in 2008 came in the wake of the election of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf as president, the first African woman to hold that position, and an important endorsement and support now that Liberia was piecing itself together and starting afresh.

The same is the case with Nigeria, where Carter visited in 1978 in search of an alternative to Middle Eastern oil; Nigeria was quickly roped in as a leading source of US oil imports. 

But the political instability of the following decades, particularly the brutality of Sani Abacha’s presidency made Nigeria an international pariah, and it would only be in 2000 after the return to civilian rule when the country would play host to a US president again and cement its place as a key American interest in the region: Bush visited twice - in 2000 and 2003.

Rwanda and Uganda hosted Clinton in 1998; at that time, Rwanda was only beginning to emerge from the horrors of the 1994 genocide in which nearly one million people were butchered. Clinton felt personally partly responsible how the genocide played out, as his administration pretty much abandoned Rwanda in its darkest hour.

And Uganda’s president Yoweri Museveni was at the time the glowing kid on the block, having resurrected Uganda’s economy after decades of war and set it on what seemed to be a definite path of stability and democratic consolidation, and fought and recorded the world’s first decisive rollback of HIV/AIDS. The two countries would be visited again by Bush in 2003 (Uganda) and 2008 (Rwanda).

To this day, Senegal is the only country in the whole West and North African region not to have suffered a coup; founding president Leopold Sedar Senghor stepped down in 1983, and the country has had four successful transfers of power. So with the promotion of democracy being a key pillar of US foreign policy in Africa, it’s not a surprise that Senegal would continue to polish its special china for high-level American guests.

The same goes for Tanzania, Botswana, Ghana and South Africa – good, safe, “boring” choices for an American president looking to step on African soil, for whatever strategic US interest is important at that time, without having to leave with too many embarrassing feathers on his jacket.

In summary, then, predominantly if you were not a good boy living within America’s political lines, or bravely emerging from terrible disaster, chances are you were not so interesting to an American president.

New directions

So, if we disregard the soft issue of his Kenyan roots in this matter, it’s really quite remarkable that Obama would choose to visit Kenya and Ethiopia, especially without even a brief six-hour airport stop to one of the “good boys” to act as a counterbalance to the narrative.

It’s the first time a US president is venturing away from the safe, predictable countries, and the first time a sitting head of state is visiting a country with “issues”.

Though Kenya’s economic weight in the region and its Cold War era role as the “anti-communist” bulwark in the region, meant that by default it would be pro-US, it was understood that President Uhuru Kenyatta’s case at the International Criminal Court (ICC), where he was accused of crimes against humanity related to election violence in 2007-08, made Obama uncomfortable with a visit. 

The case was dropped late 2014 for lack of evidence, but Kenyatta’s election as president while being a suspect at the ICC decidedly leaves stains on his reputation. That said, Kenyatta’s rapport with Obama was unmistakable. However, Kenyatta’s deputy, William Ruto, still has got his ICC going on, and civil society activists were urging Obama not to meet or shake hands with him. In the end, he met Ruto and they shook hands a couple of times—but Obama also indulged civil society with a thoughtful meeting, and convened too with Kenya Opposition leaders, underlying the new balancing act.

In the Bush and Clinton era, one could argue Kenya was neither stable enough, nor shattered enough to really pique the interest of an American president.

And Ethiopia doesn’t function like a normal democracy in any sense of the word. In recent elections, though opposition parties contested despite the difficulties, the ruling party won every single seat in Parliament; the government has extensively been criticised for repressive tactics such as restriction of political space and brutal persecution of opponents and the media.

As a global superpower, a US president cannot visit a country casually, particularly if such a visit is unprecedented. It could be read as an apex view of the position that the global powers that be see a country occupying, both in the immediate sense, and in the longer-term strategic view.

Kenya, Ethiopia stand out

What makes Kenya and Ethiopia stand out in the region is just how vital they are to American counterterrorism strategies in the Horn of Africa.

Kenya has consistently been one of the largest counterterrorism aid recipients in the world, ranking only behind Afghanistan, Jordan, and Pakistan.

In 2012, the country received almost $70 million in counterterrorism funding specifically to train and equip forces, including more than $10 million under the State Department’s Partnership for Regional East African Counterterrorism (PREACT) and related counterterrorism funding, and $9 million in Anti-Terrorism Assistance (ATA) to Kenya.

Ethiopia has received $35 million in similar funding to date. Under the East Africa Counterterrorism Initiative, Ethiopia received $13 million in military funds for border security training and related equipment, including C-130 parts and communications gear. The US has provided subsequent support to improve the country’s tactical airlift capacity.

But Kenya and Ethiopia ruling elites have both been accused of appropriating counterterrorism as a “smart” way of consolidating power, as leaders cleverly exploit this new securitised environment to shrink political space and criminalise dissent by labelling their political opponents “terrorists”. 

For Kenya and Ethiopia – as well as for Uganda today, Museveni having long shed the “good boy” image – participation in counterterrorism is akin to a “bullet-proof vest” that serves as a shield against criticism over any domestic malfeasance.

Looking at this from the outside, then, the visit could thus be seen as a sign of the US’ official “loss of innocence” in how it engages with Africa. 

It’s no secret that the US has done unsavoury things on the continent like support dictators and despots, but it has never legitimised that policy with a visit in person.

This, then, could herald a shift. No longer can America purely tout the democracy, human rights, and good governance rhetoric as an overarching pillar in its engagement with Africa – by choosing to visit Kenya and Ethiopia, pragmatic political realties will increasingly take centre stage, and “it’s complicated” will soon be the slogan of the day. Economic clout and security, especially counter-terrorism, have become pivotal.

Perhaps it’s only fitting that the loss of innocence would happen starting with Kenya, his “ancestral home”. Home is a place of discarding pretentions, and just being yourself.

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