BARACK Obama became the first-ever US president to address the African Union on Tuesday, the culmination of a short tour of the region that has seen him focus on security and human rights.
But after days of watching him lap up the headlines, commentators in Chinese state media finally let rip, accusing the US of a lack of will and failing to meet African expectations despite trillions of dollars in assistance, prompting the White House to say the US was not in Africa “for a set of natural resources”.
Obama also alluded to the role of China on the continent while speaking in Ethiopia. “Economic relationships cannot simply be about other countries building infrastructure with foreign labour or extracting Africa’s natural resources.”
Xinhua, the state-funded Chinese news agency that usually reflects official thinking, in an article on Monday further added mismanagement of funds and red tape for the “disappointing outcome” of US programmes.
“Despite his success of gathering nearly 50 African leaders in Washington for an unprecedented summit last August, Obama may have to work even harder if he wants to build his legacy on a continent where US commitment has long been questioned,” it said.
The English-language Global Times acknowledged the trip had grabbed headlines, but said the visit had “one more purpose, which is offsetting China’s growing influence in this continent and recovering past US leverage”.
“Although Obama also said the Americans ‘welcome’ China’s investments, his diplomatic rhetoric can’t conceal the notion that the US is nervous about its rise, taking China as a rival in Africa,” it said, arguing Washington lacked a consistent Africa policy.
‘Not just resources’
State-funded Voice of America described the Chinese views as “disparaging”, and cited White House official Ben Rhodes, who is the deputy national security adviser, as saying the US was building on “decades of development relationships” in Africa.
“We’re not just in it for a set of natural resources; we’re here to build African capacity. And that type of partnership over the long run I think does distinguish the United States. It’s something that we bring uniquely to bear.”
Obama during his address said he would seek to constantly engage the continent. “I know there are those who don’t say anything,” he said.
China often says it does not intervene in internal African affairs, drawing criticism from campaigners who have said it supports iron-fisted regimes.
After visiting Kenya, the country of his father’s birth, Obama is in the Ethiopian capital, the seat of the pan-African body, where he has already praised the country as a key partner in the war against Al-Qaeda-affiliated Al-Shabaab militants in Somalia.
After talks on Monday with Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, whose ruling party won 100% of seats in parliament two months ago, Obama gave the blunt message that Ethiopia—while credited with strong economic growth—needed to improve basic rights.
‘We won’t stay away’
Activists have complained that Obama’s visit to Addis Ababa could add credibility to a government they accuse of suppressing democratic rights—including the jailing of journalists and critics—with anti-terror legislation.
Obama addressed those concerns, saying “there is still more work to do”.
“There are certain principles we think have to be upheld,” Obama added.
“Nobody questions our need to engage with large countries where we may have differences on these issues. We don’t advance or improve these issues by staying away,” he said.
It is a message he also pushed in Kenya, promoting the country’s economic potential and vowing steadfast support for Nairobi’s fight against the Shabaab, but also telling Kenya to get tough on corruption and put an end to tribalism and gender discrimination.
Obama’s address to the AU, the 54-member continental bloc, will be at its gleaming Chinese-built headquarters—a symbol of Beijing’s increased footprint in the region.
He is widely expected to seek to revitalise Washington’s economic ties with the region, but also address strategic concerns ranging from the Al-Shabaab to Boko Haram militants, as well as the democratic deficit in many African nations.