Obama’s ‘tough love’ in African homecoming cuts both ways

Finian Cunningham
Finian Cunningham (born 1963) has written extensively on international affairs, with articles published in several languages. Originally from Belfast, Ireland, he is a Master’s graduate in Agricultural Chemistry and worked as a scientific editor for the Royal Society of Chemistry, Cambridge, England, before pursuing a career in newspaper journalism. For over 20 years he worked as an editor and writer in major news media organizations, including The Mirror, Irish Times and Independent. Now a freelance journalist based in East Africa, his columns appear on RT, Sputnik, Strategic Culture Foundation and Press TV.
US President Barack Obama © Jonathan Ernst
It’s the fourth time that Barack Obama as US president has visited Africa, but it’s his first official visit to Kenya and neighboring Ethiopia – two of the continent’s top thriving economies.

His five-day tour of East Africa wraps up on Tuesday and is being viewed as a celebratory “homecoming” for the 44th US president, whose father grew up and is buried in the remote western Kenyan village of Kogelo.

As Obama headed north to Ethiopia on the next leg of his tour (it was the first time that any sitting American president has visited that country), one of the most populous on the continent and seen by many as the “spiritual home” of all Africans, owing to its indomitable history of independence from European colonialism.

Obama said he was coming to the region to talk about economic trade, investment and security – all with a “tough love” message that African governments must underpin their ambitious development plans with equal attention to human rights.

Rights groups urged the president to address the thorny issues of gay equality and freedom of expression when he spoke at a global enterprise summit in Kenya’s capital Nairobi and later at the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. So far, Obama has opted to broach those subjects in rather vague terms, and he has made a point of not letting “certain disagreements” get in the way of otherwise strong bilateral alliances.

On the issue of gay rights, Obama told a news conference in Nairobi “everyone should be treated equally under the law” and that it is wrong for the state to discriminate against people simply “because of who they love.”

Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta and several members of his ruling administration have been accused of violations against political opponents, while his armed forces are implicated in extrajudicial killings and torture in a counter-insurgency war against Islamist Al Shabaab militants in the eastern region bordering Somalia. The International Criminal Court, however, dropped charges against Kenyatta earlier this year.

On the question of gay rights and same-sex marriage, Kenyatta sounded a note of defiance to Obama’s remarks in a shared press conference. The Kenyan leader repeated his previous public assertions that for Kenyans the matter was “a non-issue.”

In Ethiopia, the newly re-elected coalition government of Prime Minister Haile-Mariam Desalegn has gained a tarnished reputation for cracking down on journalists and civil society groups critical of his administration.

Kenya and Ethiopia are among the fastest growing economies on the 54-nation African continent, which is seen as a future global economic powerhouse owing to vast natural resources in hydrocarbons, metals, minerals and agriculture. This affords a conspicuous new confidence among African leaders, none more so than in Kenya and Ethiopia.

On that score, Obama is having to tread carefully while engaging with African leaders – because his “tough love” cuts both ways.

First of all, America’s moral capital is not what it used to be. While criticism of African countries over human rights issues can be leveled, such criticism coming from a US president is liable to sound hypocritical and hollow – even if it is voiced by an “honorary son of Africa”.

The suspicious suicide of 28-year-old African-American woman Sandra Bland while in custody in a Texas jail has once again highlighted the issue of police violence against blacks and other minorities in the United States. This year alone there have been more than 500 killings by US police officers – nearly three per day – and about 140 of the victims have been African-Americans, according to a study by the Washington Post.

The vast majority of US police officers involved in such cases are white, have not been charged with criminal conduct, nor even sanctioned from their jobs. All too often, say human rights campaigners, the US authorities from the federal to state-level government have turned a blind eye to the accusations of racially motivated and lethal policing. What adds to their chagrin is that Barack Obama – the first African-American president – has been in the White House for seven years and appears to have taken little action to uphold justice for minorities.

So, Obama faces a difficult balancing act while in Kenya and Ethiopia this weekend. Both countries can rightly point out that Obama’s words of concern about human rights and civil liberties amount to hypocritical finger pointing. After all, Kenya is caught up in a vicious war with Islamist insurgents. And in Ethiopia, there are seldom-reported cases of police killings of citizens.

© Brian Snyder

A second helping of tough love that the American president has to bear in mind is that US investment capital is also not what it used to be. Over the past decade, China has emerged as the pre-eminent strategic business partner of the African continent.

Chinese investment and trade with Africa far outweighs the volume of American business with the continent, or indeed compared with the former colonial European states for that matter.

According to US think tank Stratfor, China has invested a total of $100 billion across most of Africa’s countries since 2010. That compares with a relatively paltry investment of $14 billion announced earlier this year by the Obama administration. Africa’s annual trade with China has grown by leaps and bounds to around $200 billion compared with the EU-Africa figure of $140 billion and $73 billion for US.

China’s prodigious investment is being used to develop infrastructure in transport, urban development and a host of public services, including power utilities, hospitals, schools and universities. Chinese engineers have also brought modern telecommunications to Africa by setting up mobile phone and internet connections that can now reach the remotest village. This is having a transformative impact on development.

When Obama addresses the African Union assembly in Addis Ababa later this week, it is no small irony that the new prestigious multi-story AU headquarters were built and opened three years ago thanks to a $200-million gift from the Chinese government.

For China, its financial largesse towards Africa has less to do with “humanitarian aid” than simply having to do with good business sense. Through building strategic partnerships across the continent, China has earned concessions and rights to lucrative oil, gas, mineral, agriculture and forestry resources. Beijing knows that the New Silk Routes it is paving across Eurasia with Russia and other partners will need to be fueled with copious supplies of raw materials. Africa is seen by Beijing as a key global partner for fulfilling its own ambitious global development plans.

Africa seems suitably content with that arrangement. After centuries of Western-style colonial extraction, the African countries are eagerly receiving the investment capital from China that they need in order to reach their undoubted development potential. Moreover, Chinese investment is conducted without bothersome prying into African internal affairs.

So, yes, there has been much emotive hoopla this weekend for Africa’s famous son making a long-awaited homecoming. But as soon as the red carpet is rolled up after Obama’s departure, Africa will be back to bigger business matters with its main strategic partner in China.

Obama’s “tough love” dealings with increasingly confident African leaders in Kenya and Ethiopia will thus prove to be a tough sell.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.