Friday,21 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1256, (30 July - 5 August 2015)
Friday,21 September, 2018
Issue 1256, (30 July - 5 August 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Obama tours Kenya, Ethiopia

While Obama is in East Africa with a message of development and hope, he may find that the Chinese have gotten there first, writes Haytham Nouri

Al-Ahram Weekly

On his recent tour of two major East African nations, US President Barack Obama spoke of freedom and human rights, but also offered promises of help with the economy and the fight on terror.

His visit to Kenya, where many of his extended family members still live, was emotional. Speaking at the Safaricom Indoor Arena on Sunday, Obama told a crowd of 4,500 people that Kenya must make “tough choices” to stamp out corruption and consolidate democracy.

Obama promised Kenya nearly $1 billion in loans and investment geared to encouraging young entrepreneurs.

“This is personal for me. There is a reason why my name is Barack Hussein Obama. My father comes from these parts,” the US president said.

“He is one of us,” Obama’s half-sister Auma Obama said as she introduced her brother to the gathering on Sunday. “But we are happy to share him with the world.”

The US president advised the Kenyans to fight corruption. “Too often here in Kenya corruption is tolerated because that’s how it’s always been done, [but] it’s time to change habits.”

The Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, recently put several cabinet members under investigation for financial irregularities. But many are sceptical about the move, as similar investigations in the past didn’t lead to convictions.

“These traditions may date back centuries [but] have no place in the 21st century… Just because something is a part of your past doesn’t make it right,” the US president said.

According to a 2012 document released by the White House on US policy on Sub-Saharan Africa, Washington’s main objectives are to consolidate democracy, promote economic growth, and strengthen security. But over the past three years, the emphasis seems to have shifted, with economic cooperation now given precedence over the question of democratisation.

The US has earmarked about $7 billion to Power Africa, an initiative aiming to promote development in Sub-Saharan Africa’s energy resources.

Over the past four years, US assistance to democratisation in Sub-Saharan Africa dropped by 20 per cent, to $257 million.

Obama’s visit to Ethiopia, which started Sunday evening, was fraught with controversy mainly because of the country’s poor human rights record.

Ahead of the visit, US officials said they expected President Obama to speak to his counterpart, Mulatu Teshome, about the lack of press and political freedoms in the country.

Last May, Ethiopia’s ruling party took all the seats in parliament in elections that were widely condemned as fraudulent.

Ethiopia, a nation of 90 million people, is strategically crucial to US policy in East Africa and the Middle East, and is a frontline country in the war against Al-Shabab extremists. It is also the seat of the Africa Union, which Obama was scheduled to address during the visit.

Ahead of Obama’s visit, the Ethiopian government released five bloggers from prison perhaps as a gesture of goodwill. But a dozen journalists remain in custody, according to rights activists.

This is Obama’s fourth visit to Africa since he came to power six years ago. His first was to Ghana in July 2009. Then he toured Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania in 2013. He attended Mandela’s funeral in December 2013.

Tanzanian journalist Eissa Soliman said that Obama should have included Nigeria in the visit. Like Ethiopia, Nigeria is a frontline country in the war on terror.

During a recent visit to Washington, Nigerian President Muhamadu Buhari said that the US wasn’t doing enough to help his government in the fight against the radical group Boko Haram.

Meanwhile, Ethiopia continues to receive $900 million per year in military assistance from the US, which the government uses to confront Somali-based Al-Shabab militants.

According to Yun Sun, a researcher with the Brookings Institution, Washington sees East Africa as of more strategic importance than West Africa. Ethiopia and Kenya are close to Sudan and South Sudan, both suffering from instability and civil war.

Yun Sun pointed out that Beijing is ahead of Washington when it comes to making friends in Africa. Instead of offering advice on human rights and democracy, the Chinese offer economic assistance to various nations regardless of their human rights records. And their plans to create dams, build infrastructure, and offer low-interest loans are giving them more leverage than the Americans.

The current volume of China’s trade with Africa, at $200 billion a year, is twice the size of America’s.

China has built more than 25 dams on African rivers, often at a fraction of the cost US companies would have charged for the same job. And dictatorial African regimes are much more at ease talking to the Chinese than the Americans, Yun Sun added.

Beijing is already reaping the fruits of its unscrupulous policies. It receives oil from Angola and Sudan and copper from Zambia at favourable prices. Even democratic African leaders seem to enjoy doing business with the Chinese, Yun Sun pointed out.

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