U.S.-Africa Relations during Obama’s Watch: The Settling of Dusky Midnight’s Mist?

China V_S US

Is President Barack Obama’s planned visit to Kenya too much too little? Yes.
Consider this. In the last five years, during his watch, there have been two interesting developments.
China has pulled ahead of the United States to become Africa’s largest trading partner.

Standing at a “record high” of $166 bn in 2011 and $170 bn in 2013, China’s share in the volume of trade with Africa has been growing from strength to strength. In addition, China boasts of no less than $400 bn worth of deals most of it mainly tied to the development of infrastructure, a major boon for Chinese capitalism. In 2012, perhaps to underscore the importance of Africa to China, its new elevated position and perceived role in the continent, then President Hu Jintao, announced a $20 bn pledge in credit at the historic Beijing Africa Summit that was attended by fifty African leaders. This was certainly a first especially considering its magnitude. Of course, it did not go unnoticed. Washington noted this development with great concern.

In Washington, D.C., it was time to revisit AGOA, the nonreciprocal trade preference program that provides duty-free treatment to the U.S. first authorized in 2000. And last year, in August 2014, Obama hosted the U.S.-Africa Leaders’ Summit. To give credit where it is due, it was the first and the largest any American president has had with African heads of state and government. Nevertheless, patterns of comparative trade with Africa, coupled with China’s growing favorable preference there that’s almost neck to neck with the U.S. according to Pew Research Center’s 2014 Global Attitudes Survey, still remain a great concern to Washington.

Seen in this light, Obama’s planned visit to Kenya is too much too little. Furthermore, increasing militarization of U.S.-Africa relations under his watch as ably documented by Nick Turse’s Tomorrow’s Battlefield (2015) is worrying. Compared to its soft-power prong, $7 bn Power Africa pledge to light up Africa that Obama announced in 2013 in Cape Town, South Africa, the U.S. military investment and presence in Africa in unnerving. Could this be in reaction to Africa fast becoming China’s Second Continent (2014) as Howard W. French argues? Is Africa America’s next battlefield?

In long-term time perspective, this certainly doesn’t look good on the first black president that Africa hailed as a dream come true and from whom much more was expected.

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Nicholas Githuku

Assistant Professor, African History at York College, CUNY
Nicholas Githuku is a Ph.D. holder in African Studies. His research interests include: War & Peace Studies in general; Conflict and Security and mediation in general and trends in the Great Lakes the Horn Regions of Africa; Memorialization of War; Development studies (Sub-Saharan Africa): Postcolonial/Contemporary Kenyan Politics; European History (1648 to 1900); First and Second World Wars; and Post-1989 Eastern Europe (Balkans) History.