Africans anxiously awaited President Obama’s return to sub-Saharan Africa, but they may be disappointed when he leaves Wednesday unless he announces a major initiative to promote trade.
Many remember his first trip — a 24-hour visit to Ghana in 2009. During that brief stay he said, “Development depends on good governance — [the] ingredient which has been missing in far too many places, for far too long. That’s the change that can unlock Africa’s potential.”
Mr. Obama — who visited Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania on this trip — spoke Sunday to an audience of future African leaders at the University of Cape Town.
He could have used that opportunity to stress a new vision for Africa, where 50 percent of the population lives in poverty. He could have emphasized that trade is worth five times more than aid.
The Cape Town speech could have been a defining moment for Mr. Obama, with millions of Africans tuned in.
He had a chance to set the tone for a new engagement policy for sub-Saharan Africa and to continue the legacy of his predecessors.
Instead, he pledged more aid — $7 billion for electricity projects in five African nations — and warned the audience not to trust any foreign country or company offering to build projects unless they benefit Africans themselves.
He also alluded to the U.S. holding a summit with African leaders next year.
Mr. Obama squandered a chance to announce that he would work to make the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) a permanent program and spread the benefits of free trade throughout the continent.
The act could easily be the centerpiece of the proposed U.S.-Africa summit.
While serving as U.S. ambassador to three African nations, I hosted the second AGOA forum, the first held in Africa. At the time of the 2003 forum in Mauritius, the program included 37 African countries approved for duty-free and quota-free access to the U.S. markets for more than 6,400 items. Today, the program benefits 40 countries.
To qualify for the benefits, the African countries had to show an improvement in democracy, rule of law, human rights, transparency and a commitment to work standards — all cornerstones of Mr. Obama’s remarks on democracy.
Next month’s AGOA Forum in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, would be a good place for Mr. Obama to announce his first U.S.-Africa summit, proposing that the forum be the springboard to a new Africa economic engagement policy. This year’s theme is perfect: “Sustainable Transformation through Trade and Technology.”
Africans have been disappointed with the U.S.’ limited engagement with sub-Saharan Africa during the Obama administration — often contrasting it to China’s engagement. Chinese leaders regularly visit Africa, having developed lasting friendships with all of the 49 sub-Saharan African countries. The U.S. has been considered a fair-weather friend with an inconsistent foreign policy.