An Obama Visit to Africa Is Long Overdue

The president is letting other nations lead the way in Africa.

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President Barack Obama speaks to the Ghana Parliament in Accra, Ghana, Saturday, July 11, 2009. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Stephen Hayes is president and CEO of the Corporate Council on Africa.

Soon the President of the United States will visit Africa. His visit has been announced in newspapers in Senegal and South Africa, but there is no official announcement yet forthcoming from the White House. That announcement is expected any moment, as there are few such secrets in Washington, and news of the trip has already become the talk of receptions and Africanists in the city. As they say, details are being worked out, and so we wait for the announcement to come.

The trip is long overdue. Other than a brief stopover in Ghana on his way back from a more important visit to Russia in his first year, President Obama did not visit Africa in his first term. Africa was covered by Hillary Clinton twice, Joe Biden once and by the Acting Secretary of Commerce this past December. The number of countries touched by anyone in the administration can be counted with the fingers of two hands, with possibly a few left over.

In contrast, China's top five leaders are in Africa every year, as are the leaders of many other countries such as France, Brazil, Turkey and India, all of whom are investing actively in Africa. China's leaders have visited at least 30 African countries over the past five years.

The priorities of the United States in its engagement with African nations are clearly different from those of other nations such as China. The latter states that it will not interfere in governance of nations, but only wants to trade and support the economic development of the nations of Africa. U.S. engagement with Africa is far more complex. We are concerned with issues of terrorism, youth unemployment, development of democracies as we define the word, women's rights and a myriad of other issues such as the growing drug trade of West Africa and rising piracy on the high seas in both the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. We tend to view Africa still as a case for development, more than we do as an opportunity for partnership, despite verbiage to the contrary.

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But nothing is ever as stated in international diplomacy. China's engagement in Africa is inevitably more complex than stated, and the United States certainly does desire partnerships. Reality is always opaque at best. Transparency is an ideal and a luxury in international relations. Transparency is possible only when we are dealing in the same elements. A window is transparent because the texture is the same throughout. Put different textures and layers in the window and one no longer sees the other side so clearly. We express our belief in what lies on the other side of the window, but can't really be as accurate as we would hope.

So it is in our dealings with Africa, and Obama's vision of Africa will be his own, as seen through the opaqueness of global relations. We seemingly strive for a type of uniformity, grouped under the principles of democracy as we have known it. In so doing, we move against cultures that have survived through very different circumstances. One man's view of freedom is another's view of societal breakdown and anarchy. The battles become between those who believe that there are fundamental absolutes in human development versus those who believe in relativism.

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As China's massive and rapid engagement in Africa continues, it too will face the consequences of its own worldview. It will need to reexamine its assumptions about Africa and accept the nations as they exist. China will almost certainly feel the need to be involved in the matters of other states far more than it originally expressed and perhaps more than it planned. The clear window of non-interference will become far more opaque, just as it is for America.

As the American president wends his way across the continent and back to Washington, his words will define his own view of Africa, and in so doing, he will set the agenda for the next several years of U.S. engagement. One can only hope that as he peers through the window he can see more clearly than those that have gone before him and understand that windows are not mirrors. On the other side of the window are those looking back, defining America by his words and what they believe they see.

Let us hope our respective visions lead to greater understanding and far less misgivings. History would suggest it will not be so easy.

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