The Importance of President Obama's Africa Trip

The president's words will set the tone for our future relations with the East African Community.

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Obama is scheduled to take the second African trip of his presidency starting next Wednesday.
Obama is scheduled to take the second African trip of his presidency starting next Wednesday.

Late this week President Obama embarks on his first official trip solely to Africa. He and his family, along with an entourage of White House staff, at least one Cabinet member, and dozens of security personnel will travel to Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania, returning in time for July 4 festivities in the United States. While the trip will be educational for the President's two daughters, there is a great deal of business to be done by the administration and the president himself. Among the themes for this trip is the need to increase U.S. investment in and trade with Africa. The president has chosen Tanzania as the site for his principal address on this theme.

While it would seem that South Africa, with its well-developed infrastructure and economy, as well as being the African base for hundreds of U.S. companies, would be the natural base for this address, Tanzania has been chosen for several reasons, not the least of which is to strengthen regional cooperation and development in Africa. The East Africa Community is the most developed regional economic community, and the one that the U.S. deems has the best chance for early success.

The concept of economic integration is one that has been given considerable support verbally throughout Africa, but in reality regional integration has moved very slowly. Business wants economic integration in order to increase market size and justify investments in the region. Consumers want it in order to have access to greater product line and lower costs and local producers want it in order to get products to market easily, more efficiently and to also reach wider markets.  

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Successful integration means road systems that match across borders, rail systems that do not stop at national boundaries and that glide upon the same rail gauges everywhere. Regional integration also means uniform customs duties and a single point of collection. As it now stands, trucks can wait for days at borders waiting to pay customs, and then be stopped throughout the next country to pay several fares, only to begin the process all over again at the next border. All this and more is needed if U.S. companies are to more easily invest in Africa.

The U.S. government has moved to support regionalization, and believes that our focus should be on East Africa, because it is the smallest of the economic community units in Africa, yet as a well-developed economic base, particularly in Kenya, and the nearly all the members of the East African Community – Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda – have more open societies than many nations in Africa. There are still problems of governance, but the economic base is strong and each has had elections generally deemed fair, albeit to various degrees of imperfection.

The current problem between Kenya's president and the United States was part of the reason that Obama's business address and perhaps his articulation of a new economic policy towards Africa will occur in Tanzania rather than Kenya. But it is not the only reason. The U.S. is investing heavily in Tanzania as a democratic model, as well as a major player in Africa's food security. It is also a country where the development of the power supply is led by U.S. companies, especially by Symbion Power and General Electric. Obama will tour the power plant jointly developed by the two companies as part of his emphasis on the need for power generation throughout Africa. Currently, not a single African country is meeting its power needs and until power is readily accessible to all, development and investment will be challenging.

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In Tanzania, the president will have a closed meeting with about 25 carefully selected American and African CEOs. Following this meeting he is expected to deliver a major address on U.S. business in Africa to a larger group of East African business leaders, including a sizable contingent from Kenya, as well as the other East African Community countries.  

The president's words will set the tone for our future with the East Africa Community. It will be the most significant statement to Africa made by a U.S. President in East Africa. We can hope that it will form a solid foundation for our future with the region.

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