Wednesday, July 17, 2013

OBAMA’S AFRICAN TOUR IN A CHANGING WORLD


Last week US President Barack Obama made a three nation tour of the continent.

His trip to Senegal left us scratching our heads in wonderment at the visitor’s manners, as he went out to bat for the gay cause – a subject that is still anathema on the continent. While unable to see former South African president Nelson Mandela, who is battling for his life in a Pretoria hospital, he managed a visit to the anti-apartheid hero’s Robben Island prison cell.

Then he got down to business pledging US help in building 10,000 MW of electricity generation capacity on the continent, a new trade initiative with Africa – to replace or work alongside the Africa Growth Opportunities Act (AGOA) it was not clear, a new fellowship for up to 600 young African leaders and pledged support for the fight against poaching of the continent’s big game animals among other things.

"Of course he found time to launch some broadsides at the Democratic Republic of Congo’s neighbours (read Uganda and Rwanda but maybe not Sudan) for meddling in the giant central African nation...

In recent years two US presidents – Bill Clinton and George W. Bush have made the trip to the continent in widely differing contexts.

Clinton’s March 1998 trip to the continent was the first of a seating US president in 20 years up to that date, was just months before the twin bombings of the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. This was 10 years after the fall of the Berlin wall, the crumbling of its cold war nemesis the USSR and the home of the free and brave was just settling into its role as the policeman of the world. Though Clinton at the time, would have been forgiven for being a bit distracted, seeing as the messy affair of Monica Lewinsky was not going away.

Bush did two trips in 2003 and 2008. The world by this time had changed dramatically with the US flailing away at all and sundry in its “War against terror”. In 2001 Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda had flown commercial jets into the twin towers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the heart of the country’s defence establishment.

By the time Obama came around, the war on terror is winding down in terms of intensity and the African continent, which was previously a hopeless place deserving of pity and not much else, is becoming the new battleground – in a commercial sense.

"The US finds itself playing catch up not only to the former colonial powers but to China, which since Obama’s last trip to the continent in 2004, has become the second largest economy in the world. It’s an old story now, but China has been making determined inroads on the continent in search of the natural resources it badly needs to fuel its growth, while accumulating influence by dotting the continent with trophy projects – white elephants or otherwise...

To illustrate, US trade with Africa came in at $100b last year half of China’s $198b during the same period.

It is not difficult to see why Africa is the next big thing. Despite the global economic decline of the last five years the continent has continued to post impressive growth figures, the average age of its population is the lowest in the world, a source of huge future markets and the continent seats on a bounty of natural resources whose extent no one really has a grip on.

It has been estimated for instance, that the DRC has untapped mineral wealth amounting to about $12 trillion or about the size of the US economy.

So it’s not out of any altruism that the US invested upwards of $100m to fly the leader of the free world to our shores. And he has already promised to return before his term is done.

We are like the ugly duckling who is turning into a beautiful swan.

We are the flavour of the month. But like all fads we better enjoy it while we can, but know that it may take year or a generation but everyone will soon move on to the next hot thing.  The trick is to make maximum advantage of this new popularity.

With him on his trip Obama came along with the head of General Electric Jeffrey Immelt, who observers say is looking to benefit from the $7b earmarked for power projects on the continent.

GE is a $243b company or three times the size of the East African Community. The company is a conglomerate of many companies that  manufacture, all number of power plants from nuclear to solar power, railway and aircraft engines, water processing, medical imaging and because they have tons of cash lying around are also into finance.

To move the needle on GE’s financials they will be looking for multi-billion dollar projects – Karuma does not cut it. The East African Community has gone a long way in merging its markets and therefore would be attractive for the multi-billion dollar infrastructure projects in power, railways and communications that would make it attractive to US business.

"A cursory look at how world geopolitics has changed in the last 20 decades, makes it clear that change will always be there and seen against the wider  context of eternity, we need to position ourselves in such a way that we will always be the princess at the ball....

Obama may have a little emotional attachment to the continent but the US state for which he is a functionary does not.

A lot has to be done. We cannot go it alone. We need to accelerate our processes of regional integration to not only ensure our relevance in world affairs but to guarantee our very existence.

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