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Obama in Africa

July 22, 2015

A few months ago, the President of the United States announced that he would be traveling to Africa this month to attend the annual Global Entrepreneurship Summit, hosted by the Kenyan government. According to a White House statement, the purpose of Obama’s trip is to “build on the success of the August 2014 U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit and continue our efforts to work with countries in sub-Saharan Africa, including Kenya, to accelerate economic growth, strengthen democratic institutions, and improve security.”

This is not the first time Obama has visited Africa during his two terms as president. In 2013, the president traveled to Senegal, South Africa, and Tanzania to meet with these countries’ political leaders. The trip was a busy one, with the president attending multiple press conferences, civil society events, Embassy meet-and-greets, and official dinners. The purpose of that trip was to deepen commercial relations, regional trade logistics, and enhance global security, as well as to strengthen the bond between America and Africa. Politics aside, however, it was also a chance for the president to tour these countries in a more personalized fashion; visiting historic sites and meeting with the citizens of Africa.

This trip was an important touchstone in Obama’s legacy, as it was a chance to explore and reconnect with his ancestral roots. Visiting Senegal’s Doree Island – a site once used to board Africans on American slave ships – the president spent half an hour standing quietly looking out on the water, perhaps honoring and/or pondering the tragic circumstances America thrust upon Africa. As the first (and only) African-American president of the United States, he must surely have found that this trip has given him some pause as to what America and Africa’s history meant to him, and hopefully also given him a push to right the wrongs in terms of global human rights.

This year, however, Obama has made a more controversial choice for his trip itinerary, with his decision to visit Ethiopia and Kenya. The decision to visit Ethiopia in particular has shocked human rights activists, who claim that the president’s visit acts as an olive branch to Ethiopia’s repressive government, widely accused of clamping down on dissent. As for Kenya, the president has promised he will visit despite multiple threats from terrorist groups, as well as a travel warning from the U.S. State Department. In spite of the possible dangers, however, Obama remains optimistic about the continent, and is clearly not swayed by threats or the dissenting voice of public opinion.

Obama’s optimism is not unfounded, as Africa as a continent has made political progress during the president’s term, with some twenty of the continent’s fifty countries moving towards democracy, with more accountable governance, economic policies, and impressive leaps in institutionalized peacekeeping and healthcare. With only eighteen months left as president, Obama must now make a choice about the lasting impression he hopes to make in terms of U.S.-African relations, and how his upcoming visit will affect Africa’s future.

Photo Courtesy of US Army Africa/Flickr from President Barack Obama’s Historic Africa Speech in Accra, Ghana on July 11, 2009.

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