Unpacking Obama’s Message to the African Union

President Barack Obama just left Ethiopia, the last leg of his high-profile visit to the African continent, the last of his four official trips to Africa. After spending some time in Kenya, President Obama traveled for two days of events in Ethiopia, where he met with Ethiopian and other leaders, and, most notably, gave the first ever address by a sitting U.S. president to the African Union. While his visit to Kenya elicited a lot of local interest – partly, of course, due to the fact that he shares ancestry with the people of Kenya –  his visit to Ethiopia generated less frenzy, though his remarks during the African Union speech were discussed around the world. Here, we unpack some of the key themes of his message to African leaders.

Repositioning the U.S. as a better partner for Africa than China

President Obama addressed the African Union from the headquarters of the African Union in Addis Ababa, a $200 million building inaugurated in 2012 – and fully funded, right down to the office furniture, by China. He spoke at length about the need for opportunity creation in Africa, and for growth sustained by economic development, touting the U.S. as the kind of partner that will help build capacity and support African goals. Further, in a more or less direct jab at China, Obama said that countries which invest in Africa should do so in the spirit of real economic partnership. “Economic relationships can’t simply be about building countries’ infrastructure with foreign labor or extracting Africa’s natural resources,” Obama told the African Union. China has been hungry for African resources, and has made billions of dollars of investments and loans to African countries, in a bid to secure said resources necessary to fuel China’s own booming growth and population.

Meanwhile, the U.S. presence – particularly economic – in Africa is nowhere near as mighty as that of China. Its primary trade partners in Africa are South Africa, Angola and Nigeria, and most of that trade centers around energy. If the U.S. is to foster a “real economic partnership” with Africa, the challenge, in the coming years and decades, will be to broaden economic ties with more countries and more industries, and not only treat the continent as a dumping ground for U.S. exports. The recent 10-year renewal of AGOA (African Growth and Opportunity Act), which gives African nations duty-free access to U.S. markets for certain goods, is a necessary step forward, however, much remains to be done to ensure that Africans can benefit from a more robust economic relationship with the United States.

Ethiopia, the “Fledgling Democracy?”

Obama drew heavy criticism for describing Ethiopia’s government as “democratically elected” – even though the most recent elections saw the ruling party win 500 of the 547 parliamentary seats, and took place in a climate of intimidation and fear, with no observers – other than those of the African Union – allowed in the country. Furthermore, in the context of the fight against terrorism and extremism, Ethiopia has also been tightening laws surrounding freedom of speech. Ethiopia is the 4th largest jailer of journalists in the world, and, despite the release of some of the bloggers detained since April 2014 mere days before President Obama’s visit, the fact remains that Ethiopia is not a shining example of democracy in Africa, something which even Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn acknowledged, somewhat, describing Ethiopia as a “fledgling” democracy, emerging from “centuries of undemocratic practices.”

And while this may be true, it is unfortunate that countries allied with the U.S. in the fight against terrorism seem to get a free pass when it comes to undermining political and civil rights, when this is justified in the context of the “war on terror.” Particularly as the U.S. itself struggles to balance liberty and security, it is not in a strong position to criticize its African allies when they do the same.

During his remarks, Obama tread very carefully, and spoke generally of the need for African nations to “fully protect the rights of their people,” even praising the Ethiopian prime minister for acknowledging that his country has a long way to go as far as democracy is concerned. African allies to the United States know that their security partnerships and arrangements are more important to their American counterparts than a commitment to democracy, and particularly as China – whose presence on the continent is increasingly stronger – has absolutely no qualms regarding the state of political and civil rights in Africa, the U.S. is not in a strong position to push for further democratization.

President for Life

Obama drew applause – and laughter – from the audience when he used his own experience to talk about the need for heads of state to step down at the end of their legal mandate.

It has been an extraordinary privilege for me to serve as President of the United States.  I cannot imagine a greater honor or a more interesting job.  I love my work.  But under our Constitution, I cannot run again.  I can’t run again.  I actually think I’m a pretty good President — I think if I ran I could win.  But I can’t. So there’s a lot that I’d like to do to keep America moving, but the law is the law. And no one person is above the law.  Not even the President.  And I’ll be honest with you — I’m looking forward to life after being President. I won’t have such a big security detail all the time.  It means I can go take a walk.  I can spend time with my family.  I can find other ways to serve.  I can visit Africa more often.   The point is, I don’t understand why people want to stay so long.   Especially when they’ve got a lot of money.

Obama even directly mentioned Burundi, which just held a very dubious presidential election where President Nkurunziza won his bid to stay in office for a third mandate, despite constitutional term limits. While elections do not a democracy make, the right to vote in a private, independent manner, in elections that are free and fair, and provide people with choice, is absolutely essential to a healthy democracy. Obama tried to speak to this issue in a personal way, attempting to steer clear from a more moralizing approach about the need for strong institutions, rather than strong men (which was Obama’s message in 2009, during his first visit as President to the continent).

Indeed, as African nations are grappling with their responsibility to support democracy, through free and fair elections, but also through the expansion – not the restriction – of human, political and civil rights, economic and security imperatives have a tendency to trump these issues. As the U.S. seeks to become a better partner for Africa, it must examine how it weighs the need for democracy with the need to fight terrorism in the region. Shying away from a strong stance on civil and political rights is a mistake, and will not serve the best interests of Americans in the long run.