Obama’s visit to Kenya: why Africa matters to America

US President Barack Obama speaks at the US-Africa leaders summit. The number of US programs and initiatives on the continent has grown exponentially. EPA

Preparations are underway for US President Barack Obama to once again visit Africa. In July, he will become the first American president to visit Kenya.

Ahead of Obama’s visit, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta launched the local chapter of a global initiative to promote entrepreneurship. The pair will be co-hosting the sixth Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Nairobi.

Obama has visited Africa several times over recent years, highlighting his commitment to the continent. He visited Egypt in June 2009, Ghana in July 2009, Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania in June-July 2013 and South Africa again in December 2013 to attend former South African president Nelson Mandela’s funeral.

US Secretary of State John Kerry recently paved the way for Obama’s visit. This included visiting Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti and Somalia during a series of stops with several African partner nations. Kerry also attended the inauguration of Nigeria’s new president Muhammadu Buhari.

This trip is likely to be Obama’s last African tour as US president.

US hyper-engagement with Africa

The number of African programs and initiatives has grown exponentially since the launch the White House strategy for sub-Saharan Africa in June 2012. This includes projects related to agriculture, energy and trade as well as the US-Africa Summit. This is on top of the usual programs such as USAID and the emergency plan for AIDS relief.

The overall goal is to strengthen democratic institutions, spur economic growth, trade, and investment, advance peace and security and promote development.

One clear objective is to increase and diversify US-Africa trade, particularly American exports to the continent. There has been a dramatic shift in trade balance thanks, in part, to increased US shale gas production which has reduced oil imports from the continent.

US-Africa trade was US$73 billion in 2014, US$38.1 billion being American exports and US$34.6 billion in imports. From January-April 2015, the US exported US$8.8 billion worth of goods to Africa and imported US$8.3 billion.

For the first time, total American exports to Africa in 2014 were greater than the value of its total imports from the continent. Seven years ago there was a US$88bn trade deficit.

The slowdown in US oil imports means China’s trade with the continent has flown past America. China-Africa trade at US$222 billion in 2014 is now three times greater than US-Africa trade.

A greater focus on security in Africa

The US is heavily focused on African security concerns – and so it should be. Without basic security Africa’s ambitions such as lowering unemployment, growing the middle class and getting its citizens out of dire poverty will prove fruitless.

The US assists Africa by being the largest financial supporter of peace operations on the continent. This is in addition to other multidimensional contributions to peace operations, both old and new.

The new includes Obama launching the African peacekeeping rapid response partnership in 2014. This contributes US$110 million per year for three to five years to enhance the rapid deployment capabilities of six African countries.

Obama also recently launched the US$65 million security governance initiative. This will enable Kenya, Ghana, Mali, Niger, Nigeria and Tunisia to strengthen their security sectors. This is in addition to the US Air Force allocating US$50 million for the construction of an airfield in Agadez, Niger, to be used mainly by drones.

Rising conflicts and terrorist activities combined with increased co-operation has led to a rise in military activities. In 2013, the US Africa Command conducted 55 operations, ten exercises, and 481 security co-operation activities. In 2014, the US carried out 674 military activities across Africa.

The 2015 numbers are expected to be much higher due to political instability, conflicts and the activities of terrorist organisations. Hotspots include Burundi, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia’s Ogaden region, Libya, Mali, Nigeria, Somalia and South Sudan.

Boko Haram’s new allegiance to Islamic State is of major concern. The fear is that it will lead to further violence and that their extremist ideology will spread across. Older battles with groups such as Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army also continue despite significant strides in the fight against them.

Africa rightfully features in America’s new National Security Strategy. The continent’s security has an impact on global security and US interests. The inability of African governments to provide basic needs to their people enables criminal or terrorist networks to flourish. These networks, often well-funded, can attack American embassies, businesses or even the homeland.

It is not only the US which is expanding its military presence in Africa. China’s policy of non-interference has ended. Beijing now has 700 combat troops in South Sudan and is looking to set up its first overseas naval base in Djibouti.

Mention of a Chinese military base in eastern Zimbabwe has raised alarm about China’s growing influence in Africa.

US Marines and Liberian troops set up a landing zone at the construction site of an Ebola treatment centre. John Moore/Getty Images

US and Chinese interest set to expand

The US and China’s economic and military involvement in Africa will continue to expand. Obama’s upcoming visit is a clear sign of this.

Africa’s rising economic significance and growing consumer markets can no longer be ignored. In a recent Economist Group study, 65% of the 217 global companies surveyed planned to expand into Africa as either an immediate priority or a priority within the next decade. The final decision to invest or not depends on factors like security, economic policy and politics.

A positive sign from the US last week was the House of Representatives move to reauthorise the African Growth and Opportunity Act. The act is seen as the:

… centerpiece of trade relations between the United States and sub-Saharan Africa.

The House voted to extend the act for 10 years. The bill is largely the same as the version earlier passed by the Senate. The final step is for the Senate to approve the House version or it can be finalised via a conference committee before Obama signs it into law.

Despite economic growth, Africa is still rife with security concerns. Many parts of of the continent still have the ingredients for conflict and turmoil. Until these cease to exist, expect continued US and Chinese involvement. The instability threatens national security and economic interests of the foreign powers as well as African nations.