President Obama is beginning an 8-day tour of Africa on Thursday, the first time he has done any sort of extensive African visit as president. It's a moment that's been eagerly awaited by countless Africans, many of whom view Obama as a promising sign of racial equality.
Beginning at a slave port in Senegal, Obama's first day was spent praising West Africa's oldest democracy, which is currently pursuing a high-level corruption case against the former president's son and trying Chad's ex-dictator for crimes against humanity — both major accomplishments for Senegal's democratic institutions. Perhaps inspired by the recent Supreme Court ruling, Obama has also unexpectedly been calling for LGBT rights in the Muslim country, comparing it to racial struggles in the U.S. In the following week, Obama also plans to visit Tanzania and South Africa, where he will continue pressing these talking points.
This trip to Africa seeks to achieve two political goals for Obama. The first is to represent U.S. interest. The U.S. annually spends billions of dollars in aid in Africa, and Obama himself has made significant improvements to AIDS and malaria efforts there. Financially, the U.S. is pouring money into Africa, but politically, its presence is lacking. China, on the other hand, has been sending officials to Africa regularly and spending billions on infrastructure and the economy. To maintain relevancy in a rising region, the U.S. must become more involved with Africa, starting with this trip.
His second goal is to discuss the 2015 expiration of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), which reduces customs duties for growing African nations. Obama hopes not only to renew AGOA, but to modify it to focus on job creation. In order to do this, he will need the support of the African trading bloc ECOWAS, making this trip economically and diplomatically relevant.
Countries that Obama will not be visiting include Kenya (his father’s birthplace), Nigeria, and Ethiopia. While these countries are either regional economic heavyweights or simply places that feature rabid Obama fans, they all currently have leaders that have been accused of significant criminal activity or human rights abuses. Obama's snubbing of their countries during his visit is a diplomatic threat to ignore the nations in more serious ways later.
And yet, even with all these other entanglements, one topic looms large: Nelson Mandela. The ailing South African leader has been a massive influence on Obama's public service, and Obama has even publicly referred to Mandela as a personal "hero." Obama was hoping to finally have his first real meeting with Mandela as president, but due to Mandela's failing health, that is likely not an option anymore.
Still, even without such a historic meeting, Obama's trip has quite a few lofty goals. Whether or not he manages to achieve them remains to be seen.