While sitting around the television watching the news with my Senegalese host family, the older brother reflected out loud, “I still don’t understand the purpose of Obama’s visit…” I shrugged. “He came to promote gay rights,” chimed in the youngest sister, tongue in cheek.
Despite the posters, placards, and press, it seems that for many in Senegal the Obama allure has faded. Some considered his visit an inconvenience — roads were closed, forcing people from work, and security everywhere was tightened. Others considered it a waste — those millions of dollars, they say, would be much better spent on the people of Africa themselves.
Having seen the president at a brief meet-and-greet event the day before, I was once again reminded of the awe that he commands. I remembered the heady days before his first presidential campaign, when my classmates would hear him speak and feel as if we were on the verge of something new and powerful. The sense of pride back then was palpable.
Yet after having left, upon returning to my Senegalese host-family of eight – one of whom was denied a U.S. tourist visa, despite paying over $250 for the mere application – the wonder had worn off.
Obama’s Africa trip seems to serve a host of general diplomatic necessities: He must prove to Africans he has not forgotten them, he must prove to China he has not forgotten Africa, he must thumb his nose at Uhuru Kenyatta by going to Tanzania instead of Kenya (regardless of whether or not the U.S. is a signatory of the court Kenyatta), and he must reaffirm his unwavering commitment to fight for civil liberties in the face of racial discrimination (see Gorée and Mandela).
In that sense the trip is self-serving. The people of Senegal waited for some sort of accord to be signed, or at least a public speech, but none came. They were given a pat on the back for holding elections, a wag of the finger for denouncing gay rights, and that was that.
The Obama administration’s engagement with Africa has no doubt been substantial: He has increased drone programs across the continent in an effort to fight terrorism, primarily through the rapid expansion of AFRICOM. But this does little for the citizens themselves.
If Obama really wanted to help the continent he could go a long way by not only increasing aid, but also facilitating trade. The Power Africa initiative, announced last Sunday in South Africa and focused mainly on East Africa, is a move in the right direction, but more should be done. Massive handouts to American farmers at taxpayer expense reduce African export competitiveness, and the U.S. food aid system stunts local productivity.
The key export on this trip was the concept of a working democracy — modeled, packaged, and shipped courtesy of the American people. Africa, and especially Senegal, has proved that they can do it themselves. If Obama ventured further into Dakar, let alone the villages of greater Senegal, he’d hear the people tell him that strong institutions and “good governance” are not enough to ensure the livelihood of the poor, and that the civility of a society grows concomitant with its economy.
Democracy means little if it does not alleviate the suffering of the voter.