HE HAS taken more than six years, but on July 24th Barack Obama is to arrive in Kenya on his first trip to his father’s home country since he became president in 2009. This less-than-hasty filial visit has fed the long-running criticism that America’s first black president has neglected Africa.
That is not entirely fair. Last month Mr Obama overcame gridlock in Washington, DC, to renew the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), a Bill Clinton-era law that lets Africans sell many goods tariff-free to America. That will benefit millions of Africans in the next ten years. And Mr Obama has some schemes to his name. One of the most promising is Power Africa, a public-private partnership to tackle one of Africa’s greatest constraints by building electricity plants. Even so, the critics have a point. In a continent of 1.1 billion souls that includes five of the ten fastest-growing economies in the world, China is making more of a splash than America.
During his first term, Mr Obama visited sub-Saharan Africa only once, dropping in for less than 24 hours to make a speech in Ghana that raised expectations of greater engagement that went unmet. His second term has been better, but only a bit: two trips so far, including one to attend the funeral of Nelson Mandela; plus an African summit in Washington.
Policy has been allowed to drift. Mr Obama has passively continued with the actions of his bolder predecessors. Even his successes have underwhelmed. Mr Obama did not extend AGOA to farm products, for example. Power Africa, which began in 2013, is yet to live up to its transformative rhetoric. On aid and development, nothing Mr Obama has done can rival George W. Bush’s launch of the Millennium Challenge Corporation, which promotes reforms (ranging from better vocational education to stronger property rights) in willing African countries, or his huge AIDS-relief effort, which has saved millions of lives. And on security, which critics argue ought to be Mr Obama’s priority in Africa but has not been, the situation has deteriorated. Boko Haram, an Islamist insurgency with a taste for enslaving young girls, has spread from northern Nigeria into Chad and Cameroon. The Shabab, a similarly brutal group, is terrorising Kenya as well as Somalia. A dozen sub-Saharan countries face jihadist threats.
Part of the trouble is that a president’s time is limited, and much of Mr Obama’s has been filled by the chaos in the Middle East, the rise of China and the predations of Vladimir Putin. Mr Obama himself has exacerbated this tendency with his management of foreign policy. His administration trusts its diplomats too little and tries to micromanage them too much using the National Security Council, a body that lacks the bandwidth to master Africa’s everyday complexities.
On security, now that Muhammadu Buhari has replaced the incompetent Goodluck Jonathan as president of Nigeria, America needs to become more involved in the struggle against Boko Haram. Mr Buhari was in Washington this week seeking (non-lethal) military equipment, as well as help with training and communications. In Kenya America has been closely engaged with the security services, as well as with the African Union force that has pushed the Shabab back in neighbouring Somalia. But its efforts are small-scale. For what remains of his term, Mr Obama needs to explore ways of getting more equipment, expertise and spying power to the new front line in the battle against jihadism.
Come on Barack
Overall, Mr Obama needs to show more imagination. America could, for example, promote better governance in Africa by digging up and sharing more intelligence about corrupt officials and companies. It should also join the International Criminal Court, which polices the world’s worst human-rights abuses. With American backing, the court would have more credibility to prosecute—and therefore deter—powerful abusers, of whom Africa has too many. Alas, Congress says no.
There is plenty of scope for America to forge closer ties with Africa. Not for sentimental reasons nor to exclude China: the efforts of the two superpowers to foster African development are usually complementary. The reason for Mr Obama to try harder is that it is in America’s interest to work closely with a continent which will become steadily more important in the future than it is today.