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Obama in Africa: Catching Up with China

President Obama is currently touring Africa on a visit scheduled from June 26 to July 3, 2013. He was recently in South Africa after having visited Senegal and Tanzania next after South Africa. Many commentators see this trip as a catch-up mission, as an attempt by the United States to respond to the Chinese economic breakthrough [fr] in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Since 2010, China has been the leading commercial partner in Africa [fr], although four years ago, at the time of Obama’s visit to Ghana, the US were in this position. Obama’s speech in Ghana four years ago left many Africans sceptical and there seemed to be little common ground.

In the video below, Global Voices contributor Abel Asrat for Global Voices in Ahmaric gave his point of view on Obama's policy in Africa as of today:

On Twitter, doubts over the reasons for Obama’s visit to Africa were reflected by use of hashtag Wolof  #ObamaTakh which translates just well as “Because of Obama” as “Thanks to Obama” – appeared several days before his arrival in Dakar.

Since his arrival on Senegalese soil “because of Obama” seems to be the most prominent use  of the word that took over the social networks. Then the mood changed, as @LebouPrincess, a Senegalese based in DC,  underlined on Twitter:

Plus impressionnant que l'arrivée du Air Force One c'est le revirement des #kebetu (Twittos en Wolof] lol guemoulene dara [vous êtes versatiles] #ObamaTakh

What was more striking than the arrival of Air Force One was the change of mood with hashtags #kebtu, (tweets in the Wolof language) lol guemoulene dara [you are versatile] #ObamaTakh.

The following day Obama managed to get the Senegalese somewhat on his side by mentioning traditional Senegalese wrestling during his discussions with President Macky Sall and saying some words in the Wolof language: Nio Far (We are partners),Teranga (hospitality) and Jerejef (Thank you).

Central to discussions between the two presidents were the conflict in Mali, drug trafficking and economic issues [fr]:

Le président américain Barack Obama a annoncé, jeudi à Dakar, que son administration était en train de « chercher des modalités de reconduction » de l’AGOA [African Growth and Opportunity Act], la Loi américaine sur la croissance et les opportunités en Afrique.
S'exprimant au cours d'une conférence de presse conjointe avec son homologue sénégalais Macky Sall, au lendemain de son arrivée au Sénégal pour une visite officielle de trois jours, le chef de l'Etat américain a indiqué avoir demandé à son administration de travailler pour arriver à une reconduction de l'AGOA.
L'AGOA est un programme unilatéral de préférence commerciale signé par le Congrès des États-Unis et permettant l'exemption de taxes et l'accès à un quota libre pour plus de 6 400 produits provenant des pays éligibles de l'Afrique sub-saharienne.
Le président Obama a par ailleurs réaffirmé la volonté de son administration de travailler à développer les relations commerciales entre son pays et le Sénégal.

The American President, Barack Obama, announced on Thursday in Dakar that his administration was currently “researching ways to renew” from the AGOA (African Growth and Opportunity Act), the American law covering growth and opportunities in Africa.
During a joint press conference with his Senegalese counterpart, Macky Sall, the day after his arrival for a three day visit to Senegal, the American head of state indicated that he had asked his administration to work on renewal of the AGOA. The AGOA is a unilateral programme covering commercial preference signed by the United States congress, allowing tax exemption and access to a free quota for more than 6,400 products coming from eligible countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. What is more, President Obama restated the desire of his administration to work on developing commercial relations between his country and Senegal.

In Senegal and elsewhere, the most commented upon moment of the press conference given by the two presidents, was when Barack Obama, freely and almost certainly with the backing of his Senegalese counterpart, broached the topic of gay rights in Africa. Sabine Cessou on Rue89 explains how questions were selected [fr] during the press conference :

Les questions des quelques 300 journalistes présents ne pouvaient pas être posées librement, mais avaient été sélectionnées à l’avance. Ce processus a permis à seulement deux journalistes sénégalais et deux journalistes américains de poser quelques salves de questions chacun.

The questions from the 300 journalists were screened beforehand. The process allowed for two Senegalese journalists and two american ones to ask the tough questions.

Macky Sall’s response did not disappoint Senegalese traditionalists [fr]:

Fondamentalement, c’est une question de société. Il ne saurait y avoir un modèle fixe dans tous les pays. Les cultures sont différentes, tout comme les religions et les traditions.
Même dans les pays où il y a dépénalisation de l’homosexualité, les avis ne sont pas partagés. Le Sénégal est un pays tolérant : on ne dit pas à quelqu’un qu’il n’aura pas de travail parce qu’il est homosexuel. Mais on n’est pas prêt à dépénaliser l’homosexualité. C’est l’option pour le moment, tout en respectant les droits des homosexuels.
Nous ne sommes pas homophobes au Sénégal. La société doit prendre le temps de traiter ces questions sans pression.

At heart, this is a question of society. It would not be possible to have a fixed model in every country. Cultures are different, just as religions and traditions are.
Even in countries which have decriminalised homosexualisity, opinions are not shared. Senegal is a tolerant country: nobody is ever told that they will not work because they are homosexual. However, we are not ready to decriminalise homosexuality. That is our choice for the present, while at the same time we respect the rights of homosexuals.
We are not homophobes in Senegal. Society must take time to deal with these issues without pressure.

In the US, Kimberly McCarthy had been executed the previous day in Texas, and Sall's cutting remarks about the death penalty had created the same unanimity: the Senegalese president remarked to his interviewer that certain countries still applied the death penalty – without naming the United States – although it is abolished in Senegal (the last capital punishment was in 1967) which, on the other hand, is careful not to preach to others.

As @hpenot_lequipe, a journalist for the french newspaper l'Equipe, remarked on Twitter:

Très intéressant échange entre Obama et Macky Sall. Pour une fois, un président africain ne s'est pas écrasé devant E-U. Respect.

Very interesting exchange between Obama and Macky Sall. For once, an African president who doesn’t fall before the US. Respect.

And from @Toutankhaton in Paris:

Bravo à @macky_sall pour sa réponse cash à @BarackObama ! Peine de mort vs mariage gay! #obamatakh

Bravo @macky_sall for his kosher response to @BarackObama! Death penalty vs gay marriage! #obamatakh

Below is the video of the press conference by Xalimasn from Senegal:

Photos from Obama’s visit can be viewed on the Facebook page of the Dakar Echo.

In South Africa, his welcome seemed a little less cordial, as the Washington Post's foreign affairs blogger Max Fisher points out:

For much of the 1980s, the United Kingdom and United States were perceived by some South Africans, not wholly without reason, as tolerating the apartheid government. That may help explain why some of Obama’s critics in South Africa criticize him for supporting the “apartheid state” of Israel. The groups also cite U.S. drone strikes and the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

 

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