Obama Visit: Natural Resources Not Democracy

obamaUnited States President Barack Obama began his second visit to Africa as president on Wednesday in Senegal. The visit will take him to South Africa and Tanzania.

Much has been said about this visit, particularly about the choice of countries where he will call. The most commonly advanced reason for Obama’s selection of these countries is that they have an established democratic tradition and good human rights record. The visit therefore is a reward for good behaviour, for toeing the Western line.

Few people believe this – not even the Americans. The actual reasons are much more America’s self-interest than a deserved reward for the virtuous. In any case, the three are not the most virtuous.

Corruption and intolerance are on the increase in South Africa under President Jacob Zuma. Bishop Desmond Tutu, Nobel Peace Laureate and freedom fighter has been so disillusioned in the governing African National Council (ANC) that he has vowed he will not vote for it again.

Tanzania has been the scene of political intolerance in the last ten years. It is well-known that the ruling Chama cha Mapinduzi (CCM) stole the last election from the opposition Chama cha Demokrasia na Maendeleo (CHADEMA) party and has since subjected the opposition to much harassment. The islands of Zanzibar and Pemba that formed a Union with Tanganyika to form the United Republic of Tanzania have been restive for some time and have been kept in the union by a combination of repression, vote fixing and other arm-twisting measures.

It will be recalled that a Tanzanian diplomat in the United States was convicted for physically abusing and refusing to pay his domestic help. The diplomat has since returned home and no payment to the woman who worked for him has been made despite a court ruling in her favour.

Cases of killing of albinos, allegedly for ritual purposes have never been resolved. Mistreatment of foreigners continues.

True, Senegal is on the mend after ten years of growing corruption under Abdoulaye Wade.

The reasons for Obama’s visit to these countries are therefore more than their democratic and human rights credentials. They are more materialistic and have a lot to do with America’s geopolitical interests.

This is why. President Obama is travelling with a huge entourage of business people (about 500) who are clearly more interested in cutting business deals than fostering the nebulous ideas of democracy. For US politicians and business community, Africa is increasingly strategically important in terms of natural resources and the fight against terrorism.

South Africa, where most of Obama’s business delegation will have keen interest is Africa’s most developed economy and has been a western investment destination for a very long time. Its mineral wealth is of strategic importance to western companies. The wider Southern African region, including Tanzania, has equally huge reserves of minerals, and now oil and gas as well, that the west desires.

But so does China. Indeed early this year China’s President Xi Jinping visited Tanzania and South Africa, obviously not for a friendly chat over a cup of tea, but for serious business. Obama is following suit, or as some commentators have said, playing catch up. The strategy is to check China’s growing trade and investment in Africa. His business entourage will no doubt be exchanging gifts with their African counterparts, but the real prize is what they can extract from Africa.

Tanzania has never been high on the list of US interests in Africa. Why now? It is because of the minerals, gas and oil that were recently discovered in the south of the country. It is about countering China’s growing business presence in the region. Forget about democracy and human rights. Those don’t make dollars for American businesses and they don’t get American presidents elected. Money does.

Stories about Obama snubbing Kenya and going to Tanzania instead because of President Uhuru Kenyatta’s legal issues with the ICC are nonsense. Kenya has the most developed international business, diplomatic and media infrastructure in the region and is so crucial to western interests that it cannot be ignored. And unless western leaders become dumb, Kenya will remain the most important ally in the region.

In the case of Senegal, American interests are largely to do with security. Senegal is largely a moderate, Muslim majority country in a region where extremism is growing. It borders the Maghreb and the Sahel, both areas where Al Qaeda linked groups freely operate. In this sense it is viewed as a useful point for countering the spread of Islamic fundamentalism and perhaps setting up a US military base for the west African and Maghreb regions.

In addition it is the most influential French-speaking country in West Africa.

Indeed, since the Clinton Administration, US governments have been cultivating a strong interest in Senegal. The United States views Senegal as a partner in the fight against transnational security threats, such as terrorism, drug trafficking and piracy.

Understandably Obama could not visit every country in Africa. But that does not mean that those he did not are in any way less democratic. It only confirms that American leaders show more interest in countries with immense natural resources or that guarantee their vital security interests regardless of their democratic or human rights record. That is why it is not surprising, although unnatural, that Obama should be visiting an East African country with a dismal record against corruption.

Obama is certainly going to make the usual noises about governance and human rights, but he will also have his chequebook ready. His business delegations most certainly will. That is the real purpose of the visit.

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