Obama: US-Africa ties ‘scratching the surface’

Barack Obama reiterated his calls for stronger commercial ties in one of his final speeches on Africa policy.


Barack Obama has renewed his calls for stronger business ties with Africa, arguing that existing links are only ‘scratching the surface’ as his term in office draws to an end.

Speaking at the US-Africa Business Forum in New York a day after his final appearance at the UN General Assembly, the president said that ties had dramatically increased during his presidency and that the US was poised to boost its engagement with the continent.

“We are making progress, but we’re just scratching the surface.  We have so much more work that can be done and will be done. Only a fraction of American exports — about 2 percent — go to Africa.  So there’s still so much untapped potential.”

The speech represented one of Obama’s final addresses on Africa policy after eight years at the helm. The president took the opportunity to review his legacy on the continent, highlighting his four visits – a record for a US president – and his administration’s renewal of the flagship African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), which provides tariff free-access to the US market for African manufacturers.

 “American investment in Africa is up 70 percent. US exports to Africa have surged…In the two years since our last forum, American and African companies have concluded deals worth nearly $15 billion, which will support African development across the board, from manufacturing to health care to renewable energy,” he said.

Obama’s African legacy will be remembered for the President’s relentless focus on commercial ties. Under his presidency, the Department of Commerce opened new offices in Angola, Tanzania, Ethiopia, and Mozambique, while the US Trade and Development Agency and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation also increased their presence.

Yet not all are convinced that the President’s commercial legacy on the continent has been an overwhelming success. Joshua Meltzer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, argued that US trade with the continent was undeveloped and had declined since 2011. Power Africa, Obama’s flagship private sector partnership to boost electricity generation on the continent, has been criticised for slow progress towards its goal of mobilising 10,000MW of power in five years.

Nevertheless, the president stuck to his mercantilist vision for future relations, highlighting Power Africa’s ‘real progress’ and further spurning the aid dependency that characterised Africa’s engagement with previous US administrations.    

“This is a US-Africa business forum.  This is not charity.  All of you should be wanting to make money, and create great products and great services, and be profitable, and do right by your investors,” he said.

Echoing his address to the African Union in July 2015, Obama repeated his clarion call to good governance,  insisting that Africa’s commercial interests are best served by a rejection of nepotistic practices and bribery.

“Graft, cronyism, corruption — it stifles growth, scares off investment.  A business should begin with a handshake and not a shakedown. The truth is, is that those governments that are above-board and transparent, people want to do business there.  People don’t want to do business in places where the rules are constantly changing depending on who’s up, who’s down, whose cousin is who.”

Yet despite the stern warning, Obama concluded with the kind optimism that has characterised his engagement with the continent.  

“If we do more to buy from each other and sell from each other, if we do more to bring down barriers to doing business, if we do more to strengthen infrastructure and innovation and governance, I know we’re going to be able to move our societies and economies forward.  And that will be good not just for Africa, but it will be good for the United States and good for the world.”

David Thomas

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