President Barack Obama didn’t get his anticipated meeting with Nelson Mandela, the man who inspired his political career. Instead, as he ended his Africa trip, he joined with a political foe he followed into the White House.
One of the most unlikely images of Obama’s weeklong trip came this morning in Tanzania when he stood next to former U.S. President George W. Bush at a wreath-laying ceremony at the U.S. Embassy in Dar es Salaam in memory of victims of the 1998 terrorist bombing there.
The U.S. presidents, who made no statements, emerged from the embassy compound side by side, walked to the memorial stone under the shade of a tree and bowed their heads in a moment of silence. Obama and Bush then shook hands with six survivors of the attack and their family members, Obama in front and Bush following behind.
Bush is in Tanzania for a forum his wife hosted for African first ladies that also included Michelle Obama. While their husbands stood together in solemn silence, the current and former first ladies were all smiles at a separate event, regaling their audience -- and one another -- with stories about their families.
While Obama campaigned against Bush’s legacy, on African policy he’s following in his predecessor’s footsteps. Obama yesterday credited the Republican with saving millions of African lives through his creation of the Pepfar program, a $15 billion commitment to prevent and treat HIV infections.
“I’m looking forward to being able, on African soil, to once again thank him on behalf of the American people for showing how American generosity and foresight could end up making a real difference in people’s lives,” Obama told reporters in Dar es Salaam yesterday.
Obama sought to build on Bush’s work with a program to expand electric power in Africa, along with trade and agricultural initiatives. He also got the chance, which he didn’t avail himself of during his first term, to celebrate his personal ties to Africa.
From “welcome home” signs in Senegal to Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s challenge to him in South Africa to be a peacemaker, to the Tanzanians’ renaming a road in their capital as Barack Obama Drive, each stop on Obama’s three-country trip with his wife and family highlighted Africa’s expression of ownership and expectations for the son of a Kenyan who became the first black U.S. president.
Obama, 51, born in Hawaii to a white mother, has fashioned his domestic persona as a racial bridge-builder more than a black politician. As he sought re-election, he often played down his African heritage in the face of a “birther” movement that alleged wrongly that he isn’t a U.S. citizen.
The meeting with Bush in Tanzania capped the week on a high, bipartisan note, even if there’s little impact back home.
“The spectacle helps both men, and it may spiff up the beleaguered U.S. world image a bit,” said Bruce Buchanan, a political scientist at the University of Texas at Austin, who studies voter behavior in presidential elections. “The American people like to see bipartisan presidential displays that feature good works before an international audience,” compared with 5-4 Supreme Court decisions and partisan paralysis in Congress, he said.
Obama’s trip to Africa has little significance in U.S. domestic politics, said Stu Rothenberg, editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report in Washington.
While the trip may add to Obama’s prestige and resonate in some parts of the country it “is kind of a little blip, when you stand back and look at the challenges facing the country,” he said.
Before departing for Washington today, Obama toured Tanzania’s Ubungo Power Plant and promoted his electric-service expansion. Obama also kicked around a soccer ball that converts kinetic energy to electricity. He said they would be distributed throughout Africa.
“Thirty minutes of play, several hours of light,” he said.
Yesterday in Dar es Salaam, he held a roundtable discussion with corporate executives to announce a trade initiative, and said Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew, Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz would be visiting Africa to follow up.
Obama also issued an executive order and made a $10 million commitment to expand anti-poaching efforts to protect African wildlife.
Obama’s Power Africa initiative, beginning with the promise of $16 billion in public and private financing, is the most important and far-reaching element of the trip, said Richard Downie, deputy director and fellow of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“If he’s looking for a legacy in Africa, then this is a good issue to pick,” Downie said. “When you look at what’s holding Africa back, it’s the infrastructure gap, and the biggest deficit is power.”
“It’s all tied in so that Africa is viewed as a continent not only for direct foreign investment but for trade both ways,” said one of the round table participants, Jay Ireland, president and chief executive officer of GE Africa, a unit of General Electric Co., in a telephone interview.
“There’s a lot of consumers here. I think you’re going to see real potential for U.S. exports to be a factor for Africa,” he said.
To be sure, Obama’s visits in Africa were also personal. They included a tour of a former slave house at Goree Island in Senegal and, in South Africa to the former prison at Robben Island where Mandela was held for opposing apartheid. With Mandela critically ill in the hospital, Obama met with his relatives. He delivered a speech in a hall in Cape Town where the late Robert F. Kennedy once challenged the apartheid system.
Obama has met once with Mandela, visiting the former South African leader in a Washington hotel room in 2005 when Obama was a newly-elected U.S. senator.
During the Africa trip, Obama invoked Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. along the way as he drew a narrative arc from African slavery and apartheid to the movements that paved the way for his own political rise in the U.S.
While Africans turned out in their thousands to cheer Obama’s arrival, their expectations were tempered by experience.
“Right now, we see the visit by President Obama as a benefit, but we still don’t know if it will bring positive outcomes,” said David Joseph, 27, an artist in Dar es Salaam who carves handicrafts.
“Obama is here now. Bush came in the past. We aren’t sure that there are benefits that we are going to get,” he said. But with the help of the Americans, we could see real prosperity.’’
The Trade Africa initiative announced yesterday will initially focus on five east African countries -- Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda -- with a combined population of 130 million people. Gross domestic product for the region quadrupled in 10 years, to more than $80 billion, the White House said in a fact sheet released before the round table.
The initiative’s goal is to increase by 40 percent exports to the U.S. from the East African Community.
“Ultimately, the goal here is for Africa to build Africa for Africans,” Obama said at a news conference yesterday in Dar es Salaam. “Our job is to be a partner in that process.”
American companies see growing opportunity in Africa. U.S. merchandise exports to the 49-country region were $21 billion in 2011, up 23 percent from 2010, according to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative. Imports from sub-Saharan Africa were valued at $74 billion in 2011, up 14 percent from 2010. Most of that, about $60 billion, was crude oil.
“If Obama would have come in his first term, maybe the new power initiative he just launched would have come earlier,” said Honest Prosper Ngowi, a senior lecturer and consultant at Mzumbe University in Tanzania. “He could have turned around the situation here much more quickly. But as Tanzanians, we can’t just sit and wait for American presidents to come.”