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A man wears a t-shirt with a Barack Obama portrait
Image: Reuters

Barack Obama's private Africa mission

Gwendolin Hilse
July 16, 2018

Africa had high hopes for Obama’s presidency, many of which he didn't fulfill. Now he's in Kenya and South Africa for the first time since leaving office. Can he live up to the public's expectations as a private citizen?


"I'm looking forward to life after being president. I won't have such a big security detail all the time," announced Barack Obama, still president of the USA at the time, during his speech to the African Union in 2015. He sounded euphoric: "It means I can go take a walk. I can spend time with my family. […] I can visit Africa more often." It has taken him a year and a half to get round to it, though.

His diary for this trip is no less full than in the days when he was considered the most powerful man in the world. On Sunday he arrived in Kenya, his father's homeland, for a two-day visit. Shortly after his arrival he held brief meetings with the Kenyan president, Uhuru Kenyatta, and opposition leader Raila Odinga. He will also be spending time with his family: On Monday he paid a visit to the home of his step-grandmother and then opened a sports and vocational center founded by his sister, Auma Obama, who studied in Germany.

Cartoon of Obama

"I think that Obama is now at a good place where he can visit the country and do what he believes he is able to do as an ordinary citizen, Martin Oloo, a Kenyan political analyst, told DW. "Perhaps as an ordinary person who can mobilize resources or can mobilize supporters and make a contribution without making it look political and it appearing like a partisan thing."

What's left of Obamamania?

When Barack Obama was sworn in as the first African-American US president in 2009, a wave of "Obama-mania" swept across the African continent. His face was printed on African fabrics and every African artist had portraits of the American statesman in their repertoire. Expectations were high: Africans believed their continent would be given a higher status with regard to US foreign policy, investment and development aid. After Obama's eight years in office, many Africans still feel disillusioned.

Read moreOpinion: No reason for 'Obama-Mania' in Africa

"I give him six out of 10 for his Africa policies," said Oloo. "Obama knows Africa and its problems; for sure he would have done more in a more favorable political environment." But in the early years of his presidency, the economic crisis and rising unemployment in his own country, as well as the foreign policy hotspots of Afghanistan and Iraq, left him little time for Africa. He tried to make up for it later, making four trips to Africa and visiting seven African countries — more than any other US president. He was also the first sitting US president to address the African Union. Instead of just relying on humanitarian aid, he emphasized the continent's economic potential.

"For Kenyans who were expecting a lot from him, they were disappointed, because he was not a Kenyan president, he was not a United States president for Kenyans, he was an international president, a president of the US and therefore had to deliver across sections of constituencies, not just the blacks," said Oloo.

Obama's successor - Donald Trump - by contrast has shown little interest in Africa. Apart from imposing a travel ban on certain African countries and describing others as "shithole countries," he has said hardly anything so far about America's policies toward Africa.

A protester holding up a sign with Obamas slogan 'Yes we can' against Malaria
Expectations of Obama were high, under his successor Trump they are almost non-existent Image: Getty Images/AFP/T. Karumba

Honoring Nelson Mandela

After visiting Kenya, Obama will travel on to South Africa, where he will give a speech in honor of Nelson Mandela. The South African freedom fighter would have turned 100 on July 18. Obama has frequently emphasized how influential Mandela was for him — not only in his political career. 

Obama's private visit has great symbolic value for South Africa, says Andrew Feinstein, a former representative of Mandela's party, the African National Congress (ANC). "I think there's a certain irony to it when you think that Ronald Reagan publicly declared Nelson Mandela a terrorist," Feinstein told DW. "The fact that the first African-American president is now coming to South Africa to honor Mandela's legacy is retrospectively very important."

Read moreObama's Africa legacy: More trade than democracy 

The planned meeting between Obama and the current South African President Cyril Ramaphosa is also symbolic, said Feinstein. "I think a past president retains a certain aura, and I think the fact that he is visiting Ramaphosa is significant in that it's almost a stamp of approval for Ramaphosa after the quite dark years in South Africa under President Jacob Zuma who was involved in constant corruption scandals, and who was seen as a quite incompetent president for the country."

Obama sees the young as Africa's future

Barack Obama will round off his Africa trip with a speech to around 200 students from his own foundation, who he has invited to attend a workshop in Johannesburg. The aim of the program is to train and support young African leaders. "He is a very important icon, a very important role model. I think when you look at his own lifestyle, look at his integrity, when you look at his humility, his intellectual contribution, to society, he is a role model," Oloo said.

African American delegates at DNC reflect on Obama's legacy

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