from Africa in Transition

Diplomacy and Africa

June 17, 2011

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U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton addresses the 53-member African Union at the AU's headquarters in Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa, June 13, 2011. (Courtesy Reuters/Stringer)

There seems to be a new flurry of Obama administration diplomatic engagement with Africa. While it is not necessarily in response to African criticism that President Obama, whose father was Kenyan, does not pay enough attention to sub-Saharan Africa, it highlights the complexities of balancing our sometimes contradictory interests in Africa.

Last week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Tanzania, Zambia, and Ethiopia, becoming the first secretary of state to address the African Union. The purpose of her trip was to emphasize the Obama administration’s commitment to democracy, good governance, economic development (in particular, the African Growth and Opportunity Act), and public health.

Michelle Obama, along with her daughters and mother, will tour the continent from June 21 to 26, with planned stops in South Africa and Botswana. The first lady’s trip to South Africa will emphasize the role of African youth and underscore the country’s democratic transition: she will speak at forum on women leaders in Africa; tour Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated for eighteen years; and meet with South African President Jacob Zuma, among other activities. The trip will bound to have a very high profile in Africa.

In Washington, President Obama recently received Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan and Ali Bongo Ondimba of Gabon. Both have oil and the latter has a notoriously poor record on corruption and human rights abuses, contrary to the democracy and good governance agenda highlighted by the first lady and secretary’s African travel, though the White House reports that President Obama raised human rights issues during his latter meeting.