"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)


missed opportunity

Over the weekend the Obama administration announced that the President's first visit to a sub-Saharan African country will be to Ghana. Some eyebrows were raised due to the fact that he's not going to Kenya, but come on. POTUS visits to Africa are doled out like candy to well-behaved children. Sitting American presidents never visit places where there is the slightest hint of tension. Instead, they visit countries as a way of rewarding progress towards good governance and not being explicitly involved in regional conflicts. (Hence the high number of presidential visits to Mali under the Clinton and Bush 43 administrations.)

In this sense, Ghana's a pretty good choice. It's super-stable, the economy is growing, and there will be an opportunity for a poignant photo-op at the Cape Coast Castle, a former slave transit site. Nothing particularly interesting will come of it, but it will be a nice feel-good moment.

Obama's decision not to go to Kenya, his father's homeland, is significant but unsurprising. Tensions in Kenya are still high over last year's election debacle. The Mungiki gang's activities continue and the government's response to both situations has been somewhat less than ideal, what with all the death squads and whatnot.

It's interesting, though, that American presidents actively avoid conflict when traveling to Africa. This can't all be attributed to security issues; presidents regularly travel to Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel-Palestine, and any number of other places where they're much more likely to be assassinated. Why do they do this? Part of it has to do with a general fear of "Africa" on the part of the Secret Service, etc. But the postcolonial legacy also plays a role. African countries are generally viewed by American policymakers as immature basket cases, not as functional states. In some cases this is a fair assessment; in others, it is not.

More importantly, however, is the impact that a presidential visit could have on a less-than-perfect situation in a place like Kenya or Uganda, or, dare I say it, the Congo. If anything could force disputing parties to the table in most African countries, it's a visit from Barack Obama. His presence alone would attract such a degree of attention and respect that serious, high-level negotations could occur. Here's hoping the president will choose to take a risk on his next visit to the continent.


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