The Real Reason Obama Went to Africa

$100 million is cheap when you're trying to keep the Chinese away from Africa's oil.

As the Obama family’s first official trip to Africa wraps up tomorrow, ignore all the fanfare and try, for a moment, to wrap your head around some real context for the visit. This jaunt was about much more than the symbolism of a first black presidential “homecoming” to the historically troubled continent. And it’s not so much about the president taking the fam to cool tourist spots and the photo ops next to second-tier leaders of emerging economies.

And don’t let the $100 million or so estimated bill for the trip unsettle you. We’ve been going on for weeks now about the exorbitant cost of this state visit, but we’ve failed to consider the reasons why an Africa trip is that important. Fussing over the cost of aircraft carriers on standby and the Secret Service security details unfairly diminishes the significance of evolving American interests in the region. The sticker shock reveals traditional biases over Africa and our tendency to dismiss it as an irrelevant, geographic hole in the wall dotted by jungles and deserts. Hence, the outrage over the cost during times of government belt-tightening is not the issue. It’s the notion that Africa doesn’t really deserve an American presidential visit.

But it actually does — and not because of the president’s African roots. Not visiting would defeat the purpose of the enormous diplomatic and military investment in Africa that’s been made by the United States, particularly over the past few years. It’s no accident that many of the continent’s countries are suddenly in mainstream headlines, our boring lives assaulted by front-page features on places that never mattered to us before: Libya, Mali, Kenya. That’s courtesy of a shifting U.S. foreign policy stance putting more assets into the beleaguered continent, a dramatic change in geopolitical posturing that hopes to yield major economic and energy dividends. It’s a strategy that’s been accelerating fast, especially since the death of Muammar Gaddafi, the Libyan dictator billionaire extraordinaire who exercised massive clout over the continent and planned to build a “Pan African” army. His absence now opens the path to greater U.S. maneuverability in Africa.

The United Nations projects African economic growth at 4.8 percent in 2013 and a robust 5.3 percent in 2014, which is steady and impressive performance for a continent frequently wracked by civil war and despotic governments. Investors are taking note, carefully watching the gradually expanding middle class bubble up in places you never thought there’d be a middle class; the increasing consumption power of wealthier populations in Africa prompted WalMart to offer $4.6 billion for Massmart Holdings, the second-largest retailer on the continent, in 2010.

It’s not mere coincidence that focus on Africa is happening as the U.S. is gradually withdrawing military assets from the Middle East. The hassle of reliance on oil imports from unpredictable Islamic states is wearing U.S. patience thin. The situation in Africa, while complex, may be a bit more manageable as Western companies are finding motherlodes of untapped oil reserves on the continent. The U.S. is now in a race to beat China, which is rapidly spreading its influence and money in a bid to secure fuel for its growing economy. In a signal that it means to be a major player, China dropped a cool $200 million on the African Union’s plush new headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, one example of numerous construction projects the communist country has bankrolled throughout the continent. It makes domestic fussing over Obama’s $100 million visit a bit trivial. While U.S. trade with Africa was $95 billion in 2012, Chinese trade with the continent tipped over $200 billion.

Military concerns are also factoring strongly into Obama administration interest in Africa. Surveillance and strike drones are already parked at a small base in Niger, not to mention rapid deployment forces and the broader continental net of what’s called AFRICOM (the U.S. military’s Africa command) keeping a watchful eye on the continent and the rise of Islamic militants, particularly in once unknown and unstable nation states such as Mali, where jihadists nearly overran the army until French help arrived. Recent clashes in Nigeria also have the administration worried, considering the country is a one of the largest exporters of oil to the U.S. At some point, expect American military posture to grow as the African economy expands and the U.S. becomes much more reliant on the continent’s resources as a central source of energy and revenue.

Charles D. Ellison is a political strategist, Washington correspondent for The Philadelphia Tribune and chief political correspondent for UPTOWN Magazine. He can be reached via Twitter @charlesdellison.