JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Welcome back to Africa, Barack Obama.
The colorful banners are up and the local people are excited — but, um, maybe not so much as the last time.
When the US president lands in Senegal late Wednesday on his first visit to the continent in four years, he will come laden with the weight of surveillance scandals at home and disillusionment abroad.
Obama’s visit to Ghana in 2009, a brief stopover of less than 24 hours, was during the halcyon days at the start of his first term. Africans were still joyously celebrating that the son of a black Kenyan man had been elected president of the United States.
“I have the blood of Africa within me,” Obama told Ghana’s parliament in a major speech. On the streets of Accra, the capital, women wore dresses tailored from fabric printed with his image, while hawkers drew a roaring business selling everything from US-Ghana flags to Obama belt buckles.
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This time around, the tone surrounding his trip is “strangely muted,” South Africa’s weekly Mail & Guardian said in an editorial. South Africans, it added, are “no longer in thrall of Obama’s star power.”
Obama’s schedule judiciously takes him to the west, south and east of Africa, stopping in countries with strong democratic traditions and ties to the United States. His official mandate is “to strengthen economic growth, investment, and trade,” although critics say China and other emerging nations have beaten the United States to the punch.
Ben Rhodes, deputy national security advisor, said there has been “a high demand signal from the US private sector” for the American government to play a more active role in developing trade and investment in Africa.
“Frankly, we see Africa as one of the most important emerging regions in the world, and a place for the US to significantly increase our engagement in the years to come,” Rhodes said during a White House press briefing.
The president’s first stop is Dakar, capital of French-speaking Senegal, where Obama will meet with counterpart Macky Sall, who was elected last year in a peaceful vote and smooth transition of power.
Next Obama will travel to South Africa, spending two nights in Johannesburg for a meeting with President Jacob Zuma and a town hall event with young African leaders at a university campus in Soweto, the famous black township.
In Cape Town, the president along with First Lady Michelle Obama and their daughters will visit Robben Island, where political prisoners including Nelson Mandela were jailed under the apartheid regime. Obama will give the main speech of his trip at the University of Cape Town, focusing on trade and investment, democracy, and peace and security.
Finally, Obama and his entourage will travel to Tanzania. In Dar es Salaam, the commercial capital, Michelle Obama will take part in the George W. Bush Institute’s African First Ladies' Summit.
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Noticeably absent from the agenda is a stop in Kenya, birthplace of Obama’s father and the most strategically important country in East Africa, whose new president Uhuru Kenyatta is facing charges at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
Jennifer Cooke, director of the Africa program at the Washington, DC-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the trip is meant to signal to African governments and citizens “that the US is prepared to re-engage with Africa.”
“Obviously, President Obama came to office with big expectations,” Cooke said during a briefing ahead of the trip.
“This euphoria for what this might mean for Africa has died down. And the gradual recognition that he is, after all, an American president with American interests first and foremost on his mind.”
Potentially overshadowing Obama’s Africa tour is the health of Nelson Mandela, who is gravely ill at a Pretoria hospital.
While visiting heads of state and other high-level officials, including Hillary Clinton on her South Africa trip last August, would normally visit Mandela to pay their respects, that isn’t expected to happen during Obama’s visit.
Rhodes said that while in South Africa “we … are going to be very deferential to the Mandela family in terms of any interaction that the President may have with the Mandela family or with Nelson Mandela.”
“Ultimately, we want whatever is in the best interest of his health and the peace of mind of the Mandela family,” Rhodes said.
Meanwhile a number of South African groups including the Muslim Lawyers’ Association are planning to protest Obama’s visit in a stand against US policies including the drone program, and the failure to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center.
The University of Johannesburg’s decision to award Obama an honorary doctorate has divided staff and students, and the president’s town hall event at its Soweto campus may be a target of demonstrations.
Back home, Obama has been criticized for the high cost of his Africa trip, which may cost taxpayers as much as $100 million, according to a Washington Post report.
Hundreds of Secret Service agents are being deployed in Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania, while 56 support vehicles, including three trucks loaded with bulletproof glass to fortify windows, will be airlifted in by military cargo planes.
An aircraft carrier with a full medical trauma center will reportedly be stationed offshore in case of emergency.
However a planned safari in Tanzania has been cancelled because it "would have required the president's special counter-assault team to carry sniper rifles with high-caliber rounds that could neutralize cheetahs, lions or other animals if they became a threat," the Post said, citing a leaked Secret Service document.
Questioned about the high cost of the trip, Rhodes said that “if the US is not leading in Africa, we’re going to fall behind in a very important region of the world.”
“And I don’t think it’s in the US interest for the United States to step aside and cede many potential opportunities for our country because we don’t want to move forward with presidential travel."