Overpromised, underdelivered: A reflection on Obama’s trip


My mother visited America about a decade ago.

On her return, we were all very eager to get her verdict on the country.

“How did you find it?” we asked her.

She paused for a while as if to gather her thoughts. “It’s very clean,” she said at last.

We waited for more. Nothing.

She has never expressed a desire to return, but often wishes my two siblings who have settled there would come back home.

My mother may know next to nothing about geopolitics and economics, but her intuition was onto something.

The US is still the world’s most powerful nation, but power is not what it used to be.

In fact, it is perhaps more accurate to describe the US as the world’s mightiest nation — might increasingly manifesting itself in grandeur and not much else.


Looking at President Barack Obama’s itinerary in Nairobi, I am left wondering why a flotilla of ground transportation was required.

He could have hopped from place to place using a helicopter.

But pomp and circumstance was befitting.

The man has definitely secured his place in history and it was right that we reciprocate his homage to his African heritage.

Not so the rest of the hype and stratospheric expectations.

These, I fear, are a manifestation of an increasingly insecure nation’s yearning for external validation.

Here is why.

The primary agenda of the safari was evidently security.

The US has done a good job of securing the homeland from international terrorism, but its global leadership on counter-terrorism is disastrous.

While much of the failure is a legacy of the war-mongering by former President George W. Bush and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the Obama administration is not faring any better.

In the recent past, it has touted Yemen and Somalia as success stories.

Yemen is blowing up.


Kenya and Ethiopia are America’s frontline partners in the Somalia strategy.

Mr Obama’s trip to both Kenya and Ethiopia is a climb down from the administration’s rule of law, human rights and democratic governance high horse.

While for Kenya the homecoming imperative and a big global conference provided something of a fig leaf, there is no such thing for Ethiopia, and the only way to read it is the administration’s desperation to shore up the Somalia strategy.

The prognosis is not good. Somalia looks destined to implode.

The caliphate is coming to the Gulf of Aden.

Democratic space is shrinking fast in Africa, including right here in Kenya.

I cannot imagine that the Obama administration is unaware of this.

The Opposition has been extinguished in Ethiopia and Rwanda. It is on the run in Burundi.


In Uganda, brutal assaults are the order of the day, and will be so until President Yoweri Museveni wins his umpteenth term.

It then begs the question what cause humiliating our opposition leaders was meant to advance.

I am not suggesting that Mr Obama should not have had a candid, pointed conversation with them, but I fail to see what useful purpose his public comments were meant to serve, knowing, as he ought to have, that they would play into the hand of a government hell-bent on rolling back democracy.

I would expect Mr Obama to appreciate how difficult it is to sustain opposition here, that it is much easier and beneficial to join the government gravy train, and, in fact, that it is what the majority of these leaders’ followers would prefer.

Whatever he thinks of them, these opposition leaders are the only thing standing between us and a totalitarian state.

It does not get better. The Obama administration has two flagship development programmes: Feed the Future and Power Africa.

Feed the Future is a stock-in-trade USAid programme — little more than a gravy train for beltway bandits (consulting firms that specialise in US government business, mostly owned by former American government officials).

Power Africa is business proper. It is America’s response to China Inc.

The initiative provides American government support to US companies to invest or sell electricity equipment and services, with a primary focus on renewable energy.

Why power?


The US, for some reason, is obsessed with energy.

Oil has shaped the US Middle East policy for the last 40 years. The age of oil is over. Renewable energy is the future.

Africa is the least electrified market in the world. It is virgin territory that portends renewable power growth similar to the way mobile telephony took off because we did not have landlines.

Power Africa will help the US to grow its renewable energy capability and hopefully dominate the industry globally.

You might ask how it can dominate considering that, unlike oil, resources such as wind, the sun and water are ours and free.

The answer is technology and know-how — you own that, you control the industry.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with the US pursuing its economic interests and our embracing them, as long as they coincide with ours.


The programme deploys technical assistance, subsidised finance and political muscle to give the US private sector undue advantage and limit our choices.

But whether it does so will depend on whether it crowds in or crowds out other players.

So far, it is a bit of both. According to its annual report, the deals sealed so far are of projects that were under development before it was launched.

There is no shortage of capital and technology for these types of projects around the world, so there is a prima facie case for crowding out.

On the other hand, Sweden, a big player in wind energy, has decided if you can’t beat, you join, and committed a billion dollars to the programme.

Whatever the case, this is the sort of mercantilism that you don’t expect the leader of the free world to visit on the land of his forebears.

If truth be told, Mr Obama’s Africa initiatives pale in significance and progressiveness to those of his predecessor, namely, the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), the US President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief (PEPFAR), and the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC).


It has to be said that Republican administrations have in recent years pursued more enlightened and progressive development policy than Democratic ones.

AGOA is a household name. I will come back to it shortly.

PEPFAR was a bold, nay, audacious initiative that has to date provided $65 billion (Sh6.5 trillion) to combat Aids.

It turned the tide on HIV/Aids, and also, in my view, set the bar in terms of aid transparency and accountability.

With the MCC, the Bush administration set out to revolutionise American aid, by focusing it exclusively on poor countries that demonstrated good governance and economic policies.

The US sought to make irrevocable multi-year commitments, and giving the beneficiaries control of the money, instead of contracting beltway bandits who keep half the money at home and spend most of the other half on expatriates in the recipient countries.


It is the only aid programme I can think of that has walked the talk on country ownership of aid programmes.

And now, Mr Obama’s missed opportunities.

Two years ago, a spike in global food prices unleashed a new scramble for Africa.

It is estimated that Africa has 40 per cent of the world’s underutilised agricultural land. Much of the rest of the world is running out of agricultural land.

If so, why is Africa not feeding the world?

The main reason are agricultural subsidies by rich countries.

The European Union spends over 50 billion euros a year, and the US $20 billion (Sh2 trillion) a year in agricultural subsidies.

Africa’s non-oil and gas exports under AGOA grew from $1 billion (Sh100 billion) at inception in 2001, to a peak of $5 billion (Sh500 billion) in 2008, but have since fallen to $1.7 billion (Sh170 billion) last year, of which only $200 million (Sh20 billion) were agricultural exports.

If the US was to eliminate its farm subsidies, Kenya alone could export five times that in no time, with or without AGOA.


US cotton subsidies alone are estimated to cost Africa $300 million (Sh30 billion) a year.

It is not just in access to the US market that the subsidies undermine us.

In 2009, under Mr Obama, the US succumbed to mercantilism and followed the EU in reintroducing dairy export subsidies.

We have Africa’s most successful and competitive dairy industry.

These subsidies dump cheap dairy products in Africa at our expense. Did our government raise this? I doubt it.

If nothing else, I would have expected Mr Obama to deploy his considerable rhetoric to prick his nation’s conscience on this one.

But given that it’s also in their own best interests to get rid of the subsidies, he ought to have done more. If it is a question of protecting incomes and jobs, why not, for instance, pay the farmers to grow forests?


Barack Obama Jr is because Barack Obama Sr’s thirst for higher education propelled him to those shores.

He missed out on the Tom Mboya airlift but he made it there nonetheless.

The airlift generation’s contribution to our decolonisation and development is incalculable.

It would have taken us at least another decade to replace colonial bureaucrats and intellectuals without them.

The US is the citadel of higher education in the world. Even today, a number of our private universities, including USIU and Nazarene, have American roots.

If there is one thing Africa’s burgeoning youth need and are thirsting for, it is higher education.

Allow me to dream.

Mr Obama could have leveraged the billion dollars he is said to have mobilised for entrepreneurs to establish a spanking new American university in every African country — MIT Nairobi, Stanford Dar es Salaam, Harvard Abuja, Berkeley Accra, you get the drift. Soft power par excellence.

And Africans being Africans, these would eventually become Barack Obama University of Kenya, Barack Obama University of Tanzania, of Nigeria …

All might not be lost. Mr Obama’s democratic predecessors, Mr Jimmy Carter and Mr Bill Clinton, have gone on to spend their retirements making up for their overpromised, underdelivered international development agendas.

Not so Mr Ronald Reagan and the Bushes. So, let us wait for the Obama Foundation.

In the meantime, I will be rooting for Jeb.