Africa Trip Is Obama's Pitch To Broaden Relationships

Obama is traveling to Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania this week. Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin talks to NPR's Gregory Warner about why the president chose those three countries.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

For more about the president's upcoming trip to Africa, NPR's Africa correspondent Gregory Warner joins us from Nairobi. Hi, Gregory.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.

MARTIN: So, as we heard Mara say, this is the trip of the first African-American president to Africa. He'll be visiting Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania. Why those three countries?

WARNER: The administration has said it wants to cover West, South and East Africa. So, basically, you have one country from each region. Senegal, more specifically, is a French-speaking nation, it's also a Muslim-majority nation, so it allows the president to address both of those crucial audiences in Africa. South Africa is the continent's biggest economy. And Tanzania in East Africa is experiencing a huge oil and gas boom, as is the rest of the region. So, the president would very much like American businesses to be part of that growth.

MARTIN: OK. So, speaking of business interests: the president is traveling with an entourage and not just political advisers on this trip, but I understand some 500 businesspeople and potential investors. What's that about?

WARNER: This trip is really important to the administration in terms of broadening the terms of America's relationship with Africa, which has historically been more of an aid model than a trade model. So, the U.S. is very, very involved in Africa when it comes to health care and human rights and good governance, but there's very little direct investment in Africa in infrastructure and factories, where the Chinese, for instance, are very involved. And so, if you look at, say, Tanzania - why is the president going to Tanzania? Well, Tanzania was the very first foreign country that the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, visited when he took office. And he was there to inaugurate various development projects, various investments, including a gas pipeline. So, that's why the president is traveling with that entourage of interested investors.

MARTIN: Chinese companies have had a foothold there on the continent for some time. Is there room for both the U.S. and China, two huge economic global powers, to exert financial influence in Africa?

WARNER: Well, the Chinese president and his predecessor visited 30 African countries. After next week, the U.S. president will have visited four. In terms of money, in terms of political visits, in terms of direct investment, the U.S. is lagging behind, just as Secretary Kerry said when he was recently here. But what are the Chinese doing in Africa? They're paving roads, they're refurbishing ports, they're building factories. One sector that President Obama will definitely be focused on is power, is providing electricity. So, the president is going to announce a power initiative. We don't have the exact terms of that yet. But basically, it will be an initiative to incentivize some of those American investors who are coming with him to build the turbine, to turn African gas into electricity to sell back to Africans, which the administration will argue it has two purposes, not only to provide jobs for Americans but also to get a foothold for American businesses in Africa.

MARTIN: President Obama does have some family roots in Kenya, but he's not going there. Any clues as to why not?

WARNER: Yeah. I think it's pretty clear the Kenyan president, Uhuru Kenyatta, and his vice president are both currently about to face charges from the International Criminal Court for war crimes for allegedly inciting tribal violence during the previous election that killed more than a thousand people. So, the official line of the administration is, you know, they need President Kenyatta to resolve his issues with the international community before there's any visit there.

MARTIN: I imagine this is a big deal. I mean, this is the first African-American president visiting Africa. Are people exciting to see him or has his kind of the luster of his initial election, has that faded there?

WARNER: No, no. President Obama is enormously popular in Africa, especially has a symbol of America and what's possible in America. The president's signature slogan - yes, we can - it's still in active use here, completely without irony, used in presidential campaigns, used in shop names and magazine advertisements. I think the difference, though, is the American leadership, the actual president, has not been here as much as other presidents. So, I think this trip is intended to turn that to pro-Western feeling, that goodwill into an economic engine for growth in Africa and in America.

MARTIN: NPR's Africa correspondent Gregory Warner. He joined us from Nairobi. Gregory, thanks so much.

WARNER: Oh, thanks so much, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: You're listening to NPR News.

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