KOGELO, Kenya/JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - In the tiny Kenyan village of Kogelo, U.S. President Barack Obama’s ancestral homeland, some people talk of hurt feelings of the kind experienced when a favorite relative has failed to get in touch.
Four years ago, Kogelo, and Africa in general, celebrated with noisy gusto when Obama, whose father came from the scattered hamlet of tin-roofed homes, became the first African-American to be elected president of the United States.
Looking across the Atlantic to the November 6 presidential election, the continent is cooler now towards the “son of Africa” who is seeking a second term. There are questions too whether his Republican rival, Mitt Romney, will have more to offer to sub-Saharan Africa if he wins the White House.
Obama, who hailed his “African blood within me”, only visited sub-Saharan Africa once in his four years - a stopover of less than a day in Ghana in between summits elsewhere.
In Kogelo, which was put on the tourism map by Obama’s election and where his grandmother still lives, locals take this personally.
“He should have come to at least say ‘hi’ to the people of Kenya so that we can know that we are still together in spirit, rather than abandoning us as if he was not our son,” said Steven Okungu, 21. “It is a disappointment.”
Many in Africa feel their enthusiasm for Obama was not requited by him in terms of increased U.S. commitment and fresh concrete initiatives on the world’s poorest continent, a deficit they see being filled by other emerging players such as China, Brazil, India and South Korea.
Sub-Saharan Africa has gone virtually unnoticed as a topic in the U.S. presidential election campaign, focused heavily as it has been on pressing domestic issues such as the lack of jobs and how to prod America’s stuttering economy into faster growth.
But analysts see a strong counter-terrorism focus increasingly driving U.S. policy towards Africa, as Washington throws its weight behind efforts on the continent to confront the spreading presence there of al Qaeda and its Islamic jihadist allies in hotspots from Somalia to Mali and Nigeria.
“These concerns don’t recognize borders,” Mark Schroeder, Director of Sub-Saharan Africa analysis at STRATFOR Global Intelligence, told Reuters, predicting this security focus will figure strongly whoever wins the election.
In 2009, China overtook the United States as Africa’s largest trading partner. According to the Brookings Institution, President Hu Jintao of China has made up to seven trips to Africa, five as head of state, and has visited at least 17 countries. In contrast, Obama’s 20-hour 2009 sojourn in Ghana has been his only trip to sub-Saharan Africa as president.
“We would have expected to see more American involvement instead of a retreat. If you go to many countries and ask them about who is doing more, they will tell you China,” said Mwangi Kimenyi, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
John Mbadi, a deputy minister in the office of the Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga, agrees. “He did not show enough concern to reverse the trend of China’s influence on trade with Kenya and Africa as a whole,” Mbadi said.
Defending the Obama record in Africa, David Young, a senior official in the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs, said the president had held meetings at the White House with 12 African leaders. “The administration has in fact been very focused on Africa,” Young told Reuters.
He said U.S. exports to sub-Saharan Africa increased 40 percent from 2009 to 2011 and are on track to double by 2013/14.
A multi-stop swing through Africa in August by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, her fourth as the top U.S. diplomat, appeared aimed at promoting America as a more principled and reliable partner than China.
But while trade between the United States and sub-Saharan African countries totaled $94.3 billion in 2011, China’s Africa trade totaled $127.3 billion, eclipsing the U.S.-Africa trade record of $104.1 billion in 2008.
Obama carried on initiatives launched by his predecessors. These include Bill Clinton’s African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), which waives import duties on thousands of goods exported to the U.S. from eligible countries, George W. Bush’s President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), and the Millennium Challenge Corporation, a U.S. aid vehicle that assists countries with good governance.
But the Obama administration’s own signature “U.S. Strategy Toward Sub-Saharan Africa”, in which the president calls Africa “more important than ever to the security and prosperity of the international community” and “the world’s next major economic success story,” was only released in June this year.
“That contributes towards this perception that Africa was an afterthought,” said Todd Moss, vice president and senior fellow at the Center for Global Development in Washington.
Obama’s aides have made clear that if re-elected he can be expected to focus on sub-Saharan Africa as part of the unfinished business from his first term, including anti-AIDS initiatives, food security and economic development programs. But such projects could be limited by fiscal realities, with congressional pressure for austerity expected to extend to foreign aid spending.
Despite the disappointment with Obama, prevailing sentiment in Africa seems to favors his re-election, reflecting still the continent-wide rapture surrounding his 2008 victory.
“Obama love the black people. He get attention to the black people, said Violet Williams, a 42-year-old unemployed woman at Congo Cross junction in Sierra Leone’s capital Freetown.
“Restrained Obama better than ‘Rambo’ Romney,” wrote Pallo Jordan, a former South African culture minister and member of the ruling ANC’s National Executive Committee, in a newspaper op-ed on Thursday explaining his preference.
Romney’s campaign team takes pains to present Africa as “not a problem to be contained, but an opportunity to be embraced”, urging much more private sector participation in U.S. trade and development initiatives in Africa, in addition to the more traditional programs for education and HIV/AIDS.
“If you say the word Africa, in most Americans’ minds what you basically come up with is the four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Everything is negative. Famine, pestilence, degradation, war,” said Ambassador Tibor Nagy, Chair of the Romney campaign’s Africa Policy Working Group.
Nagy, a former ambassador to Ethiopia and Guinea, had worked for the Obama campaign in the last election four years ago. “So you look around and where is the progress? Where have we moved forward? I have been very sorely disappointed,” he said.
A Romney administration would take a fresh, more positive approach, he said: “I would say look at Africa through the windscreen and not the rearview mirror”.
In an extensive foreign policy debate between the two U.S. presidential contenders on October 22, Africa south of the Sahara gained only a passing mention - by Romney, who said the north of Mali had been taken over by “al Qaeda-type individuals”.
And even this was framed in a wider verbal joust over who would be tougher against America’s old Nemesis, al Qaeda, a theme driven by recriminatory campaign sparring over the killing of the U.S. ambassador to Libya in Benghazi on September 11.
Most American voters are wary of “boots on the ground” foreign entanglements after costly U.S. interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. But African leaders are hoping Washington will actively support - with equipment, intelligence and training - a plan to send in African troops to try to expel al Qaeda and its allies from northern Mali, an area the size of Texas these groups control after hijacking a Tuareg separatist rebellion.
“We are worried about Mali ... Africa is increasingly also having these problems of terrorism,” said the spokesman for Sierra Leone’s President Ernest Bai Koroma, Unisa Sesay, who also cited the Boko Haram Islamist insurgency in Nigeria.
Obama’s deployment last year of 100 military advisers to help African forces hunt Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony of the Lord’s Resistance Army was a calculated but limited operation that responded to public outrage over the LRA’s alleged atrocities.
U.S. national security concerns also underpinned a U.S. diplomatic offensive this year in countries such as South Africa, Kenya and Tanzania to shut off imports of Iranian oil and the reflagging of Iranian oil tankers, part of Washington’s efforts to tighten international sanctions against Tehran.
There are those who see the perceived neglect by Obama of Africa as unjust criticism. “The idea that somehow there was some magic button Obama would be able to push in terms of Africa policy, I think that was unrealistic,” said Rod Alence, associate professor of international relations at South Africa’s University of the Witwatersrand.
Many Africans believe too it is time for the continent to stop looking outside for help and stand on its own two feet.
“Obama failed us ... Now, I don’t mind who comes next, they are all the same. This only means our leaders should start doing things right. We have the resources on the continent - gold, cocoa, oil etc, but our problem is mismanagement,” said Kojo Marfo, a 53-year-old commercial driver in Ghana.
“Unless we put our house in order, we will not get anywhere,” he said.
Additional reporting by Pascal Fletcher in Johannesburg, James Macharia in Nairobi, Simon Akam in Freetown, and Kwasi Kpodo in Accra; Writing by Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Giles Elgood