Image Credit: Niño Jose Heredia/©Gulf News

President Barack Obama was in his elements last week when he addressed hundreds of young Africans packed inside a sports stadium in Soweto. Visibly buoyed by their applause, he hailed their township’s uprising against apartheid 37 years ago as an inspirational struggle between “fairness and injustice”. As for Africa as a whole, Obama declared with all the force of a consummate performer: “There is a new Africa — more prosperous, more confident and taking its place on the world stage.”

And that is the message of the US president’s tour. Instead of the popular image of Africa as a place ravaged by poverty, famine and war — a “scar on the conscience of the world” in Tony Blair’s phrase from 2001 — Obama argues that a “new Africa” presents an image of opportunity and hope. In every speech, the president points out that six of the 10 fastest-growing economies in the world are found in Africa. Rather than the traditional refrains of aid and debt relief, this trip is focused on investment and trade. Unless I have missed it, he has yet to utter the word “aid”. But how much of this is merely the soaring rhetoric for which Obama is justly famed — and how much is real? To begin with, two obvious questions spring to mind.

First, if the rapidly expanding economies of Africa present such great opportunities, why has the president waited until his fifth year in office to embark on a tour of the continent? Until last week, after all, Obama had devoted precisely 24 hours of his presidency to visiting sub-Saharan Africa, making a brief foray to Ghana in 2009. And, second, why did he go to only three of the continent’s 53 countries? The answers to both queries serve to dampen the rhetoric. For all Obama’s grand phrases, the truth is that Africa remains the minnow of the global economy. America exports twice as much to the Netherlands as it does to all of Africa south of the Sahara. The British economy is more than 25 per cent bigger than that of the entire African continent, which has a population of almost one billion. When Obama arrived in South Africa’s capital, Pretoria, he stood alongside President Jacob Zuma and recited the facts about trade and investment between their two countries. The numbers were read out with an air of triumph, but they actually showed South Africa’s relative insignificance.

Trade between the US and South Africa totals £4.7 billion (Dh26.26 billion, the comparable figure for Belgium — with a fifth of South Africa’s population — is £30 billion). Meanwhile, only 600 American companies have any stake in South Africa and their combined investment creates 150,000 jobs — not a tiny number, but not huge either in a country with 50 million people. So this is hardly a big commercial relationship — and that explains why Obama has waited until his second term before landing there.

As for why there were so few stops on Obama’s African itinerary, this brings us to the continent’s most glaring weakness. Africa still has a shortage of presidents who any leader of a western democracy can visit without risk of embarrassment. True enough, the era of grotesque tyrants — of Idi Ameen or “Emperor” Bokassa — is over. Today, most African countries hold elections of varying degrees of credibility and, in general, the continent is significantly freer than it was a decade ago.

Nonetheless, cleanly elected leaders of genuine democracies are still thin on the ground. You may have expected Obama to visit Kenya, the land of his father’s birth. Unfortunately, President Uhuru Kenyatta is due to stand trial in The Hague in November, when he will appear before the International Criminal Court charged with crimes against humanity. So that strikes Kenya off the list. What about Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa and its biggest oil producer? Well, President Goodluck Jonathan won an election of sorts in 2011, but a burgeoning Islamist insurgency is now sweeping his country, waged by Boko Haram, an extremist movement linked to Al Qaida. The inevitable security risks would make any US president think twice about stopping off in Nigeria. And how about Uganda, a country which two of Obama’s predecessors, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, both found time to visit? The problem is that President Yoweri Museveni is becoming more autocratic and paranoid by the month. Having held power for 27 years, he is rumoured to be grooming his son for succession in true monarchical fashion. When a Ugandan newspaper reported as much, Museveni forced it to close for 11 days, suggesting that this really must be his plan. Then there is Rwanda, a country also visited by Bush and Clinton. Inconveniently, however, President Paul Kagame has been caught supplying weapons to a brutal rebel army responsible for countless atrocities in the Democratic Republic of Congo. So Obama cannot follow in his predecessors’ footsteps.

Meanwhile, some African countries still suffer the depredations of the worst leaders the world has to offer. President Robert Mugabe is seeking re-election in Zimbabwe at the age of 89 after 33 years in office. Congo, the second biggest country in Africa and the most naturally wealthy of them all, endures the rule of President Joseph Kabila, a bewildered mediocrity who inherited his position from his father.

So, only a handful of African countries are possible candidates for a US presidential visit. Obama’s tour duly embraces three safe choices: Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania. Other nations, however, face no such dilemmas. China’s leaders are quite happy to confer their seal of approval on any leader with minerals or oil to offer. In 2009, China duly displaced the US as Africa’s number one trading partner, with the flow of imports and exports totalling about £130 billion last year, compared with less than £20 billion a decade earlier. President Xi Jinping visited Africa on his maiden trip abroad as China’s new leader in March. Tellingly, he dropped in on Congo-Brazzaville, an obscure dictatorship shunned by western leaders, but one that does have large reserves of oil, timber and minerals. For all Obama’s denials, containing Chinese influence was part of the goal of his trip.

The president’s rhetoric is exaggerated, but the notion of a “new Africa” contains more than a grain of truth. At the beginning of this century, civil wars in Angola, Congo and Sudan formed an axis of conflict slicing across Africa. This war zone stretched from the Red Sea to the Atlantic and caused some of the worst famines and refugee crises in modern history. Today, the situation is profoundly different. Angola is at peace and has become one of the world’s big oil exporters. Congo is not peaceful and Sudan has split in two, but the violence has eased since the days of unremitting bloodshed a decade ago.

Meanwhile, it remains the case that Africa has achieved average economic growth of 5 per cent every year since 2000, barely missing a beat when the financial crisis hit the West in 2008. Part of that is explained by high prices for oil and other commodities that Africa produces. However, that is not the whole story: A study by McKinsey, a management consultancy, concluded that the commodities boom created about a third of Africa’s economic growth between 2000 and 2008. Mobile phones, the internet, urbanisation and improved infrastructure helped to explain the rest.

In truth, Africa is less poor than we think: This is a continent where almost every adult has a mobile phone. I can testify that you can sit in a dugout canoe floating on the Congo River in the middle of a vast rainforest and call Europe instantly. The very fact that Africa is now a focus of unspoken commercial rivalry between Obama and China is evidence that, despite everything, this continent is quietly hauling itself up from poverty and towards the joys of consumerism.

— The Telegraph Group Limited, London, 2013