MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Summer is the time when many people decide to take that trip they've been putting off to visit distant relatives, introduce the kids and maybe even bring home some business. Presidents are no different. President Obama and his family are in Africa now. It'll be the longest visit to Africa of his presidency and has been much anticipated on the continent, after his barely 24-hour visit to just one country, Ghana, in his first term.
To mark the occasion, we've decided to dedicate this entire hour to issues on the continent. We'll hear more about some new developments about Africa's rising middle class that you might not have heard much about. We'll also have our regular barbershop segment. First though, we wanted to learn more about the president's trip. He's been in Senegal. He's in South Africa today, and he'll end his trip in Tanzania next week. But first, here's President Obama in Senegal yesterday setting out his hopes for the visit.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRESIDENT OBAMA)
BARACK OBAMA: What I want us to do is to have a shift in paradigm where we start focusing on trade, development, partnerships where we see ourselves as benefiting and not simply giving in the relationship with Africa.
MARTIN: We wanted to hear more about all of these issues, so we've called Howard French. He's an associate professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He's reported widely in Africa over many years and he's with us now. Thank you so much for joining us.
HOWARD FRENCH: Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: Well, first of all, I just wanted to ask about the president's itinerary. It was designed to cover West, South, and East Africa. But why do you think these three particular countries were chosen?
FRENCH: Senegal because it has been very cooperative with the United States in a number of ways, from military security to various other sort of diplomatic programs that we've had for years in that region. It's a stable democracy. It had a sort of democratic triumph just recently, in terms of rebuffing an effort by the last, most recent, president to extend his mandate under constitutionally questionable grounds. So Senegal is a sort of good democracy story.
South Africa because it has long been the continent's largest economy, and because it's also a democratic country with, you know, a very positive, politically speaking, post-apartheid history. And Tanzania because it is an emerging democracy with recent discovery of the possibility, at least, of very significant amounts of hydrocarbons in its offshore waters. And so, given the desire to sort of sprinkle Obama around regionally, I think they've found good economic and/or political reasons to choose each of these countries.
MARTIN: We understand, though, that there is some unhappiness about the itinerary, particularly in Kenya. Not just because he's not visiting his grandma, but also there seems to be feelings that perhaps this signals some sort of a shift away from Kenya as a major U.S. ally in the region. Do you think that those concerns are justified?
FRENCH: It's a complicated situation. So the newly elected president of Kenya is wrapped up in a legal case that could force him to appear before the International Criminal Tribunal for atrocities related to a previous election in that country. Washington has decided that it doesn't want to associate the prestige of the presidency with a dubious human rights situation like that. This has hurt the feelings of many Kenyans, but I don't see any easy way out of it, frankly.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Howard French. He's a professor at Columbia University. He has a deep reporting background in Africa. We're talking about President Obama's visit. I want to talk about an article you wrote. In 2008, you wrote a piece called "Obama and Africa: The Change We Have Been Waiting For?," and it has a question mark in the headline. And in it, you wrote that given his unique background - I think by now everybody knows his biography - his election offered an opportunity to assert America's moral and political leadership in Africa.
And you ended the piece by saying that to waste this moment would be more than a lost opportunity, it would be a tragedy. So for people who didn't read the piece, I wanted to ask you why you feel it's so important that the U.S. assert its moral and political leadership in Africa, and I wonder, of course, if you feel that that it is doing so.
FRENCH: Well, I felt back then, already, that the story of contemporary Africa was sort of misapprehended in this country. So I thought that the Obama presidency offered an opportunity to break with a number of unfortunate patterns of the past. In terms of the way we talk about Africa, we have always emphasized Africa as a human rights story or as a humanitarian emergencies story or as a story about a lesson of how we need to uplift these poor, unfortunate people.
And while there's nothing wrong certainly with human rights or with humanitarian assistance, I thought that this was an occasion to break out of those confines and to speak about Africa in terms of its rising prospects, not just as part of the world that can be assisted in a sort of paternalized way, but which can be engaged with for mutual benefit. A place with rising prospects for the future where if we could only change our language, we could also profit in terms of how we relate to Africans.
MARTIN: Do you feel that what you hope America would do is happening?
FRENCH: No, I don't think it's been happening. Certainly not anything like the degree to which I had hoped it would happen. Obama has been essentially absent from the African scene since his trip to Ghana, which was a sort of lightning visit on his way back from Russia. He stopped in Ghana for 24 hours and this was, up until now, his first and only visit to the continent. In these intervening years between 2008 and 2013, what has happened is that the world's second biggest economy, China, has seized on the notion of Africa as a place of extraordinary opportunity, and sort of jumped in with both feet.
I don't begrudge China its presence. I think that nations everywhere should look for opportunities for themselves. The Chinese have done that with gusto in Africa. Chinese leaders at the presidential and prime ministerial level visit Africa every year, on average at a minimum. Every single year, either the president or the prime minister goes to Africa. The pattern for American leaders has been to go once in a presidency or, at most, twice in a presidency.
MARTIN: Especially in the second term.
FRENCH: Especially in...
FRENCH: ...A second term.
MARTIN: And you note, by conscious - I just want to mention to your point that over the last five years, China's top leaders have visited around 30 African countries, and the current president has already visited three African countries since he took office this March.
FRENCH: So the point is, a lot has happened since 2008, and Africa is no longer at the very beginnings of what I think is, globally speaking, a pretty positive story for itself historically, in terms of its prospects and its fundamentals. And my feeling is that having squandered so much time and so much goodwill, that Obama had largely, because of his biographical background - the United States really finds itself in a position where it's going to have to work really, very hard to secure the attention and the goodwill and credit of Africans who no longer feel so much in doubt about themselves in many countries.
MARTIN: But isn't part of the issue here that China's leaders don't have the same domestic constituencies, which express themselves in the same way? I mean, even in advance of this trip, there were people saying that the president should cancel the trip because there was so much pending legislation, there were things that he needs to do. Obviously, that's coming from certain quarters, who are generally critical of him anyway. I mean, but is part of the issue that, you know, that domestic constituencies assert themselves in the U.S. in a way that they don't, in a way, and that China's leaders have, in some ways, a freer hand?
FRENCH: Well, you can come at that from a lot of different directions. One is, you spoke of second term presidents. Second term presidents, historically, have very often tended to be foreign policy presidents more than their first term. And so in that sense, Obama is probably engaging in very classic behavior. But the other really salient difference between the United States and the Chinese, I would say, isn't just about the nature of the political system, but the nature of the policy.
China doesn't have 13 percent of its people whose backgrounds are traced to Africa. So the notion that an American president, particularly an American president of this special background, needing to justify making visits to Africa, which is the fastest-growing continent in the world, economically and demographically, strikes me as preposterous.
MARTIN: Do you think there is still time and room for the U.S. to catch up? And how should it go about doing so?
FRENCH: I think it's possible for the U.S. to catch up. I'm not sure that Washington and our media cultures are yet seized, in fact, with the dimensions of what's taking place in Africa and with the need to break with kind of old mindsets that relegate Africa to a sort of secondary status, an afterthought status is the best way to put it. It's going to take a lot of work. It's going to take consistent engagement. It's going to take multiple, repeated high-level visits. But we have to change the way we engage with Africa.
And the past patterns have been perceived, for a long time, as very patronizing and sort of slighting by Africans. The typical thing is, you invite a few African leaders to Washington and bring them into the White House for a photo op, you know, three, four, five of them at a time, as if, you know, the premise there is that no African country, perhaps save South Africa, is worth a one-on-one discussion with the president in the White House. Africans are not going to give you their time of day if that's the way you treat them nowadays. And this is really the moment to reconsider how we engage with the continent and to reinvest ourselves if we want to be part of the scene there.
MARTIN: What do you most hope will come out of this visit on both sides? I mean, recognizing that the United States is one country and that Africa is, you know, more than 50, but - what do you hope will come out of this visit?
FRENCH: Well, so one thing that is happening on this trip is that Obama has taken - and I give great credit to the administration for organizing it - apparently has taken a great many businesspeople with him on this trip. And, you know, I just completed a book which is due out next year about China's relationship with Africa, and one of the things that I was struck by and even shocked by was to notice that through the Millennium Challenge Corporation, which was created by George Bush, as you said, the United States gives guaranteed loans for development projects of various kinds all over the place in Africa.
And as I went from country to country researching this book, I discovered that a great many of these contracts are never bid for by American companies, despite having guaranteed funding by the United States government. We're talking $50, $75, $200 million contracts that, because the image of Africa has been so persistently negative in this country, because there is such an absolute absence of - or near absolute absence of business coverage of Africa in United States, because there's such an ignorance of the fact that Africa is growing and growing fast, and urbanizing and urbanizing faster than any other part of the world, you know, American companies don't even, it doesn't enter their minds to think that maybe there's some opportunity to do business in Africa that could be very lucrative for them.
And so Obama taking, I don't know, a couple of hundred or however many businesspeople with him to Africa, I think is a very welcome gesture and marks what I think of as really just the beginning of the sort of thing that needs to be done if we're going to engage effectively.
MARTIN: Howard French is an associate professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. His forthcoming book is titled "China's Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa." It's due out next spring. But he was kind enough to join us now from the studios at Columbia University in New York. Professor French, thank you so much for speaking with us.
FRENCH: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.