THE BLOG
16/07/2013 07:43 BST | Updated 14/09/2013 06:12 BST

Through a Continent, Darkly

U.S. President Barack Obama recently made a long-anticipated return to Africa, a continent rich in natural resources and containing a strategic cluster of emerging markets. The unstated but primary aim of his recent trip to Tanzania, Senegal and South Africa was the containment of China's economic influence in the region. While hypocritically reaffirming the human and emotive bond which supposedly links him to the Dark Continent (the President was accompanied by his whole family), Obama had only one thing in mind: business. For if Africa has long been a land of ruthless conquest, first by colonial powers and later by the IMF, the growing competitiveness of its markets has changed the rules of the game and even the game itself, in which the traditional arrogance of Western powers is not likely to "work" any longer.

While coating his diplomatic visit with his proverbial dose of good purpose and charitable benevolence, the very itinerary chosen by Obama leaves no doubts as to his real intentions. Yes, he was very diligent and politically correct. He visited the Maison des Esclaves on the Island of Gorée, where, until 1848, slaves left for the land of the free and home of the brave. Obama also visited Robben Island where former South African President Nelson Mandela was imprisoned and exploited the occasion to sing his praises. It's worth noting here that Mandela was only removed from the U.S. terrorist watch list as recently as 2008.

As far back as 2006, Barack Obama, then senator of Illinois, had declared to the Nairobi auditorium in Kenya that "as a brother, ally and friend I'll always be there for you, I guarantee you that." He was only partly lying. He will always be there, of that there is no doubt; but as a brother and friend? This part is highly debatable. Kenya, the country where his family roots lie, was not on his schedule this time due to the fact that its newly elected president, Uhuru Kenyatta, has recently been charged by the International Criminal Court with crimes against humanity.

After visiting Ghana during his first trip to Africa as U.S. president in 2009, this time Obama had to carefully tiptoe around his father's land in order to avoid unnecessary controversies. Nigeria, the most densely populated African state as well as a strategic American partner, also had to be avoided since its government is accused of dealing rather heavy-handedly with the Boko Haram sect. Ethiopia, a key U.S. ally in the fight against militant Islam in the Horn of Africa, also had to be scrapped from his travel itinerary due to its government's repressive record.

Despite his kind and brotherly words, Obama has not been a familiar sight in Africa. He has so far visited only twice, compared to his predecessors Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, who went to Africa eight and 10 times respectively. Obama's presence in the region is mainly felt in military terms: His support for France and Britain in the armed overthrow of Gadaffi and the generous bombing of thousands of innocent civilians; the air raids against extremists in Somalia; the drone base in Niger to fight Islamists in the Sahara-Sahel area and his prolonged support of the democratically dubious governments of Ethiopia and Uganda are the most tangible signs of Obama's "disinterested love" for Africa.

Yet his main concern while visiting the land of his father was, (un)surprisingly enough, China, whose economic and territorial penetration into the African continent has witnessed a profitable increase in the past few years. Despite being the subject of sceptical critiques, China's tightening business relationships with African countries have contributed to the region's economic prosperity. This is something which "civilizing" Western democracies should be careful not to claim as their own legacy, as the nature of their past presence in Africa qualifies as socio-cultural gang-rape.

In 2000, China's business with Africa amounted to only one-third of America's $30 billion worth. Today it is four times higher than America's figure, standing in excess of $160 billion. Obama is also looking at tackling this gap because the use or misuse of Africa's resources will be a crucial factor in the global geopolitical balance in years to come. No wonder then that Obama presided over a meeting of 150 entrepreneurs organized by the Corporate Council on Africa and then personally met 25 CEOs from the most representative and powerful African and American companies in the region. Will Brother Barack Obama win over the hearts and minds of his fellow African brothers? Back home he doesn't seem to enjoy the full support of his compatriots, especially after a scoop by the Washington Post which unveiled the exorbitant costs of his trip to Africa (around $100 million).

This figure, though, is low in comparison to the potential fruits of increased business activity between the U.S. and the growing African market. It remains to be seen whether the African goldmine and its people will remember what the founding fathers of the nation Obama presides over meant by "business" and act accordingly. Or perhaps profit, as in the bleak old days of slavery, will once again erase all differences. But this time it's unlikely that the Americans will be the ones helming the merchant ships.

This article has previously appeared on China.org.cn