For President Obama, careful choreography was a daily exercise throughout his five-day trip to Africa, which ended Tuesday with a rousing speech to the continent’s heads of government.
There would be no grinning handshakes with this sketchy character, or precisely worded defenses of that one, as he sought to tackle complex problems with leaders who have rocky records on human rights and corruption.
The presidents of Kenya and Uganda traveled to meetings here this week with Obama, as did the Ethiopian prime minister. The president of Sudan, under warrant of the International Criminal Court, had the good grace to stay home but did send his foreign minister.
At the end of the tour of Kenya, his father’s homeland, and the visit to Ethiopia, White House officials were confident that Obama had made important strides. On Tuesday, he became the first sitting U.S. president to address the African Union, and called on its leaders to end public corruption, liberate women and girls from gender-based tyranny and end the violence against gays and lesbians that is seen as socially acceptable in many countries.
“Africa’s progress will depend on democracy because Africans, like people everywhere, deserve the dignity of being in control of their own lives,” Obama said. “I’m convinced that nations cannot realize the full promise of independence until they fully protect the rights of their people.”
Much of Obama’s trip was focused on fighting terrorism and stabilizing East Africa. Obama advisors say he agreed with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta and Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn about greater cooperation in fighting the Shabab terrorist group and strengthening governance in Somalia, where the militants operate.
Those leaders also joined in a meeting with Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and Sudanese Foreign Minister Ibrahim Ghandour in which they discussed imposing sanctions on the warring factions in South Sudan if their bloody fight drags on beyond Aug. 17.
The question back in the United States will be whether the achievements are worth the company Obama had to keep to get them.
Uganda’s Museveni and his ruling party curtail freedom of expression and assembly, and police and security forces target opposition groups with impunity, according to human rights advocates. Kenyatta eluded ICC charges of involvement in the postelection violence of 2008 under complaint from prosecutors that the government impeded the work of investigators.
Ethiopia’s Desalegn claims that his election was free and fair despite the fact that the parties allied with him garnered 100% of the vote. Critics were shocked when Obama twice described the country’s elections as democratic.
“The president was giving them a warm kiss when they didn’t deserve it,” said Mark P. Lagon, president of Freedom House, a Washington-based group dedicated to democracy and political transparency.
Others, however, saw the president’s comments as an illustration of his principle of engagement.
“One cannot ignore the fact that Prime Minister Desalegn's support is needed in this effort against groups such as Al Shabab, ISIL and Al Qaeda,” said Steven Taylor, a professor of government and Africa expert at American University, referring to the Islamic State militant group by an acronym.
Taylor said the U.S. government may view some of today's authoritarian leaders in the same way that Franklin D. Roosevelt viewed Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza, about whom FDR said, in a less sanitized way, “He may be a bad actor, but he's our bad actor.”
“Perhaps the same can be said about some of today's despotic regimes,” he said.
There was no “family photo” of leaders at the African Union, a fixture of most summits the president attends.
Still, the administration officials have repeatedly pointed out that Obama believes that the U.S. must reach out even to potential partners with offensive practices.
“We want to engage with governments on areas of mutual concern and interest — the same way, by the way, that we deal with China and deal with a range of other countries where the democratic practices or issues around freedom of the press and assembly are not ones that align with how we are thinking about it,” Obama said in Addis Ababa this week.
Conservatives are among those applauding the president’s effort to find common ground on trade and business in Africa. Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), a former Mormon missionary to the continent, traveled with him to Africa, and business leaders, including entrepreneur Steve Case, met the president’s party there.
Obama brought small increases in aid, announcing plans to invest at least half a billion dollars to fight Ebola and other infectious-disease outbreaks.
Mainly, though, he promised to sustain the U.S. support for food security, climate change adaptation and the Power Africa project designed to deliver electricity that helps drive investment.
Obama’s emphasis on building business ties and empowering entrepreneurs may also accelerate the shift in American perceptions of the continent in a way that spurs development, said Joshua Meservey, Africa policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
“Investment is a mutually beneficial arrangement, as well as a far more dignity-enhancing, effective, and sustainable way of helping the continent develop than aid,” he said. “If the president is able to raise the continent’s profile with investors and even average Americans, it would be a laudable long-term benefit of the trip.”
Still, for Meservey, the gains don’t counterbalance the concerns about appearing and doing business with leaders with troubling human rights records. Authoritarian governments like Ethiopia’s see democracy, civil society and a free press “as an existential threat” and are willing to act harshly to ensure their own survival.
“Its leaders are not going to blossom into human rights defenders simply because they received a stern talking-to,” Meservey said. “A strong and stable democracy, which is the best system for ensuring a government respects its people’s human rights, will only be built in an authoritarian context through grass-roots, ground-up effort anyway. The most effective contribution the U.S. can make is to robustly encourage that.”
One former U.S. ambassador to Kenya under President George W. Bush called Obama’s trip “an unqualified, perhaps even a great, success,” pointing to the way he publicly acknowledged differences with Kenyatta “in a way that did not offend his hosts.”
Ethiopia and Kenya are pivotal states, said the former ambassador, William Bellamy, as deserving of a presidential visit as other emerging economies and strategic partners.
“We don't maximize our influence on governments with which we have differences by staying home and berating or lecturing from afar,” said Bellamy. “Those days are pretty much over, even in Africa.”
Times staff writer Robyn Dixon in Johannesburg, South Africa, contributed to this report.
For more White House coverage, follow @cparsons