Africa: Obama's Coming - So's the Navy & the Air Force

U.S. Secret Service agents and military personnel are dispatched ahead of time to secure facilities in the countries the President visits. Photo shows President Obama flanked by Secret Service agents on his arrival in Columbus, Ohio in 2009.
26 June 2013

Cape Town — The citizens of Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania are about to be hit over the coming week with the full panoply of an American presidential visit.

Normally, few details of the logistical operations required to move heads of state around the world, and the disruptions they cause, are published – unless security measures become obvious to the public, or things go wrong.

In 1998, manholes in the streets of Cape Town were welded down on a state visit to South Africa by President Bill Clinton. In 2000, his entourage of 1,500 – including business leaders and journalists – reportedly filled two major hotels in the Nigerian capital of Abuja.

Infamously, Vice-President Al Gore's cavalcade disrupted Cape Town traffic so badly on a 1995 visit that Gore was prompted to apologise to irate Capetonians. On a later visit to the city, the Secret Service backed down in the face of resistance from South African security to their plan to surround the private home of Archbishop Desmond Tutu with U.S. agents while Gore and his family visited the cleric.

In 2003, there was chaos in an Abuja hotel during President George W. Bush's quick stop-over during a five-nation African trip: a plane carrying spill-over passengers from the presidential entourage developed tyre trouble, and delegates to the conference at which Bush spoke were turned out of their rooms to make space for the unexpected guests.

However, rarely published logistical details have emerged ahead of this week's trip by President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle. The Washington Post was leaked a "confidential internal planning document" which provides a glimpse of the lengths to which the United States will go to protect its head of state.

According to the Post's report, military cargo planes will airlift dozens of vehicles – including about a dozen limousines – to the cities which the couple will visit. Sheets of bulletproof glass will cover the windows of the hotels in which they will stay.

Hundreds of Secret Service agents will arrive ahead of the presidential couple, and swarm around them every step of the way. Jet fighters of the U.S. Air Force will accompany the president's plane, ready to intervene if unauthorised aircraft get too close. U.S. Navy vessels will be stationed off the coastal cities he will visit, equipped with medical trauma centres in case of emergencies.

Among vehicles flown in to each city, the Post reported, will be "parade limousines for the president and first lady; a specialized communications vehicle for secure telephone and video connections; a truck that jams radio frequencies around the presidential motorcade; a fully loaded ambulance that can handle biological or chemical contaminants; and a truck for X-ray equipment".

The Obamas were to have taken a two-hour safari in Tanzania, but it would have required a special counter-assault team, so was replaced by a visit to Robben Island, off Cape Town, where Nelson Mandela spent 18 years, and many of those sentenced with him 27 years, in prison.

The Post's report generated a debate over finances in the U.S., the sub-text of which was whether Africans are worth the U.S. $60 to $100 million the Washington Post estimated the trip will cost. To this, John Campbell, former ambassador to Nigeria and now of the Council on Foreign Relations, replies, "Of course it's worth the expense."

He told AllAfrica: "Presidential travel is, by definition, extremely expensive, no matter where he goes... If he goes to New York, the costs are, from a certain perspective, huge. Let's keep everything in context."

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