13 November 2012

Africa: Obama and the Continent


Barack Obama continued his historic streak when he won re-election as President of the United States in the election held last Tuesday week. The first African-American U.S. president to beat a strong challenge from his Republican Party rival and emerge victorious. It was a convincing win, with the final tally showing Democrat Obama receiving 332 of the Electoral College votes to Republican Mitt Romney's 206.

With his electoral win, Obama now has a far freer hand now to engage in actualizing much of the visions he espoused in flowery words and which endeared him to people beyond the shores of America.

Not long after he assumed office for his first presidency, Obama made much store about engaging Africa and the Muslim world, after the worldwide divisive policies of the administration of George W. Bush, predecessor. Obama visited Egypt and Ghana, delivering rousing speeches in Cairo and Accra. However, in practical terms, there have been no notable initiatives, particularly on Africa except perhaps for the US role in toppling Muammar Gaddafi, a tragic intervention that has come to haunt the US and countries in the Sahel region of West Africa. The loss of Mali's territorial integrity was a direct result of the spill-over effects of the war against Gaddafi in Libya.

Ironically, though Africans regard Obama as one of their own, many don't hide the disappointment they feel about his record in relating to Africa during his first term, compared to Obama's predecessors in office, especially Bill Clinton. President Clinton initiated the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), a trade liberalisation measure allowing many African exports into the US market duty-free.

Two factors appear to be driving the Obama administration's foreign policy towards Africa: security concerns and apprehension over China's economic inroads into the continent. Ever since the creation of Africa Command (AFRICOM) to oversee US security interests in Africa by the Bush administration, and, ostensibly to ward off the Al-Qaida threat, there seems to be an increasing emphasis on the militarization of US relations with African states as part of the U.S.-declared war on terror. The Obama administration has also continued with that mind-set, tending to view relations with Africa through the prism of Washington's security concerns at the expense of mutual socio-economic development relations. Despite its misgivings about China's role in Africa, the U.S. has a lot to learn from China in this regard and understand how China has replaced the US as Africa's biggest trading partner.

During U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's 11-day, 9-nation whistle-stop tour of Africa in August, security concerns and China loomed larger than economic issues in her discussions in virtually all the countries she visited. For instance, the issue of security dominated her discussions with the Nigerian authorities in Abuja on Boko Haram just as she raised the issue of Al Shabaab with the Kenyan and Ugandan governments.

Although Clinton never mentioned China by name, except through veiled references, China's role in Africa was never far from the surface.

Washington has long criticized China's policy of 'speak-no-evil; see- no- evil' in engaging with African states. In a speech in Dakar, Clinton said that the US offered Africa "a model of partnership that adds value, rather than extract it", but U.S. record in Iraq, Palestine, Afghanistan, Guatemala, Vietnam, Venezuela, the Congo; in fact in most of histories brutal conflicts, is not exactly a glowing one.

African countries have long resented Washington's attempts at forcing them to adopt policies that suit its own interests, ranging from neo-liberalism to values that are affront to cultural sensibilities. By considering its own values and mores as being, falsely, of universal application, to which every country must subscribe, the U.S. undermines its message of the essence of democracy. This will no doubt remain a sore point for the foreseeable future in relations between the U.S. and Africa. Obama administration can address economic relations with African countries through investment in infrastructure and expanding trade links, thereby tackling poverty and unemployment that are breeding grounds for much of the continent's problems.

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