In the heat of the just concluded American presidential elections, a few of my Nigerian friends on Facebook were peeved that Nigerians invested more emotional energy in the American elections than they ever did in the affairs of their own country. "What has Obama done for Africa?" one of them asked. I think that's a legitimate question.
Neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney thought Africa was important enough to deserve a mention during their foreign policy presidential debate. Only Obama managed to mention "Africa" once--and in passing. Mitt Romney, on the other hand, was so ignorant of the geography of the African continent that he thought Mali, a West African country, was in the Middle East. He repeatedly mentioned it during policy debates on the Middle East.
I guess he thought the country must be a Middle Eastern country since it has been overrun by "Islamists." If he knew of our Boko Haram problems, he would probably think Nigeria, too, is a Middle Eastern country.
Africa is clearly low on the totem pole of America's foreign policy. The continent has limited strategic importance for American policymakers. That fact has become even more apparent during Obama's administration. Ironically, George W. Bush, whom many Africans love to hate, did more for Africa when he was president than Obama has done so far. Was Obama too busy cleaning the domestic mess Bush created for America to have time for the continent of his father's birth? Maybe.
But now that Obama has been reelected for a second term, should we expect something different? Probably not. And this isn't because Obama nurses any animus toward the continent. It's because, given the enormity of the economic crisis America is still grappling with, Africa's low strategic importance for America would ensure that he has his gaze fixed elsewhere. Plus, being part African has its own burden; his policies toward Africa, especially if those policies were to be as benevolent as we all hope for, would invite more critical attention from his compatriots than they would for a white president. I can almost bet my bottom dollar that were Obama to give half the attention Bush gave to Africa, he would be called out by a motley crowd of bigots here.
The dominant emotions and imageries that Africa evokes in the minds of the average American are still those of hunger, poverty, war, disease, and hopelessness. Just the other day, one of my students reminded me of this stereotype. Students in my news writing and reporting class were having a heated, animated discussion on an issue that another student thought was trivial. And her way of making that point was to say "look, stop arguing over non-issues. People are starving in Africa!"
I wasn't miffed. I've heard this numberless times. It's a standard refrain in American popular discourse to say "people are starving in Africa" to underscore how fortunate and over-pamperedAmericans are. But I didn't let the comment go unanswered. I calmly said to her--and to the class--that while there is certainly starvation in many parts of Africa, as there is everywhere else in the world, that is not the only story of the continent. "Did you know, for instance," I asked, "that Africa is not only the world's biggest mobile phone market but also one of its fastest growing economies?" I mentioned other "stories" about Africa that don't make it to the dominant media narratives here.
My interventions prodded some self-reflection in a few of them. One student met me after class and said, after giving a thought to my challenge that they learn to rise superior to "sound bite" versions people's lived realities, he realized that Africa isn't the only region that Americans stereotype. He said Latin Americans are often associated with "illegal immigration, drugs and poverty," Middle Easterners with "terrorism and Islamic extremism," Asians with "meekness and intelligence" and Europeans with "multilingualism, socialism, and advancement."
America's foreign policy tends to reflect the popular perceptions of its people toward other nations. Or maybe it's the other way round: America's foreign policy toward other nations tends to shape the popular perceptions of their citizens toward those nations. That is why Africa has been treated not as a continent to be traded with, but as a continent to be pitied and helped.
My sense is that many Africans who are overly exuberant over Obama's victory know this. The vicarious joy they feel over his groundbreaking electoral triumphs in the world's most powerful country is founded more on the symbolic significance of the victory than on its substantive import. It is the feeling that someone who looks like them--or who almost looks like them--and whose paternal ancestral roots are located in their continent has become the most visible political figure in the world.I guess such people should be allowed to exult in the afterglow of this symbolic, if hollow,victory.
But Obama is first and foremost an American. In spite of the African genes flowing in his veins, he is as American as an apple pie.Maybe, just maybe, Obama may roll out an African foreign policy plan that humanizes the people that live in the continent, but don't hold your breath.
My vision for our continent is one that does not perpetually look up to the benevolence of superpowers to survive. That means we should look more inward than outward.