Fahamu (Oxford)

22 November 2012

Africa? Obama Was Preoccupied With Too Many Other Things

opinion

Though Africa did not feature much in Obama's campaigns, it does not mean his administration has no interest in the continent of his father's birth. But that interest has little to do with the wellbeing of Africans themselves.

'His re-election in 2012 has generated little celebration,' writes Harvard Professor Calestous Juma in Forbes Magazine http://tinyurl.com/csefuoz . 'This is mainly because in the last four years Africa has learned to relate to President Obama as a leader of another sovereign state and not as a relative of whom much is expected.'

This has been the position taken by most Africa-watchers in the US, including the Kenyan academic. Strangely, Juma's language parallels that of Mitt Romney and the Republican echo chamber: the later pinned his loss less on demographic shifts in the country and debilitating freeloading that has, apparently, turned a once-proud nation of individualists into a zombie horde who are famished for tasty morsels of government handouts.

Defending Obama's foreign policy moves are no easy task for many Americans on the left - say nothing of the right, who view him as the greatest capitulator since Neville Chamberlain. There are fewer troops in Iraq than there would be under a McCain presidency and that the US will be less likely to go to war again in the Middle East (either in Syria or Iran) than it would have under a Romney presidency. A continent that has been so closely associated with the president (often for the wrong reasons, as in the rise of the Birther movement), should take solace in the fact that it isn't being treated with any less regard than most other world regions. Even the now-famous Pacific pivot that the Administration is purportedly taking is manifested most in normalized relations with Burma--not an inconsequential country, but nor is it a major cog in the geopolitical world order.

But is Africa really off the table? Billions of dollars worth of American-manufactured arms and munitions would appear to blow holes in such an argument, especially in Libya but also more generally dispersed throughout the continent. There, according to the Council on Foreign Relations, $1.1 billion was spent on an assortment of munitions, operations, supplies and humanitarian assistance (http://tinyurl.com/cfqbqt6). Many African states are awash in American-made weapons of varying destructive capabilities. Now true, relative to China Uncle Sam has neither invested in nor heavily exploited the natural and human resources of the continent for over the past two decades. In some African countries American presence is understood as a motley assortment of hormonally charged Peace Corps recruits (http://tinyurl.com/bsgjbgo), toxic electronic waste (http://tinyurl.com/yubs45), and Bible-thumping missionaries. But American foreign policy has never really abandoned Africa wholesale.

Let us think back only within the last few years, to political movements in places like Rwanda and the Ivory Coast, where the current presidencies were both supported financially and politically by the US. Or the very formation of South Sudan, which the Americans did not force into being but instead catalyzed in an aggressive stance toward its much larger northern neighbour. How about the coast of Somalia, a place where pirates roam alongside American warships? Were not the slithering tendrils of American Empire felt in these places? This is to say nothing of the non-state actors, whose numbers are hard to quantify, but whose ranks include do-gooders of varying beneficence, black market DVDs of the newest feature films, and even used t-shirts (http://tinyurl.com/ceppf7).

Even Yankee businessmen aren't in short supply if you look closely enough. As one portly fellow on a South African beach reflected on his time in Angola to me a few months back: 'American trade is alive and well in oil and gas--just not in America.' While fracking and to a lesser degree tar sands may render his argument moot for now, it's well-taken. In fact, most of the multinationals conducting business in the petroleum sector of sub-Saharan African are American, no matter their claims of whole ownership.

The reach of American empire is shortening if measured by investment dollars. Last year US investment on the continent was down by 18 per cent, two years after the official end of the recession, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis (http://tinyurl.com/3bdyzv4). Immigration numbers are more elusive, but it does appear that fewer immigrants of African origin have arrived on American shores since the recession. But even if President Obama had taken an interest in facilitating a different kind of African Renaissance (with apologies to Thabo Mbeki (http://tinyurl.com/3tnfvoe )), there's no guarantee he would have modified these more generalized trends.

Economic geography, a field that has been largely overshadowed by its less virtuous and decidedly non-geographic peer, informs us that Africa will continue to develop and democratize at widely different rates, and perhaps in some cases, will resist the teleological prophesies of neoliberal capitalism altogether. American foreign policy wonks don't consult geographers, but they understand this fact. The US can modify a number of its more hurtful policies, such as agricultural subsidies, and support for mining companies that offer little offsets for the impacts (environmental or social) of their work, but the appetite for that is nil in Washington. Obama won't likely react to these modifications unless a crisis demands it (say, the fiscal cliff forcing a rethink on the billions frittered away to non-productive farmers? Eh...).

If, as some policy experts argue, Obama turns to Africa for some effort to burnish his legacy, the continent of his forebears should not expect a huge sum in repayment. Even development money along the lines of the $15 billion originating from the Bush-era PEPFAR program (or the more modestly funded yet mildly ambitious AGOA) seems farfetched at this stage in the economic morass the US faces. It's not that the Administration has forgotten the continent, as President Obama's campaigning platform makes clear, it's just that it's far more cost-effective to bank off of brand image, which is generally favourable when you ask most Africans, even if his policies are not. For in the end both Birthers and vox pop Africans can agree about one thing: Obama is one of them. This kind of soft power is incalculable on a ledger, and it seems he is willing to bank on it for as long as he can.

Sam Schramski is a PhD candidate at the University of Florida conducting work in the Eastern Cape on climate change adaptation.

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