21 January 2013

Africa: Obama's Second Chance to Engage With Africa

Photo: White House/Pete Souza
President Barack Obama greets spectators after making a speech to the Ghanaian Parliament in Accra on July 11, 2009.


Mr Barack Obama is being sworn in today to a second term as President of the United States. He closed his first term with two incidents that are significant in U.S. relations with Africa: not being able to nominate his UN Ambassador Rice as Secretary of State following strong criticism from right wing opponents before he considered her for the post; and Hillary Clinton, outgoing Secretary of State, sharing a stage with Somali's newly elected president to declare a resumption of diplomatic relations with that war-torn country.

Ms Rice's exit had the merit of getting rid of a diplomat who, as Assistant Secretary of State for Africa under President Bill Clinton, was widely identified with a policy of the American government "looking the other way" as the massacre of almost one million Hutu refugees got underway as they took shelter in United Nations-administered camps in eastern DR Congo from the war in Rwanda. In June and November 2012, she blocked Rwanda and Uganda being named in a Security Council report for arming M23 rebels accused of wreaking havoc in same area. From 1998 t0 2003 over 3 million Congolese civilians died in subsequent wars. Her appointment would have sent ominous signals about Obama's vision for Africa.

The restoration of diplomatic relations with Somalia was however a positive gesture that could aid a return to normality in that country. The challenge now to address the Al Shabaab insurgency by addressing the root causes of its emergence.

A report by IMF notes that Africa's Gross Domestic Product (GDP) grew by 4.6 per cent in 2012. A steady flow of foreign exchange remitted by Africans living abroad; high prices for, and increased quantities of, minerals exported by African countries, and increased flows of investments for these raw materials, accounted for this high growth rate. What was lacking, however, was investment in technology, innovation in local production of industrial production for export. As someone who campaigned for new focus on innovation in American technology, Obama should support the same for Africa.

China contributed 50 per cent of demands for these industrial metals from Africa. The Obama team should avoid the tendency to disrupt China's high investment in Africa by stoking up conflict between China and other countries. The surge of new entries by Ghana, Kenya, Mozambique, Malawi, Uganda, Niger, and Sierra Leone into the raw minerals exports market - and China's involvement in them - is likely to increase panic in America's economic diplomacy. Such hostility towards China would clearly hurt Africa's chances for favourably navigating new development waters. What beckons is a creative engagement with Africa and China for collaborative focus on industrial creativity by Africa.

The United States should see new opportunities in working with Africa to meet adverse weather events, notably floods, drought and desert encroachment. Cold War warriors inside the Obama's administration should also be encouraged to abandon habits of dealing with Africa by orchestrating political instability and causing "regime change" when confronted with otherwise visionary leaders who may disagree with U.S. and western policies and values.

Former Secretary of State Madeline Albright heralded Clinton's second term by lecturing to a class of newly graduated leaders of Eritrea, Ethiopia, Uganda and Rwanda about "changes in America's relationship with Africa". Obama may conduct such a tutorial himself to Africa's leaders gathered in Addis Ababa to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), now called the African Union (AU). Given his ancestry, the symbolism would be apt. President John F. Kennedy's diplomats bullied and bribed Africa's leaders to prevent them signing up for a United States of Africa. Obama's challenge is to break from that legacy and work with Africa's leaders in a partnership of mutual trust and confidence to found an Africa united in purpose, political stability and economic progress.

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