Africa: Obama's Three Objectives for Continent

29 September 2008
guest column

Washington, DC — Witney W. Schneidman, an adviser on Africa to the campaign to elect Senator Barack Obama as President of the United States, sets out Obama's fundamental policy objectives for Africa.

Barack Obama understands Africa, and understands its importance to the United States. Today, in this new century, he understands that to strengthen our common security, we must invest in our common humanity and, in this way, restore American leadership in the world.

As a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he has engaged on many African issues. He has worked to end genocide in Darfur, to pass legislation to promote stability and the holding of elections in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, to bring a war criminal to justice in Liberia and to develop a coherent strategy for stabilizing Somalia.

In 2006, Senator Obama visited Kenya where he spoke truth to power to the leadership about the corrosive impact of corruption, in South Africa he demanded honesty from the government about HIV/Aids, and he met with American military commanders in Djibouti at the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa to discuss the threat of terrorism to U.S. interests and to the interests of our partners in the region.

Obama also visited refugee camps in Chad, where he heard first-hand about the experiences of Sudanese women who had been forced from their homes and had their families torn apart, and worse, by Khartoum's genocidal policies.

Over the last 18 months, Barack Obama has worked with the Kenyan leadership to help resolve the post-election crisis in that country, and he has called for an increase on pressure on Robert Mugabe for stealing elections and sponsoring violence against his own people.

Barack Obama continues to speak out against Khartoum's ongoing war of genocide in Darfur, and has called on Ethiopia and Eritrea to walk back from the brink of war.

The Diaspora

There is another very important quality about Barack Obama that informs his perspective on Africa, and that is the fact that he is a product of the African diaspora, the son of a Kenyan father, whose grandmother still lives in Kenya.

In fact, this campaign is making a strong effort to reach out to African Americans across the United States country and to those first, second and third generation Africans who have become American citizens to encourage them to be part of the effort that will elect Barack Obama president of the United States.

It is a powerful reality that more Africans have come to the United States since 1970 than came during the middle passage. The more than two million African immigrants in the U.S. can be an important source of support in strengthening relations with Africa.

Through a more active dialogue with the various African diaspora communities and organizations, the U.S. will find itself in a better position to develop its agenda and accomplish its objectives on Africa.

For those who may ask why, there are several reasons for this interest in the African diaspora community.

  • Africans are the most educated immigrant group in the country.
  • African-born men and women have higher median earnings than all foreign-born men and women in the U.S.
  • Remittances from Africans in the diaspora are on the rise, estimated to be in excess of $4 to 6 billion per year. Nigerians, as one example, remit more than $3 billion per year.

The Obama campaign is witnessing an unprecedented surge of support and excitement from African Americans as well as diaspora communities, and this support will be critical to Barack Obama's success in November.

Most immediately, the diaspora community has started to organize itself into groups such as Ethiopians for Obama, Eritreans for Obama, the African Immigrant Movement for Obama and the African Diaspora for Obama. In fact, one thing that Ethiopians and Eritreans clearly agree on is that they want Barack Obama to be the next president of the United States.

Most immediately, we want those 10,000 Ethiopian-Americans in Virginia to help turn that state blue on November 4th, we want all Nigerian-Americans living in Cleveland, Akron and elsewhere in Ohio to turn out the vote in their communities, we want the Somali-American community in Minneapolis to help win Minnesota, and we want African diaspora communities all across the country to come forward and exercise their rights as Americans. Even if individuals are not eligible to vote, they can still hand out leaflets, make phone calls and canvass their neighborhoods.

In the short-term, all those of African descent have the potential to be a key game changer in this election.

Moreover, the experience of Barack Obama underscores the values that many Africans and Americans share and the ties that bind us together.

The experience of Barack Obama has also raised extraordinary expectations in Africa. We need to be realistic about these expectations, especially given the financial pressures in the U.S., and remember that whatever the U.S. might try to do in Africa will be in support of the actions taken by our partners in Africa and the goals that they set for themselves and goals that we set together.

Obama's Africa Agenda

Barack Obama will pursue three fundamental objectives on the continent.

  • One is to accelerate Africa's integration into the global economy.
  • A second is to enhance the peace and security of African states.
  • And a third is to strengthen relationships with those governments, institutions and civil society organizations committed to deepening democracy, accountability and reducing poverty in Africa.

Conflict Resolution

A priority for Barack Obama is to end the genocide in Darfur by increasing pressure on the government to halt the killing and stop impeding the deployment of the United Nations peacekeeping force. He holds Khartoum accountable for abiding by its commitments under the Comprehensive Peace Accord that ended the 30-year conflict between the north and South.

In Somalia, Obama sees a need to recalibrate the U.S. approach. For the last several years, our efforts at state-building, humanitarian relief and counter-terrorism have worked at cross purposes; we need to develop an approach so that they work at common purpose.

In the eastern Congo, there is a need to strongly support the UN military force, MONUC. We also have to transform the "tripartite plus" process, which brings together senior officials from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda, from a talk-shop into one that imposes verifiable accountability on each participant for progress and security.

In the Niger Delta, we should become more engaged not only in maritime security but in working with the Nigerian government, the European Union, the African Union and other stake holders to stabilize the region.

In Zimbabwe, the recently agreed-upon power sharing arrangements need to evolve quickly from a Mugabe-controlled government to a government that reflects the March 29 election that the Movement for Democratic Change won. Most immediately, Robert Mugabe needs to allow NGOs unhindered access to the four to five million people who need essential food and medicine supplies.

Africom, the U.S. military command for Africa, should also realize its potential, in cooperation with other U.S. agencies and regional partners, to promote peace, security, and stability on the continent.

An Obama agenda will create a Shared Security Partnership Program to build the infrastructure to deliver effective counter-terrorism training, and to create a strong foundation for coordinated action against al Qaeda and its affiliates in Africa and elsewhere.

The Shared Security Partnership Program will provide assistance with information sharing, training, operations, border security, anti-corruption programs, technology and the targeting of terrorist financing.

Africa and the Global Economy

To accelerate Africa's integration into the global economy, and to expand prosperity on the continent, Obama would establish an Add Value to Agriculture Initiative (AVTA) that will spur research and innovation aimed at partnering with land grant institutions, private philanthropies and businesses to promote higher yield seeds, better irrigation methods and affordable and safe fertilizers.

Such an initiative will also address issues related to food security in order to alleviate high food costs in various African countries.

Barack Obama will strengthen the African Growth and Opportunity Act to ensure that African producers can access the U.S. market and will encourage more American companies to invest in Africa. He will also work with the Overseas Private Investment Corporation to develop lending facilities to small and medium businesses, so that those companies under $5 million can become $10 and $20 million companies, creating new jobs, sustainable incomes and partners for American companies.

He will help to enhance the prosperity beginning to reach Africa. The World Bank estimates Africa's middle class will grow fourfold in the next 20 years, from its current levels of 12 million people in countries such as South Africa, Zambia, Nigeria, Kenya and others. Barack Obama will work to accelerate this process.

China's rapidly expanding influence on the continent holds promise for Africa, especially in the area of infrastructure development. Its growing presence is also generating concerns around saddling new debts on African governments, environmental degradation and worker safety on the part of Chinese extractive companies, and eroding the market share of African producers on the continent and globally.

Barack Obama will engage the Chinese to establish the rules of the road and to ensure that we are working at common purpose to enhance economic development on the continent.

However, it will be important that African governments are part of this effort and part of this dialogue; the days of external powers on their own deciding what is best for Africa needs to come to an end, once and for all.

Deepening Democracy, Ending Poverty

When it comes to engaging with our African partners to deepen democracy, enhance accountability and reduce poverty, Barack Obama will work with Congress to put more resources on the table.

But let's give credit where it is due. The President's Emergency Program for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), with 1.7 million people in Africa on anti-retrovirals, has been an extremely important initiative, as has the Bush administration's program to eradicate malaria and address neglected tropical diseases.

It is often said that this administration's legacy in Africa will revolve around these programs and the tripling in development assistance from $2 billion in 2000 to $6 billion today, and rightly so.

Nevertheless, the picture is incomplete if we stop there. The reality is that the bulk of this increase is due to increased spending on HIV/AIDS, humanitarian assistance and debt relief. In fact, development assistance to the poorest countries in Africa has decreased by half in this time frame. Ironically, the percentage of development going to the best-governed countries has dropped even more, by two-thirds, in this period.

The Millennium Challenge Account may change this latter trend, given the $3.7 billion in commitments to 10 countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

We have seen no increase in development assistance in areas such as democracy building, the rule of law, judicial reform, the strengthening of parliaments, education and enhancing the entrepreneurial skills of men and women.

To redress this, an Obama agenda will work with Congress to increase our investment in foreign assistance. Obama will spearhead an initiative to eliminate the global education deficit by establishing a Global Education Fund to help fill the financing gap for primary education in Africa and the developing world. He will also make the Millennium Development Goals America's goals.

On climate change, an Obama agenda will launch a Global Energy and Environment Initiative (GEE) to bring developing countries into the global effort to develop alternative sources of energy and mitigate the stark consequences of climate change.

Barack Obama's vision of leadership in this new era begins with the recognition of a fundamental reality: the security and well-being of each and every American is tied to the security and well-being of those who live beyond our borders, including in Africa. The United States will provide global leadership grounded in the understanding that the world shares a common security and a common humanity. We must lead not in the spirit of a patron, but in the spirit of a partner. Extending an outstretched hand to others must ultimately be about recognizing the inherent quality, dignity and worth of all people.

This kind of American leadership will also leverage engagement and resources from our traditional allies in the G8 countries, as well as from new actors, including emerging economies such as India, China, Brazil and South Africa, the private sector and global philanthropy.

Yet while America and our friends and our allies can help developing countries build more secure and prosperous societies, we must never forget that only the citizens of these nations can sustain them.

Bipartisan Policy

What all of us who are engaged in Africa have in common is a willingness to put partisanship aside when it comes to advocating for resources for Africa. There is no question that this bipartisan consensus, especially in Congress, needs to be nurtured, deepened and expanded.

The consensus was first forged in 2000, when the Clinton administration advocated for the African Growth and Opportunity Act. It was enhanced during the Bush administration, which extended AGOA three times, created the Millennium Challenge Account and, of course, the $15 billion PEPFAR programme.

This bipartisan consensus was evident several months ago when the Bush administration asked Congress to double to $30 million the amount that the U.S would spend on AIDS relief. In a stirring act of American compassion, Congress funded the program at $48 billion with another $2 million being allocated for programs in the U.S.

Barack Obama knows about bipartisanship through his work as community organizer, a state legislator in Illinois and a U.S. Senator. He understands that hunger is not a partisan issue, he understands that disease is not blue or red but it is very real. He understands that genocide in Darfur is not an issue of Republican or Democrat but one of morality and common humanity, and he worked with Senator Sam Brownback, Republican of Kansas, to pass the Darfur Peace and Accountability Act in 2006.

By every measure, this election is historic. In voting for Barack Obama, you will be voting for genuine change and, when it comes to Africa, a deepening of those partnerships that benefit Africa and benefit America.

Witney W. Schneidman served as deputy assistant secretary of state for African affairs in the Clinton administration. This article is excerpted from remarks to the Constituency for Africa 2008 Ronald H. Brown African Affairs Series forum on "U.S.-Africa Policy Agenda and the Next Administration" at the National Press Club in Washington, DC.

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