Many people had high hopes for Obama’s presidency having a serious focus and positive impact on the African continent (including myself). The policies of past presidents relegated Africa to a single, monolithic policy for a continent of 55 countries. Under Bush, AFRICOM launched and a renewed focus on military engagement became the norm for US Africa Policy with the US military providing anti-terrorism training and the military implementing humanitarian aid projects typically conducted by USAID.
As Obama was campaigning as a Senator, I thought he had great potential to make changes in US Africa Policy. In 2007, I wrote:
Just last year the Illinois Senator went on an African tour visiting South Africa, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Chad – discussing the issues of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the growing violence in Darfur, refugees from the Sudan conflict, the Kibera slums, and Africa becoming a new haven for terrorists. I wonder if he is in favor of the Africa Command? Obama presents a great hope for American political reform and rebirth, but also Obama presents a great hope for Africa and bringing about a more focused and effective and involved US African Policy that is not afraid to invest in the continent. (Written 01/06/2007)
President Obama began his presidency repairing the world’s view of the US after the extremely negative view the world population held of Bush and his wars in the Middle East. In 2009, Obama gave compelling speeches in Ghana and Egypt. To me, these speeches seemed to signify that the Obama Administration was going to engage countries in Africa as individual actors and place engagement in Africa as a higher priority.
My hopes aren’t as strong as Obama begins his campaign for a second term. It is no mystery that Obama’s focus has been on domestic issues during the last 4 years. Beyond the far reaching impacts of political unrest and change across North Africa and the Middle East, Obama’s Africa Policy has been kept at an arms length. Hillary Clinton has done a commendable job of managing the US’s image abroad, but Obama’s Administration has not engaged the continent the same way he has spoken to and about Africa.
How has Obama fared since his Africa Tour of 2006? What advances have been made in US Africa Policy? Here are the issues since 2006:
Arguably the most prominent accomplishment of Obama’s term was passing Healthcare Reform. Much of his time and effort was focused on fighting, compromising, and pushing for this legislation. The strong domestic focus is expected, but its seems Obama only mentions HIV/AIDS on World AIDS Day. This past year (2011) Obama had a strong story and spoke of a growing commitment to “The End of AIDS.” However, we have also seen Congress push to slash our humanitarian aid budget to even less than 1% while at the same time the Global Fund is in a funding crisis. Bush often mention PEPFAR in his State of the Union speeches, but Obama never has. This may have just been political, Bush needed to deflect attention from his unpopular war-mongering and Obama needed to draw in his base of supporters for the upcoming election. Obama has said publicly that he will defend the US funding for PEPFAR and the Global Fund. Many people note that if Obama is elected to a second term he will likely be involved in more international issues. This seems to be one on Obama’s radar for future involvement.
While serving in the Senate, Obama was a staunch advocate for ending genocide in Darfur. After elected, he appointed strong anti-genocide advocates to key posts: Susan Rice, UN Representative for the US, and Hillary Clinton, Secretary of State. During Obama’s term, the world’s newest country was formed: South Sudan. Both Obama and Clinton have made statements affirming US support for the new country of South Sudan. Obama has made strong statements that South Sudan and Sudan need to move past long standing differences if they are to both prosper, but the reality on the ground is another story. The violence and bloodshed has not ended. Rhetorically I ask, why have no troops been sent to Darfur or South Sudan?
During his Africa Tour, Senator Obama visited the Kibera slum in Kenya. The AFRICOM 2011 statement of purpose notes the great need for increased economic support in Africa to bring stability and growth. This past year has seen revolutions and uprisings against governments across Africa, from human rights protests in Uganda, to full revolution in Egypt, armed conflict in Libya, land protests in South Africa, to #OccupyNigeria decrying the oil industry’s grip on the country. The slums in full view of skyscrapers are a common sight in many of the developing world’s major cities. Global inequality is not being ignored any longer and populations are taking things into their own hands. Obama has been known to be in close personal contact with African heads of state. US investment in Africa has not been as well publicized.
In 2011, Ambassador Demetrios Marantis spoke about the US’s Africa trade and investment policy. Marantis highlighted the small-scale, project by project, country by country investment related to the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) as well as the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), but it seems that the glaring issues with these programs raised during the Bush administration have not been addressed. Marantis also spoke of the US’s efforts to sign bi-lateral trade agreements, 7 total, which will increase private investments. If you ask me this is a poor response and demonstrates a lack of imagination and innovation towards African engagement.
This has been by far the most prominent area of the Obama Administraion’s Africa Policy. Out of all issues focused on in Africa, the military intervention and on the ground action seems to be the “go to move” for African engagement. Since 2003, the US military has been conducting anti-terrorism trainings with many African militaries in the West African Sahel region, working to mitigate Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb (AQIM). The US military has also been involved in the Somali conflict, helping Kenyan troops to protect their border and engaging Al-Shabab, these efforts have not been without civilian casualties. Recently, US special forces went into Somalia to rescue aid workers held by a Somali pirate group.
Obama authorized the US military to run support missions in Libya, carrying out the majority of flight missions attacking Libyan military installations. The US military presence was significant even though the UK and France were leading the mission. More recently in October 2011, Obama announced he would be sending around 100 troops to Uganda to assist in fighting the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) responsible for a long running conflict affecting Northern Uganda and neighboring regions.
This year, the bombing skills of Boko Haram have improved quickly and the Nigerian and US militaries believe AQIM is teaching militants in Nigeria to make better bombs. The attack on the US Embassy has lead the US to commit military efforts to helping the Nigerian government fight Boko Haram.
What will 2012 Bring?
Some have called these various efforts the “Pentagon’s shadow war in Africa,” however nothing has been veiled in shadows. The US holds nothing back to show it is there to militarily support African countries. The US Africa Policy has been revealed to be a focus on mitigation of terrorist groups that seem to be gaining ground and ensuring regional security before other economic or humanitarian efforts are increased.
“Africa is not big in Washington, there is no constituency that cares about Africa that much,” said Kwaku Nuamah, a Ghanaian professor at American University in Washington. “I did not think the traditional contours of American foreign policy were going to change because there was somebody in the White House with ties to Africa, but of course a lot of people expected that.”
Like all presidents, Obama has many words and equally many unfulfilled commitments. As Obama is focused domestically, it has been the US military that has demonstrated his Africa Policy. Obama has chosen the sword over the pen in implementing policy across the continent and I can only continue to hope, like others, that a second term for Obama will mean more non-military engagement in Africa. This all goes without noting the US’s competition with China in Africa. . .