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Africa proud of Obama, but sees little change in US ties

Thursday, 06 November 2008

Source: The Post (Pakistan)

Barack Obama's historic win as America's first black president inspires pride among Africans, but analysts say it will not translate into concrete US policy changes to benefit the continent.

While many Africans might expect Obama, born to a Kenyan father and a white American mother, to improve relations with the continent simply by virtue of his background, analysts say he will be constrained in his actions. Political analyst Daniel Silke said that once in the White House, Obama will find his options for dealing with Africa limited by broader US foreign policy concerns. "While there might be an emotional or psychological benefit for Africa, Obama's tangible support for the continent will still be limited by the constraints of US foreign policy," Silke said.

"In times of financial crisis, the US will find it tough to commit additional sums in aid. Its ability to commit capital will be offset by shoring up its own financial system," Silke told AFP. Obama will have a stronger platform to build on, after the last years of President George W. Bush's administration provided many tangible gains for Africa.

In July, Bush tripled US spending to fight AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria mainly in Africa to 48 billion dollars. Trade with the United States has also soared since 2000 under a law known as the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), which allows sub-Saharan African countries duty-free export incentives. African exports to the United States have more than tripled since the law was passed, rising to 51.1 billion dollars in 2007, mostly due to rising oil exports from Angola and Nigeria, according to a recent AGOA report. Somadoda Fikeni, chairman of the Walter Sisulu University council, warned that Obama's background might actually make it harder for him to change policies on Africa.

"His 'American-ness' and association with African descent has been exploited by his Republican opponents and conservative sections of the population," Fikeni said. "He is more likely to maintain current policies and levels of foreign aid support to Africa," he said. Obama can also be expected to maintain US pressure on resolving key conflicts around the continent, notably in Sudan's Darfur region.

"A similar pressure on Zimbabwe may be expected if the current impasse between Mugabe's ZANU-PF and (the opposition) has not been resolved by early next year," Fikeni told AFP. Obama's administration will also have to reassure African countries about the new US military command for Africa, known as Africom.

The new command began operating one month ago from the US military base in Stuttgart, Germany, but its creation has been greeted with suspicion by African leaders wary of a US military presence on the continent. Washington says that Africom aims to prevent conflicts and bolster security around Africa, insisting that no new bases are planned beyond the existing 1,800-member task force currently based in Djibouti.

"Africans are not comfortable dealing with the military in matters related to their development and sovereignty. Africans are concerned that the establishment of Africom might do more harm than good," said Wafula Okumu, head of the African security analysis programme at the Institute for Security Studies. Still, Obama's presence in the White House will provide an important psychological boost for Africans, said Silke. "Obama will be sympathetic and will offer a much needed emotional boost," he said. "Don't expect huge handouts or dramatic financial concessions."