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What Obama means for Africa

Published date:
Thursday, 06 November 2008

The continent is celebrating Obama’s win as its own, but he will have to prove his commitment to its poor is deeper than his predecessors’, writes S’thembiso Msomi.

It was the legendary intellectual WEB Du Bois who, in 1903, wrote that the “problem of the 20th century is the problem of the colour line”.

Barack Obama’s historic victory in the US presidential election yesterday proved that the US and the world have made significant progress since the distinguished African-American wrote those words more than a century ago.

In a country where the vast majority of the electorate is white, Obama’s skin colour did not prevent him from ascending to the White House. Not even the fact that his father was an immigrant from Kenya turned the American voters against him.

Obama’s victory sends a message to the international community that the world’s most powerful nation has indeed achieved Martin Luther King Jnr’s state where people “are not judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character”.

Even here at home the Obama bug seems to have bitten people across the racial divide that so often informs our political choices.

On the African continent, Obama’s victory has been hailed as our own. The Kenyan government has declared today a public holiday. This kind of gesture on the continent is usually reserved for such important occasions as when Senegal defeated France in a 2002 soccer World Cup match. In Nigeria, the Lagos state government, too, organised a series of activities to celebrate “our victory”.

But what will an Obama government mean for Africa? Will the 44th president of the US give the continent any preferential treatment simply because he has African blood running in his veins?

Most US foreign policy experts who attended a seminar to discuss the US election in Ethiopia last month agreed that Obama’s approach to Africa would not be too different from that of the outgoing president, George W Bush.

Political scientist Steven Ekovich, one of the key speakers at the summit, was quoted as saying the Democrats and Republicans proposed similar policies on Africa.

“I read both texts and I had this strange impression that I’d read the same text twice … Furthermore, I said, ‘Not only have I read the same text, I’ve read this text before, I’ve seen this before’.

“This is basically current American-Africa policy. No difference,” Ekovich told his largely African audience at the summit.

He went on to warn the African diplomats and policy makers at the summit that an African-American president “can be tougher on you than a white president”.

“He can give you what Americans call ‘tough love’. He is going to be able to say, where another kind of president cannot say, ‘You know, my African brothers and sisters are just going to have to do better on corruption, on democracy, on reducing violence’,” Ekovich said.

Obama’s adviser on Africa during his presidential campaign, Witney Schneidman, told the National Press Club in Washington at the end of September that Obama “understands Africa and its importance to the US”.

“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,” said Schneidman.

She conceded that an Obama victory would raise “extraordinary expectations” in Africa.

“We need to be realistic about these expectations, especially given the financial pressures in the US, and remember that whatever the US might try to do in Africa, [it] will be in support of the actions taken by our partners in Africa and the goals that they set for themselves,” Schneidman added.

With the US being South Africa’s largest export market, many in business are concerned about Obama’s “protectionist plans” to boost job creation in the US by shielding industries there from foreign competition.

Some have even questioned whether an Obama presidency would mean an end to the Africa Growth and Opportunity (Agoa) legislation, which was introduced by the Clinton administration in 2000 and expanded by the Bush government.

Thanks to Agoa, South Africa exports goods to the tune of 9-billion a year. Agoa has also helped create thousands of jobs in poor African countries such as Swaziland and Malawi.

Obama’s campaigners say this is not going to change. Schneidman pointed out that Agoa came about as a result of the bipartisan consensus among Republicans and Democrats in the US Congress and that this policy would be continued under his administration.

“ [Obama] 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 Republicans or Democrats but one of morality and common humanity,” Schneidman said.

Since the turn of the century, American and leaders of the world’s other richest nations have made grand promises of resources to help Africa and the rest of the developing world pull themselves out of the poverty trap. Often these promises have not been met.

It remains to be seen whether an Obama administration will mean a serious commitment by the world’s richest nation to confront the 21st century’s biggest challenge: rising inequality and poverty.

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