Kenya: Obama regime will give Africa a sympathetic ear

When, during a 2006 visit to Africa, Barack Obama was asked what he could do for Kenyans, his response was: “I am the senator from Illinois, not the senator from Kogelo.”

This question and answer captures his complex relationship to Africa via Kenya. His symbolism demands that he be a global leader who will bring a measure of peace and well-being to the Third World, and therefore Africa.

But in practice, his rule has to be dictated by US domestic and foreign policy needs that will often run counter to those of Africa. He will, after all, be the president of an empire stretched thin by war and an economy in a recession. And the empire is hungry.Yet I do not think the hope placed on Obama by Africans is misplaced.

Obama knows Africa like no other US president before him. He has direct roots, some frayed and others strong, in Kenya. He grew up in Hawaii, an international outpost of the US, and has lived in Indonesia.

And the problems in Africa call for US foreign policy changes that Obama cannot possibly make.

What Africa needs is an elimination of US farm subsidies. The subsidies cost African countries more in lost revenue due to depressed markets than it gets in foreign aid.

In fact, Oxfam estimates that African countries lose two dollars through unequal trade for every dollar it gets in foreign aid. What Africa needs is equal trade as opposed to paternalistic foreign aid that masks unequal trade.

Expressed support

Obama has expressed support for Bush’s Africa Growth Opportunity Act (Agoa), which creates “export processing zones” where manufactured goods are shipped to the US duty free.

But EPZs largely benefit corporations enticed by a tax-free existence, cheap non-union labour and raw materials. What Africa needs are investments that benefit its citizenry, re-invest profits in local economies while promoting national industry.

Obama supports the US Africa Command (Africom), an attempt to unify US military operations in Africa. But Africa does not need further militarisation of Africa-US relations. Equal trade between nations and economic justice within African countries will restore stability and security in the long run.

Given Obama’s African roots, his internationalism and his politics that have underlined fairness, Africans will at least have a sympathetic ear in the White House.

But to paraphrase John F Kennedy, another young president fraught with the contradiction of promise and practice: Ask not what Obama can do for you, but what you can do for the world.