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Obama policies on Africa to follow in the footsteps of the Bush regime

Published date:
Monday, 04 May 2009

In what may come as a shock to many, President Barack Obama’s designated top diplomat for Africa has confirmed that the new administration will adhere to the same policies that were pursued during the Bush era.

The confirmation came last week, the milestone of President Obama’s first 100 days in office, during the confirmation hearings of Johnnie Carson, nominated to serve as Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs.

At the hearings Carson, a former US ambassador to Kenya, Uganda and Zimbabwe, had a simple explanation why the status quo will not change much — Washington’s Africa policy has traditionally reflected consensus among Republicans and Democrats, he said, and he wanted to continue that bipartisan approach.

In East Africa, by far the most controversial of the Bush policies is the pursuit of Al-Qaida affiliated fundamentalists in Somalia, often through missiles strikes similar to those the Obama administration has continued to carry in Pakistan.

Regional analysts have warned that similar strikes on “high value targets” in Somalia will raise the risks of terrorist strikes in countries like Kenya and Uganda, perceived to be close US allies.

At his hearings held on April 29, Carson however also told the attending US Senate that he will aim to strengthen democracy, prevent conflict, foster economic development, and partner with African states to combat global threats such as climate change and disease pandemics.

He also promised to make good governance a priority in his dealings with all of Africa, describing corruption as “a cancer on economies, but particularly devastating for African economies because they tend to be weak and small.”

The career diplomat was, however, categorical that President Obama’s administration will maintain or enhance existing humanitarian and economic initiatives to the region.

These include the Millennium Challenge programme, the President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief (Pepfar) and Agoa, which he said will be expanded to agricultural exports in conjunction with intensified support for a biotechnology-fuelled Green Revolution.

Pepfar has been one of the major success stories of American foreign policy in Africa in recent years, making available millions of dollars for HIV prevention and treatment.

Last year, the fund gave Kenya $534.8 million, Tanzania $313.4 million, Uganda 283.6 million and Rwanda $123.4 million, adding up to a total of nearly $1.3 billion for the four countries (See table).

Elsewhere, Tanzania last year became the first East African country to benefit from the Millennium Challenge programme when it signed a five-year year $698 million agreement to help reduce poverty and stimulate economic growth by increasing household incomes through targeted investments in transportation, energy, and water. Carson’s tenure could see the programme expanded to other countries in the region.

At the confirmation hearings, Carson said that if nominated he would work to expand the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa) which for the past eight years has granted duty-free access to the US market for imports from eligible African countries, including Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. In the case of Kenya, Agoa has been particularly valuable in spurring growth of the country’s textile industry.

“I would like to see Agoa revised and expanded to permit high-value agricultural and semi-processed exports from Africa,” Carson said in a prepared statement distributed to the Senate’s sub-commmittee on Africa.

This envisioned overhaul of Agoa would aim to “increase utilisation of the programme by beneficiary countries and to have it serve as a catalyst for greater intra-African trade,” Carson added.

He also promised to put renewed emphasis on aiding African agriculture, which accounts directly or indirectly for the incomes of nearly three out of four Africans.

“To spur development, create jobs and end hunger, we must help Africa transform its farming sector to achieve an agricultural Green Revolution similar to the one that has improved the lives of millions of people across Asia,” he declared.

Despite the generally upbeat assessment presented by Mr Carson of President Obama’s Africa policy, critics are likely to latch on to the lack of substance during the preliminary hearings on non-humanitarian issues, including the US engagement in such conflict areas as Darfur, Congo and Somalia.

On many of these issues, Carson responded cautiously to questions put to him by subcommittee chairman Senator Russell Feingold, who nevertheless said he would strive to gain early Senate approval of his nomination.

Feingold asked about “the perception in Somalia of unconditional US support for Ethiopia” — despite what the senator described as growing repression on the part of the Ethiopian authorities.

Carson replied, “Ethiopia is a strong partner in the effort to combat extremism emanating from Somalia.” He went on to say it is “important that Ethiopia not close down its democratic space.”

Carson also reiterated recent warnings by US military officials that militants in Somalia pose a growing threat to other countries in East Africa.

Carson did not respond directly to Feingold’s question about “rebuilding” the State Department’s Africa Bureau which, the senator said, lacks the capacity to meet today’s challenges.

Of concern to some observers is that little was said at the Senate session in regard to the ongoing wars in eastern Congo that have claimed an estimated 5 million lives.

Similarly, Darfur was mentioned only a couple of times, even though the Bush administration declared years ago that “genocide” is taking place there.

In response to a query from Feingold about the potential for a reprise of political turmoil in Kenya, Carson pledged to “do everything I possibly can to bring both sides together to address the impasse that exists now.”

He called the current situation in Kenya “worrying” and called for implementation of the agreement brokered by former UN secretary general Kofi Annan.

If confirmed, as looks likely, Mr Carson’s appointment will almost probably see the exit of Bush-era diplomats to the region, including the outspoken US ambassador to Kenya, Michael Ranneberger, who in recent months has courted controversy with his outspoken stance on a variety of local issues.

Reported by Kevin J. Kelley in Washington and Dagi Kimani in Nairobi

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