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Africa weighs Obama's first year

Published date:
Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Barack Obama’s inauguration was greeted with euphoria in Africa,

perhaps nowhere more than here in Kenya, the country where Obama’s father was born and raised. The response was emotional — a black man, an African, was leader of one of the world's most powerful countries — and there were expectations that his kinship would mean a more attentive approach to the continent.

Yet troop deployments to Afghanistan, domestic health reform and the economic crisis have meant that a year down the line Obama’s Africa policy is just coming into focus.

(Read about the opportunities that awaited Obama in Africa when he took office.)

“Only the basic contours of Obama’s policy towards Africa are becoming visible … and there’s a lot of continuity rather than change,” says Alex Vines, head of the Africa program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs.

That is not a bad thing as Obama has inherited a number of initiatives that have gone down well in Africa. The African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) gives tax-breaks to African exporters, the Millennium Challenge Corporation gives development assistance to well-governed countries and the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR)

gives life-saving drugs to millions.

The clearest indication of what U.S. policy towards Africa will look like was given in Obama’s speech in July during his first visit to sub-Saharan Africa as president. “Africa’s future is up to Africans,” he declared.

To applause from the assembled Ghanaian parliamentarians in the capital Accra he said that, “Development depends on good governance,” indicating that the U.S. will be less willing to throw money at friendly dictators.

And praising Ghana’s 2008 election in which a losing incumbent peacefully handed over power after a closely fought vote, he said, “Africa doesn’t need strongmen it needs strong institutions.”

These pithy soundbites have played well in African media and the speech made for an effective repackaging of the U.S.-Africa relationship but the unsaid was as important.

There was no mention of a “war on terror” and little of the U.S. military’s controversial Africa Command which upset a number of African leaders who saw in it a militarization of U.S. policy towards Africa. Yet fear of Al Qaeda’s rise in the desert regions of West Africa and in Somalia and the Horn of Africa is a powerful force in determining America’s evolving relationship with the continent.

Nor did oil get much of a mention yet, “energy security and diversification are important drivers of U.S. policy in Africa,” according to Vines. Africa now supplies America with 20 percent of its oil, more than the Middle East.

While critics say that oil and security are the lenses through which the U.S. views Africa, Witney Schneidman, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for African affairs under Bill Clinton and a campaign advisor to Obama, has little time for these arguments.

“It’s easy to say U.S.-Africa policy is all about oil and the reality is that energy security is one of the issues, but to think that it’s the only issue or the driving issue is simplistic,” he says.

He points to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s seven-nation Africa tour in August in which she visited two major oil producers — Angola and Nigeria — but also addressed a range of non-energy issues in a variety of other countries.

Among those she met was the president of the United Nations-backed Transitional Federal Government in Somalia, a country that fell very much within the scope of George W. Bush’s ideological "war on terror."

The rhetoric has shifted but the policy remains the same: giving political, financial and military support to a weak government that has no popular mandate while occasionally assassinating alleged terrorists with missiles and special forces.

In neighboring Kenya, Obama has shown some tough love vocally criticizing Kenya’s bickering government and banning at least 15 senior officials from traveling to America after accusing them of blocking the reforms needed to prevent a repeat of the violence that followed the 2007 elections.

It is, says Vines, “a bit like presidents of Irish origin being much more interested in Northern Ireland.” But if Kenya’s political elites had hoped for special treatment from a U.S. president with Kenyan ancestry this is probably not what they had in mind.

Obama's decision to skip Kenya on his first visit to sub-Saharan Africa was taken as a deliberate snub.

As Obama’s second year in office begins African hopes remain high as does the pride felt by so many. But Vines warns that these expectations have to be kept in perspective, not least because of the bruising financial crisis: “Finances very much dictate what can be achieved. Africa is not a priority policy for the Obama administration.”

Obama’s first year for Africa: The key moments

• January 2009: Across Africa, and especially in Kenya, people celebrated Obama’s inauguration as America’s first black president.

• March: Retired General Scott Gration appointed as Special Envoy to Sudan.

• May: The first African head of state to be welcomed at the White House is Tanzania’s Jakaya Kikwete, president of a stable and democratic country.

• June: U.S. sends a 40-ton arms shipment to Somalia’s besieged government.

• July: Obama makes his first visit to sub-Saharan Africa and gives a speech to Ghana’s parliament emphasizing good governance.

• August: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton makes an 11-day, seven-nation tour of Africa that focuses on trade, governance, health, oil, security, peace, human rights and democracy.

• October: New Sudan strategy unveiled that spreads focus beyond Darfur to include

South Sudan and outlines a range of incentives and penalties for Khartoum.

• December: After the attempted suicide bombing of a plane headed for Detroit, allegedly by a Nigerian man, three African countries — Nigeria, Somalia and Sudan — are among 14 whose citizens will undergo additional screening if they want to enter the U.S.

• January 2010: Hillary Clinton gives a speech in Washington saying that development, diplomacy and defense will be equal partners in U.S. foreign policy.

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