Obama and Africa: A One-Year Assessment – J.Peter Pham, PhD (Family Security Matters)

January 21st, 2010 Print Print Email Email

Exactly one year ago, Barack Obama’s inauguration as the forty-fourth President of the United States of America was celebrated by millions of men, women, and children who, quite literally, danced in the streets, even though they had never met him, much less had no formal part in the historic election that brought him to office. As I noted the very morrow of Obama’s victory over Senator John McCain, the former’s “unique personal history means that he is the first son of Africa in the diaspora to be entrusted with the leadership of any major power, much less the chief magistry of what is still the world’s political, military, economic, and cultural superpower,” and, consequently, those millions of Africans not only have an incredible emotional investment in his personal political fortunes, but also cherish the hope that they believe it represents for the relationship between America and Africa. And, as I went on to argue, this set of circumstances would give the new president“a rare opportunity to translate effusive sentiments of good will into a windfall of diplomatic capital which, if he husbands it prudently, can significantly advance America’s values and interests on the continent while helping to achieve Africans’ aspirations for peace, stability, and development.” So, how do things look one year later?

To be fair to the President, he has had an entire world to worry about, not just one continent. Among other things, he has had to decide on a strategy for the war against the resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan, coax along a reluctant counterterrorism partner in Pakistan, confront the nuclear ambitions of the mullahs in Iran, manage relations with Europe, China, Russia, and other aspirants to America’s preeminent position in the global order, and cope with the worst economic downturn in several generations—and these were just some of the problems that were sitting on his Oval Office desk alongside the traditional valedictory letter from his predecessor. Then there were the challenges—like the now flailing effort to change the U.S. healthcare system—which Obama piled on his own plate even before he tackled the various crises bequeathed to him.

However, as I noted in this column two days after the inauguration, in Africa, the Obama administration had the advantage of building on the firm foundations laid by its predecessors. President Bill Clinton’s emphasis on democratic politics, economic growth, and general good governance gave new impetus to U.S. Africa policy in the aftermath of the Cold War and the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) which he signed into law during his last year in office has substantially increased between African countries and the United States. President George W. Bush made engagement with Africa one of the lasting legacies of his two terms in the White House, launching a whole raft of new development and humanitarian initiatives—including the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), and the President’s Malaria Initiative (PMI)—which have positively demonstrated American commitment to Africa and strengthened the “soft power” links between the United States and the nations of the African continent. And, of course, Bush’s tenure saw the establishment of the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) with its mission, “in concert with other U.S. government agencies and international partners,” to conduct “sustained security engagement through military-to-military programs, military-sponsored activities, and other military operations as directed to promote a stable and secure African environment” representing America’s recognition of the strategic importance of Africa, such that its security not only concerns Africans, but also impacts the interests of the United States and the international community as a whole.

President Obama certainly set the right tone for U.S. policy toward Africa when he addressed the Ghanaian parliament during a visit to Accra last July. In a speech that, quite frankly, few others could have delivered, the President affirmed, “Africa’s future is up to Africans.” However, he went on to tell his audience—and audiences throughout the continent in the overwhelming majority of African countries where, unlike Ghana, there has yet to be peaceful transfers of power following elections, much less closely fought ones—that this meant they had to take responsibility:

Now, it’s easy to point fingers and to pin the blame of these problems on others. Yes, a colonial map that made little sense helped to breed conflict. The West has often approached Africa as a patron or a source of resources rather than a partner. But the West is not responsible for the destruction of the Zimbabwean economy over the last decade, or wars in which children are enlisted as combatants. In my father’s life, it was partly tribalism and patronage and nepotism in an independent Kenya that for a long stretch derailed his career, and we know that this kind of corruption is still a daily fact of life for far too many…

Development depends on good governance. That is the ingredient which has been missing in far too many places, for far too long. That’s the change that can unlock Africa’s potential. And that is a responsibility that can only be met by Africans.

The President went on to list four critical areas—building and sustaining democratic governments, supporting development that provides opportunity to more people, strengthening public health, and resolving conflicts peacefully—pledging America’s support:

As for America and the West, our commitment must be measured by more than just the dollars we spend. I’ve pledged substantial increases in our foreign assistance, which is in Africa’s interests and America’s interests. But the true sign of success is not whether we are a source of perpetual aid that helps people scrape by—it’s whether we are partners in building the capacity for transformational change.

To its credit, the Obama administration has followed through on a number of these promises. For example, the fiscal year (FY) 2010 budget request for the MCC, arguably the Bush administration’s most innovative contribution with regard to foreign assistance, called for an additional $550 million in funding, an increase of some 63 percent over FY2009 levels. Ultimately, when it got around to passing the FY2010 Omnibus Appropriations Bill in mid-December, Congress opted for a more modest 26 percent increase of MCC’s budget, which nonetheless raised the amount available to reduce poverty by spurring economic growth in countries—half of them African—that have demonstrated sound political, economic, and social policies, to $1.105 billion.

Regrettably, the sole African compact for MCC assistance that has been signed during the Obama presidency (a compact was also signed with Moldova) seriously undermines the credibility of the President’s commitment to the idea that development depends on good governance. I noted last fall in the Stanford Social Innovation Review that “Senegal’s enthusiasm for economic freedom, poverty reduction, and sustainable growth seems to have flagged” under President Abdoulaye Wade, if the octogenarian’s creation of a “super-ministry” for his son Karim and his government’s predatory treatment of foreign investors were any indications. That record did not stop the administration from signing a compact with the West African country in September that entails paying $540 million of American taxpayers’ money to the regime over the next five years. Nor have subsequent revelations that Wade père, who is trying to extend his presidency, gave a departing International Monetary Fund office a $200,000 “traditional farewell gift” and is currently spending some $27 million to hire the North Koreans to erect a statue of “African Renaissance” in his capital been deemed sufficient cause to call a “time-out” on the Senegal compact. As Congressman Ed Royce of California noted in his foreign policy blog, when he raised concerns with the State Department, all he could get was an acknowledgment that indeed there was “slippage in governance in Senegal.” Hopefully the new chief executive officer of the MCC, Ethiopian immigrant-turned-banking entrepreneur Daniel W. Yohannes, will deal with this aberration.

Of course, the President is well aware that U.S. foreign assistance is, to put it charitably, uncoordinated. In an interview with allAfrica.com on the eve of his trip to Ghana, President Obama acknowledged that “even just within the U.S. government, our aid policies have been splintered among a variety of agencies, different theories embraced by different people depending on which administration, which party, is in power at any given time,” and admitted that just “staying steady and focused…basing our policies on what works and not on some ideological previous position” is a challenge. Unfortunately, the fact that the administration left the Millennium Challenge CEO’s position and that of administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) vacant until well into the fall did not matters much.

Except among denizens of the anti-military fever swamps, there is broad consensus that security is a necessary precondition for sustainable development in Africa—and anywhere else for that matter—and that a stable and secure African environment not only benefits Africans, but is also good for the United States and the international community at large. AFRICOM got modest increases to its funding under President Obama, with $278 million budgeted in FY2010 for the general operational and maintenance costs of the command (capital costs to improve its airlift and communications capabilities as well as to run the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa are accounted for separately). An important part of America’s security engagement abroad is not what U.S. personnel, uniformed and civilian, do directly, but what they are able to empower partners to be able to do for themselves. As I argued here last year, programs like Foreign Military Financing (FMF), International Military Education and Training (IMET), the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership (TSCTP), the Global Peace Operations Initiative (GPOI), the African Contingency Operations and Training Assistance (ACOTA) program, the International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement (INCLE) program, and others can be a “win-win” by “simultaneously help[ing] America’s African friends begin achieving their own security objectives, enhance the U.S. military’s professional relationships and potential interoperability with these new partner states, and frustrate the efforts by other powers…to reduce our influence through the indiscriminate sale of their arms cross the continent—all the while strengthening the domestic security industrial sector, reducing the cost of future defense acquisitions, and securing business for U.S. firms and creating jobs for American workers.” Thus, given that the attempt by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab blow up Northwest Airlines Flight 253 on Christmas Day underscored America’s need for all the security cooperation it can get in Africa, it is most reassuring to see in the Obama administration’s first full budget modest increases in funds available for all these programs, with important regional partners like Ethiopia, Morocco, and Uganda, among others, benefiting.

Disappointingly, Somalia’s lackluster “Transitional Federal Government” (TFG) has likewise benefited from Washington’s largesse. This is one policy held over from the Bush administration that one would have wished that the Obama team had have revisited. If it did not have the chance to do so before it sent forty tons of weapons in June, it certainly should have found the time in the months since. As I pointed out last week: “The TFG has had its chance. If, after more than five years since its inception and hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign aid and military support, it has proven unable to rally to its banner the very populace it purports to represents there is nothing that any outsider can or should do to impose its writ upon southern and central Somalia.” This week’s report from the BBC that Kenyan Immigration Minister Otieno Kajwang was cracking down on the more than one hundred TFG parliamentarian wondering about his country and giving them an ultimatum to either register as refugees and go into camps or otherwise go home says all that needs to be said about the Somali regime’s real status. And TFG “prime minister” Omar Sharmacke’s op-ed in this past Tuesday’s New York Times is hardly very reassuring. The poor thing has obviously been in his bunker in Mogadishu for so long that he does not seem to realize that the three Somali regions which he cites as evidence of stability in Somalia—Somaliland, Puntland, and Galmudug—are all areas where his phantom government has no real influence! In fact, Somaliland formally seceded from Somalia nearly two decades ago and isn’t in the least bit interested in going back into the madhouse that Sharmacke and his fellow inmates pretend to run. (As Graeme Wood puts its succinctly in a travel essay for the current issue of Foreign Policy magazine, “A reconstituted Somalia would require reconnecting Somaliland with what may be the world’s most spectacularly failed state. Where Somaliland has a fledgling coast guard, Somalia has flourishing pirates, and where Hargeisa has a form of democracy, Mogadishu has howling anarchy punctuated by fits of sharia law.”)

With perhaps the glaring exception of his naïve—if not altogether delusional—special envoy for Sudan and the “strategy” the man in supposedly implementing (see my comments two weeks ago), one has to give President Obama credit for putting together a foreign policy team on Africa which, from Secretary of State Clinton down, is largely made up of experienced and respected professionals, some with considerable experience on the continent. The Secretary of State herself undertook an eleven-day, seven-country tour of Africa in August that was more extensive than any of the safaris which her predecessors may have had during their first year in office. Particularly important was the long-overdue stop by a senior American official in Luanda, during which an agreement was reached to create a new mechanism for bilateral cooperation between the United States and Angola. As a result of the accord, meetings under the aegis of the new Strategic Partnership Dialogue (SPD) took place in Washington in mid-November. Two working groups were launched, a Security Cooperation group, co-chaired by Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Donald Yamamoto from the State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs and Angolan Ambassador to the United States Josefina Pitra Diakité, and an Energy Cooperation group, led by Coordinator for International Energy Affairs David Goldwyn and Angolan Vice-Minister of Energy João Baptista Borges. As someone who argued here more than a year ago that “America needs to intensify its engagement with this geopolitically significant country,” I cannot but applaud the subsequent announcement by Ambassador Johnnie Carson, Assistant Secretary for African Affairs, that the United States and Angola have also agreed on “terms of reference” for posting a Treasury Department adviser in Luanda to work closely with the Angolan Ministry of Finance and the Angolan Central Bank to support the country’s efforts to improve its debt issuance and management system as well as the prospect that Washington will be looking at providing a resident adviser on tax and monetary policy and establishing a Peace Corps program in Angola to provide English teachers at the secondary and tertiary levels and teachers to help the country develop computer skills and technology.

Secretary Clinton’s meeting last November with Foreign Minister Seyoum Mesfin of Ethiopia—“a country,” she noted, “with which we have very long ties, and have, in recent years, developed a very close working relationship on a number of important issues”—will likewise lead to a welcome strengthening of another important strategic partnership, although major initiatives may have to wait until after national elections in Ethiopia, scheduled for May. However, given the senior officials in the administration with significant experience in Addis Ababa—among others, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Yamamoto was most recently U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia and Deputy Assistant of Defense for Africa Vicki Huddleston is a former chargé d’affaires of the U.S. embassy there—expect that the Obama administration will not only continue its predecessor’s close military and security relationship with the government of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, but also, given both its own agenda and Ethiopia’s overall economic progress, shift American help to the Horn of Africa country away from short-term food aid to longer-term development cooperation, especially in the agricultural sector.

Overall, by wisely maintaining the continuity that has long characterized U.S. policy on the continent and even modestly expanding some of the more successful programs initiated by the Bush administration, the Obama administration has done right by Africa. Going forward, however, it will need to address several concerns, including:

First, the administration has yet to deal adequately with the exaggerated expectations which many Africans have for a government headed by the son of a man from a small village in western Kenya. So far, the President remains very popular in many parts of Africa, even if the euphoria has died down a bit. However, the administration needs to continually work to manage expectations lest they inadvertently turn into a backlash of resentment. That, even without a financial crisis, there is a limit to what American can and will do in and for Africa is a message that has yet to penetrate the political elites of certain African countries, much less the masses. America’s public (and not-so-public) diplomacy need to better communicate this reality.

Second, Africa has historically been a nonpartisan concern in Washington and, overall, the formulation and conduct of policy towards Africa have been spared the bitter partisanship that has characterized so much of recent inside-the-Beltway politics. That being said, however, given how sensitive the very notion of free trade is with some parts of the Democratic coalition, the administration needs to make a more determined effort to reach across the aisle and engage with Africa’s advocates in the Republican Party if it is to make any progress at all in efforts to help integrate the nations of the continent into the global economy by opening up additional opportunities the continent’s abundant natural resources and nascent market economies under a strengthened AGOA framework as well as mobilizing more private sector investment in Africa. GOP support—on Capitol Hill as well as in policy circles and media outlets—will be critical if the administration is to rally public support for the commitments it will be making in Africa in the coming year. Furthermore, such an outreach makes good political sense for the administration: if the upset victory this week by Republican Scott Brown in the race for the late Senator Ted Kennedy’s seat says anything, it is that the general public is tired of one-party rule.

Third, the administration needs to acknowledge that government, whether in North America or Africa, cannot do everything, or even most things—and those things it can do, it does not always do in the most efficient manner. In addition to government contracts, other creative vehicles need to be employed to encourage the U.S. businesses to be more engaged with efforts to develop and modernize Africa’s infrastructure, leveraging financing facilities such as the relatively modest amounts currently available through the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) and the Export-Import (Ex-Im) Bank of the United States and tax incentives, which are particularly attractive insofar as they do not require direct public expenditures. Moreover, private sector investment in Africa ought to be encouraged and facilitated, especially if it can get capital to the small-to-medium-sized enterprises that best empower job growth in any economies.

By and large, when one considers the challenges which the Obama administration faced and the new President’s own inclination towards domestic—rather than foreign (much less African-specific)—policy, one would have to aver that its first year performance with respect to Africa has been creditable enough. While there are areas where it clearly could have done better, there are a great many others where it could have done far worse.

FamilySecurityMatters.org Contributing Editor J. Peter Pham is Senior Fellow and Director of the Africa Project at the National Committee on American Foreign Policy in New York City. He also hold academic appointments as Associate Professor of Justice Studies, Political Science, and African Studies at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and non-resident Senior Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington,, D.C. He currently serves as Vice President of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA).

Comments are closed.