Africa: Where Next? U.S. - Africa Relations Under a Second Term

If there was one place outside Barack Obama's hometown of Chicago more excited by his November re-election, it was Kogelo. Since Mr Obama's first election, this small market town in western Kenya - the birthplace of the US president's father - has seen a paved road, electricity, several water wells, and two hotels built. As residents celebrated his victory with Swahili gospel songs, many hoped their star would continue to rise on the coattails of the town's famous grandson.

For the rest of Africa, Kogelo has been the exception rather than the rule. Back in 2008, the chief executive of one Accra-based business conglomerate commissioned a life-size painting of the new US president which dominated his office and wowed visitors. It has since been moved aside to accommodate a larger portrait of a resurrected Jesus.

This snub is, perhaps, a reflection of the suspicion felt by many that Mr Obama's priorities are elsewhere. His first major diplomatic trip abroad since re-election was instructive: Myanmar. By choosing a country that was until recently under US sanctions, Mr Obama hopes to cement a turnaround in US geo-strategic priorities from West to East.

Where does Africa fit in? During Mr Obama's first term Peter Pham, director of the Africa programme at the Washington-based Atlantic Council, likened the continent to the stepchild of US foreign policy.

"During the first four years of the Obama administration, the president has put the poor stepchild out to foster with secretary of state Hillary Clinton and others," Mr Pham said. "Hopefully, even if Africa remains a stepchild, it is at least admitted back to the family home during the second term. Otherwise, we might find it has been adopted by other interested parties."

When Mr Obama visited Ghana in July 2009, it was the earliest a US president had ever been to Africa following inauguration. Africa, he said, was America's partner. It was "a fundamental part" of an interconnected world and he would initiate a new relationship based on mutual respect. The implication was clear: Africa would no longer be ignored.

But while the continent is serenaded diplomatically and commercially by the emerging economies of Asia, South America and the Gulf, Mr Obama has not set foot in sub-Saharan Africa since the Ghana trip. And US strategy for Africa has not changed as much as his rhetoric might have suggested.

In a recent article in South Africa's Mail & Guardian newspaper Bright Simons, a social entrepreneur from Accra, points out that while Africa has never had a central role in America's geo-political theatre, it has often played an important speaking part.

As far back as the 1960s presidents John F. Kennedy and his successor Lyndon Johnson brought a new brand of American-backed mercantilism to the continent which resulted in heavy investments and the expansion of American export finance projects. The subsequent presidencies of Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford saw the US increasingly involved in southern African trade politics.

The aid industry itself owes its roots to the 'Truman Doctrine' - the birth of US largesse to developing regions in the immediate post-war period to contain the threat of Communism - and aid continued to grow under president Jimmy Carter as the world's two superpowers fought for influence. During the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George Bush Senior, and continuing through to today, the Washington-based International Monetary Fund and World Bank played a key role in reorganising many African economies along capitalist lines.

President Bill Clinton was known for his 'African renaissance' and the landmark African Growth and Opportunity Act, which is credited with creating more than 300,000 direct jobs in Africa since its inception a decade ago. Latterly, George W. Bush tied large disbursements of aid to good governance with innovative programmes such as the Millennium Challenge Corporation, as well as launching major health initiatives.

"What President Obama doesn't appear to have done is decide whether to treat Africa as a surmountable challenge, which is what Bush did with the Millennium Challenge programmes, or as an exciting opportunity, which President Bill Clinton did with Agoa," says Mr Simons.

"It is this lack of clarity on a master philosophy that is holding the president back. He needs to quickly emboss his seal on a signature initiative that cements his philosophical legacy as far as Africa is concerned."

Supporters argue that Mr Obama's lacklustre engagement should not come as a surprise. When he took office the presidential inbox was already full.

"I find a lot of the criticism unfair," says Witney Schneidman, a former deputy assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs. "The environment Obama inherited - such as unwinding the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and facing the worse financial situation since the Great Depression in the 1930s - mitigated against undertaking a lot of initiatives which were not first tier."

In June, perhaps stung by the accusation that the president lacked an 'Africa doctrine', the White House released its 'US Strategy Toward Sub-Saharan Africa' which sought to articulate two key pillars of US-Africa policy: strengthening democratic institutions and boosting economic growth.

But whilst the six page document cites examples such as US support for the transition of power in Côte d'Ivoire and its role in the birth of South Sudan, critics say it reflects the same deficiencies in Mr Obama's previous rhetoric: detail substituted for platitudes about common aspirations, opportunity and African potential. One US government Africa adviser described it thus: "At first reading it was like, my God, can you get anything more bland?"

Mr Obama has been associated with some promising initiatives, but they remain firmly in the aid space. One signature project is 'Feed the Future'. Launched together with the G-8 countries in 2009 it plans to invest in 12 African "focus" countries to drive agriculture-led growth, improved productivity, expand access to markets and bolster the resilience of rural communities. According to Mr Schneidman, the initiative has long-term goals. "Feed the Future is not just set up as another agency which gives out money. It's about investment and yields which take time," he says.

Then, there is the Administration's 'New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition', part of the G8 plan to boost food production in the developing world. Back in May, the president urged the developed world to take hunger in Africa seriously. Subsequently, more than 60 companies, many of them African, have pledged over $3.5bn of investment in African agriculture. The alliance includes US firms Monsanto and Cargill, the latter is due to launch one large-scale project on 40,000 acres of farmland in Mozambique.

Might this suggest a step change? Mr Obama may have been careful not to engage too personally with Africa, a continent which historically has carried little domestic weight in the US, for fear of being attacked by his opponents. Now some commentators insist the president, shorn of his re-election burden, could yet deliver on his Accra pledge.

While the US legislature is often characterised by political gridlock, Africa policy is one of the few areas of bipartisanship. Agoa, for example, has been renewed four times under the Bush Junior and Obama administrations, each time with cross-party support. Agoa will currently expire in 2015 - a long way off in political terms but short-enough for businesses to withhold investment plans until the lie of the land is clearer. Many commentators expect Agoa to be extended again soon after Congress reconvenes in January.

The 'Increasing American Jobs Through Greater Exports to Africa Act of 2012', is sponsored by Senator Dick Durban, the second highest ranking Democrat in the Senate, along with Republican congressman Chris Smith. With one eye on the expanding commercial footprint of the Bric nations, Mr Durban and Mr Smith are seeking to make hay out of Africa's buoyant economic growth, which could reach an average of seven percent of GDP by 2015 according to the United Nations Development Programme.

Mr Durban and Mr Smith are prodding Mr Obama to develop a fresh trade-orientated Africa strategy and alleviate US unemployment with a target of tripling American exports to Africa.

On balance, if greater state resources are to be forthcoming, it will most likely be for security. One avenue will be the Pentagon's Germany-based military command for Africa, or Africom. During the US presidential debates between Mr Obama and Mitt Romney, Mali and Libya were the only African states mentioned. And it was Mr Romney who mentioned Mali. Twice.

That reflected new national security concerns in the wake of the Libyan uprising and the military coup in Mali. In the aftermath of the US embassy attack in Benghazi earlier this year - which killed the US ambassador and several personnel - some questioned why America's military base in Djibouti was not equipped to respond. Now, it looks likely the US will be drawn steadily into the Mali fiasco in support of French military campaigns.

"Despite the intention that Africom would be more of a 'hands-off' operation, it has been forced by circumstances - such as Libya, the call for help with the Lord's Resistance Army, the crisis in Mali and the Sahel - to be more hands on," says Dr Pham.

That might not be what Obama's supporters in Kogelo and elsewhere are looking for.

 

 

via This is Africa

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