• Monday, March 04, 2024
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BusinessDay

Africa and Obama

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In Africa, much of the excitement that greeted President Barack Obama’s election to the highest office in the world was certainly misplaced. The misplacement stems from the fact that the American foreign policy process runs on a number of variables, like history, culture, bureaucratic traditions and, of course, entrenched national interests. Thus, the sheer fact of an Obama presidency has not translated into a new dawn for US-Africa relations.

It is instructive to appreciate here that Obama has visited Africa, a continent of 54 countries, only thrice. In fairness to the American president, however, the entire world is his oyster. And to this extent, apart from his involvements in Africa, Obama was also preoccupied with other global issues like the chaotic Middle-East, the rise of China as a superpower and the attempted resurgence of Russia under Putin. Therefore, and in view of the immediate foregoing, Africa, as usual, and in consonance with the dispositions of previous American administrations, was largely consigned to a limbo of irrelevance.

Still, we are not being absolute here. This is because under Obama’s watch, the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), a Bill Clinton initiative which slashed American tariffs on most goods from many African countries, was renewed. Moreover, he was also able to sustain the momentum of George W. Bush as regards aid commitments which were mainly targeted at HIV and AIDS programmes. However, where Obama has largely been his own man as regards Washington’s policy in Africa is the programme called Power Africa. This is an initiative which seeks to boost power generation in Africa by the private sector through loan guarantees and diplomacy.

Evidently Nigeria, which is arguably the most powerful country in the continent, is in dire need of this critical Obama-inspired initiative. And talking of Nigeria, a measure of ozone has been given to Abuja-Washington relations since the formal emergence of Muhammadu Buhari as president. Unlike in the past when Washington invoked the Leahy Act to deny much-needed arms and ammunitions to Buhari’s immediate predecessor, the outlook has changed such that the Obama administration is now willing to circumvent this statutory provision. In the process, hopes have been raised that the Nigerian military will be better equipped to contain the Boko Haram offensive.

Meanwhile, a close reading of Obama’s depositions in his interactions with African leaders in Washington (as in the case of Nigeria), Nairobi and Addis Ababa reveal that he was mainly preoccupied with the issues of governance and security. As regards the first of these, Obama pulled no punches when he accused African leaders of outstaying their terms and cited the Burundi leadership as an example of leaders feeling they were above the law. Significantly, in Kenya, he took a swipe at corruption, implicitly warning that the country’s leaders must turn a new leaf. And in Ethiopia, he expressed worries about the erosion of democratic freedoms in the wake of the country’s elections. Specifically, Obama told the Ethiopian leadership that political opponents should not be branded as terrorists and averred that critical journalists should not be jailed.

On security, he delivered what has been described as a ringing endorsement. According to him, Brand Africa is becoming a force to be reckoned with as African troops are increasingly being called upon to help settle African conflicts – from the al Shabab threat in Somalia to the brutal sectarian fighting in the Central African Republic.

Of course, what obtained was not really a one-way affair since a number of countries, notably Kenya and Nigeria, voiced their dissent as regards Obama’s preoccupation with gay rights.

All told, however, what shines through is that a lot of Obama’s messages to African leaders, though grounded in truth, were uncomfortable. But such messages would have been unnecessary if African leaders had genuinely embraced the wholesome values of governance. Unfortunately, and through their various shades of remission, they provided a moral platform from which Obama had the opportunity to talk down on them. Clearly, this is unacceptable. And the blame here goes more to these African leaders.

On the other hand, and as we survey the relationship between Africa and the United States during the Obama years, it was evident that the continent virtually came into its own in standing up for its convictions as regards gay rights. We enjoin the continent to do the same by taking its destiny into its own hands as regards other critical issues like the economy and security. Global dynamics have vividly shown that the responsibility for building any country, or continent for that matter, rests mainly with the leadership and inhabitants. Outsiders can only help when they can, but they are certainly not obliged to. More than anything else, the Obama years in Africa have clearly borne out this truism.

Therefore, the continent’s leaders and its inhabitants should take note and learn. It is time for Africa to pull itself up by its bootstraps. And ironically enough, it is possible to thank President Obama from whom so much was expected, at least initially, for this concrete lesson in self-reliance.