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What will Obama do for Africa? Are Barack Obama's blood ties with Africa cause for hope that he might be more sensitive to the continent's needs than his predecessors? Tom Nevin investigates.

Of course it would be good to have a brother in the White House," observes Kenny Ngubane, a Durban, South Africa, commodities trader, "but I don't think we should go overboard with what that means for Africa. Will the colour of the next US president's skin make a sudden big difference for us? I don't think so. But I do believe Obama will bring Africa into the global trade and investment mix more thoughtfully than his opposition and, with luck, more urgently."

Khumalo's summing-up on the effects of an Obama presidency for Africa seems to tally with most other considered thought in Africa on the issue. Senator Barack Obama is just one step away from being the US's next president. His African roots have made this eventuality euphoric and cause for great hope on the continent. In some instances, African expectations are the expression of racial pride, maintains Achille Mbembe, a research professor in history and politics at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa. In others, he cautions, they are simply irrational, unrealistic and misguided.

"Knowledge and documentation produced by the best American universities about Africa are unparalleled," he says, "yet the official American imagination still represents the continent as a hopeless place with no internal dynamism, littered with failed or 'rogue' states and racked by poverty, atrocities, disease and pestilence - a distant threat to global health and security."

In Mbembe's opinion, Washington either views Africa "through the prism of the continent's natural resources and the competition to reap the benefits of their exploitation or, more often than not, as an object of humanitarian and, since 9/11, military concerns".


Centuries of slave trade and systematic degradation of people of African descent notwithstanding, there might be an American legacy of compassion towards the continent. "Africa is undergoing a complex, if at times painful, process of transformation and multiple transitions at the same time. New social actors are emerging," says Mbembe. "A hybrid urban culture is in the making. There are different forms of social and political mobilisations too. As the playing field changes and Western interests are challenged, notably by a strongly competitive and pragmatic China, the urgency of a new US Africa policy cannot be overemphasised."

Wild expectations

Kenya's Daily Nation newspaper editorialises that Africa's mostly wild expectations require some cautionary warnings. "Since Barrack Obama announced in 2007 that he would run for President of the US and, above all, after his democratic presidential nomination over Hillary Clinton, the hopes, the adulations and the expectations of most Africans have gone wild. He is seen as the 'Son of Africa', a kind of godsend for Africans who would thus soon have one of theirs in the highest office on Earth." But wiser voices have been cautioning the hyped hopes. "What is there for Africa in the American elections?" the Daily Nation asks. "Would Obama manage to overcome the strong lobby groups that control America's foreign policy and that have very little time for Africa?" Another Daily Nation writer, Rasna Warah, questions the extent of the effect Obama's blood ties will have on Africa. "We cannot lay claims on Obama," she says. "He's not one of us. What everyone seems to be forgetting is that Barack Obama is an American, not a Kenyan. His roots may lie in Kenya, but he was born and raised in the US, and his loyalty lies with that nation, not with ours."

Mbembe questions that assertion. "Africa's importance to US national interests might even be growing," he counters. "The continent now supplies the US with 15% of its oil. Since the end of the Cold War, the US has diversified its initiatives in Africa."

He point out that several valuable assistance programmes with strong bipartisan support in the US Congress now range from major trade agreements to the fight against HIV/Aids, malaria, tuberculosis and terrorism. "I believe we can eliminate malaria in Africa and in poor countries," said Obama in a policy speech. "When I am President, we will set the goal of ending all deaths from malaria by 2015. It's time to rid the world of death from a disease that doesn't have to take lives. The US must lead, and when I am President, we will step up our focus on prevention and treatment around the world to get this done," he stated.


"Nearly one million people around the world still die from a mosquito bite every year. Close to 90% of the victims are African children under the age of five. In Africa, a child dies from a mosquito bite every thirty seconds. Beyond the devastating human toll, malaria weighs down public health systems, setting back global capacity to fight other disease."

Yet African sceptics still warn that Obama is not one of theirs. Dr Makau Mutua, Dean and Professor of Law at New York State University, observes that Obama is not "poised to become" the president of Kenya or of Africa and cautions against the "national, racial, and ethnic pride that a black man can become 'king' of the empire.

"Africans think of presidents as omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent, a perception that gives the president enormous powers which ultimately determined what citizens could gain or lose, creating 'tribal barons'. By contrast, the American presidency is a highly circumscribed office that is subject to larger national interests on which there is consensus about the purpose of government."

Mbembe believes that the US has neither a strategic approach, nor a comprehensive policy towards the continent, and Africans watch anxiously for clues that might signal the way his administration would regard its association with Africa.

"On his campaign trail so far, Obama has said little about Africa," he points out. "He might not endorse this cynicism, but nor has he indicated a willingness to significantly depart from the outdated view of the continent that has underpinned US policy since the end of the Cold War."

A part from the strong commitment to eliminating malaria in Africa within the next seven years, he has committed to a goal of an 80% reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050. He has bought into the Millennium Development Goals, which aim to cut extreme poverty in half by 2015. He has also targeted corruption, which he says he intends making a human rights issue.

He believes that terrorism and poverty have ties and that, by fighting one, you'll also cripple the other. He also says he will work to erase the global primary education gap by 2015 by establishing a $2bn Global Education Fund. He says he's passionate about helping poor people.

"All hat, no cattle"

For US political analyst Bill Naiman, Obama "appears to embrace a paradigm of engagement with the African continent that is too heavily shrouded in ideology and dependent on too narrow a definition of US national security interests", adding "all hat and no cattle, as they say down on the ranch".

"In theory," enjoins Mbembe, "strengthening democratic institutions is a major objective of US policy in Africa. In reality, there are very limited funds for Africa within US worldwide democracy programmes and no articulated strategy to address the major challenges constitutional rule faces in the continent."

The external stock of capital held by Africans overseas is estimated at $700bn to $800bn - more than the total foreign aid assistance to the continent since independence. Most of this stock comes from illegal dealings.


"Democracy and accountability could be more effectively enhanced if, instead of pious sermons on good governance, the US led a systematic and coordinated multinational effort to recover looted and illegally obtained African assets," says Mbembe.

Fragmented US assistance

Contributing to South Africa's Sunday Independent newspaper, Mbembe says that between 2000 and 2004, US multilateral aid to Africa has doubled from $2.05bn to $4.3bn. Bilateral aid has tripled from $1.1bn to $3.2bn. But nearly half of this money is for emergency assistance. Geared towards short-term priorities, US aid assistance is so fragmented as to be almost entirely ineffective. For the past 10 years, long-term investment for growth has remained static.

Mbembe also contends that China's forceful entry onto Africa's developmental stage has muddied the waters for the US in its interaction with Africa, and Obama will find it trickier to engage with African countries than previous administrations.

As Beijing offers African countries relatively beneficial trade deals combined with aid, US trade policies still constitute a major obstacle to Africa's integration into the world economy. China has placed a high priority on maintaining strong ties with its African energy suppliers. It has invested heavily in infrastructure, treating infectious diseases and expanding training and exchange programmes. A strict policy of non-interference in internal affairs is the rule.

"African dictators find this comforting," says Mbembe. "The most intelligent response to this challenge is neither to try to reform Africa with economic sanctions, nor to privilege a diplomacy that heckles more than it listens."

That poses immediate and vexatious questions for Obama in how far he can go in being competitive with China in the US's efforts to win friends and influence markets in Africa.

A deeper understanding of US interests in Africa would require supporting Africa's overall desire to lead itself and enhance African institutions that promote democracy, accountability and human rights.

If elected, Obama has pledged to double US foreign assistance to $50bn by 2012 and use it to support "failing states" and sustainable growth in Africa, roll back disease and halve global poverty.

"Embracing the Millennium Development Goals, which aim to cut extreme poverty in half by 2015, will take more resources from the US, and as President I will increase our foreign assistance to provide them. But resources must be focused on the right priorities. No one wants to put good money after bad, or ignore the underlying causes at the root of these problems.

"We shouldn't just settle for a status quo where you can't start a business without paying a bribe. Corruption wastes our tax dollars. It also ruins lives. This is a human rights issue, and we need to treat it like one.

"We shouldn't help those in need without helping them help themselves. That's why I'II partner with the private sector in creating a new fund for Small and Medium Enterprise, so we're investing in ideas that can create growth and jobs in the developing world. We live in a time when our destinies are shared. But our destinies will be written by us, not for us. Now, it falls to us to get to work."

In Durban, Ngubane is under no illusion "that Barack will prioritise Africa's problems to the top of his 'in' box on his first day in the Oval Office. But we must hope for a better deal, little by little."

"We cannot lay claims on Obama. He's not one of us. What everyone seems to be forgetting is that Barack Obama is an American, not a Kenyan. His roots may lie in Kenya, but he was born and raised in the US, and his loyalty lies with that nation, not with ours."

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Title Annotation:TRENDS
Comment:What will Obama do for Africa? Are Barack Obama's blood ties with Africa cause for hope that he might be more sensitive to the continent's needs than his predecessors?
Author:Nevin, Tom
Publication:African Business
Geographic Code:60AFR
Date:Nov 1, 2008
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