Africans greeted Barack Obama’s presidential election with excitement and hope. Few ever imagined that a son of Africa would come to inhabit the most powerful office in the world. One year on, however, Obama’s legacy in Africa remains unclear.
The new administration quickly moved on Obama’s election promise to engage more fully with Africa. Installed as a special envoy to Sudan, General Scott Gration began working almost immediately to resolve the conflict between North and South, and bring warring factions in Darfur to the negotiating table. In July, Obama went to Ghana and gave a speech to parliament emphasizing his belief that the U.S.-Africa relationship “must be grounded in mutual responsibility and mutual respect.” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton followed up with a seven-country tour a month later.
Yet despite the quickness of response in Sudan and the number of countries visited by senior administration officials, the central question remains: How well is the Obama administration doing in Africa? Here, the record is mixed: not enough resources devoted to pressing problems and too many resources allocated to the military.
The Dilemma of Sudan and HIV/AIDS
Sudan showcases the strengths and weaknesses of the Obama administration policy toward Africa. There was reportedly less conflict in Darfur in 2009, and presidential and parliamentary elections are scheduled for April 2010, after months of postponement. While Gration deserves praise for his involvement in these developments, his continued engagement with Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir, who was indicted by the International Criminal Court last year for crimes against humanity, is troubling. Although al-Bashir has recently demonstrated a willingness to negotiate with rebel groups in Darfur and the South, his status as a reliable actor has been fatally compromised by his history of aggression and despotism.
In early 2011, voters in the South will have an opportunity to decide whether they wish to remain citizens of a unified Sudan, or whether they wish for the South to secede and become a new nation. The Obama administration — and Scott Gration in particular — will be graded by their level of engagement with the ongoing peace process.
During their trips to Africa in the summer of 2009, both Obama and Secretary Clinton emphasized the usual themes — democracy, human rights, and good governance — and administration officials repeatedly cited the “historic” nature of their respective trips. Yet the soaring rhetoric often lacked the necessary policy underpinnings. For example, Obama mentioned the importance of combating AIDS in his Ghana speech. But his administration’s commitment to HIV/AIDS funding — especially when compared with the efforts of the Bush administration — has been middling at best. The Obama administration broke with the Bush administration’s ideological HIV/AIDS policy by lifting the HIV/AIDS travel ban and jettisoning the global gag rule — a policy that required foreign NGOs receiving U.S. funding to agree not to perform or actively promote abortions. But funding has flat-lined overall.
In other arenas, however, the Obama administration has been financially generous, and that’s not a good thing. The administration, for instance, tripled funding for the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) last year. Despite Obama’s promise that AFRICOM isn’t focused on “establishing a foothold in the continent,” the rising American military presence in Africa remains a concern.
In late 2008, Operation Lightning Thunder, a joint military operation between the Ugandan, Southern Sudanese, and Congolese armies against the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) — a Ugandan rebel group operating in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) — ended in disaster. All three armies received logistical and financial support from AFRICOM, but they ultimately failed to capture Joseph Kony, the leader of the LRA. The LRA responded by killing civilians in villages across northeastern Congo.
Despite this failure, AFRICOM has resumed its meddling in Congo. William J. Garvelink, the U.S. ambassador to the DRC, announced this month that AFRICOM has begun to hold training exercises for 1000 Congolese troops. Also of concern is the increased presence of U.S. private military contractors (PMCs) in Africa. PMCs have long played a destabilizing role in Africa, and their presence in hot spots like the Niger Delta region of Nigeria and the DRC, among other places, enables various powerful actors — including multinational corporations and pariah governments — to pursue their goals in unaccountable ways.
Last year ended with a foiled terror attack in U.S. airspace by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a young Nigerian. The Obama administration responded by placing Nigeria and four other African countries with suspected “terror connections” on airport watch-lists, thus continuing a disturbing trend in which much of our engagement with Africa is determined by the antagonistic actions of a select few.
Moving forward, the Obama administration has an opportunity to engage constructively on a number of important issues on the continent. In Uganda, the parliament is debating an anti-homosexuality bill that mandates the death penalty for anyone who commits an act of “aggravated homosexuality.” Meanwhile, President Yoweri Museveni is preparing to stand for elections — for a fourth consecutive term — and quietly positioning his son to assume power once he departs. The Obama administration must continue to exert diplomatic pressure on the Ugandan parliament to abandon the homosexuality bill. Washington must also prod Museveni — in public and private — to ensure that the next elections in Uganda are legitimate and that, no matter the outcome, Museveni does not leave a legacy of monarchism in Uganda.
Zimbabwe is a more delicate case. President Robert Mugabe has become especially adept at twisting U.S. actions — including Obama’s recent decision to extend sanctions against Zimbabwe for an additional year — into additional examples of Western imperialism. The administration can undercut Mugabe’s rhetoric by ramping up aid to NGOs in Zimbabwe, especially agriculturally focused NGOs, so that Zimbabwe can kick-start its agricultural recovery.
Finally, presidential elections are scheduled to take place in the Ivory Coast and Guinea, two countries that have recently struggled through political and social crises. The United States must continue to engage with officials in both countries to ensure that both elections are free and fair.
Above all, the Obama administration needs to reassess its budget priorities. It must redirect funds from dubious military adventures, such as those associated with AFRICOM, and toward improving the livelihoods of Africans. With smart policies, some luck, and a generous dollop of Obama-style hope, the United States can help Africa achieve a number of noteworthy accomplishments in 2010.