Obama’s Last Chance in Africa

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(Photo: US Army Africa / Flickr)

President Obama needs to unveil a new foreign policy initiative on Africa during his trip to Kenya and Ethiopia or risk going down in history as the worst president for Africa in recent memory.

It would be a shame if the first American president of African descent ranks last in meaningful engagement with Africa when compared to other presidents in the recent past. Although both George W. Bush and Bill Clinton came under intense criticism for doing nothing in the face of genocide and war crimes, they were able to recover somewhat by launching signature initiatives during their second terms.

During his first term, Bill Clinton pulled out of Somalia in a spectacular debacle immortalized in the Hollywood movie Black Hawk Down and then refused to intervene in Rwanda, standing by as tens of thousands were slain during one of the worst outbursts of fratricidal violence in the 20th century. During his second term, however, Clinton launched a series of health and development initiatives that partially mitigated his failures in Somalia and Rwanda. His Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) helped double U.S. trade with the region and triple U.S. exports estimated at $22 billion in 2012.

George W. Bush was excoriated for ignoring war crimes in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Darfur. Yet today he’s remembered on the continent for a health initiative known as PEPFAR, which has been credited with saving thousands of lives and transforming the treatment of AIDS in Africa. The Bush administration also played a significant role in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended a brutal 30-year war and led to the relatively peaceful separation of Sudan and South Sudan.

Shrinking Expectations

Africans were elated when Obama was elected president of the United States in 2008. Expectations were understandably high after eight years of the Bush administration’s version of gunboat diplomacy. Obama increased those expectations during his 2009 trip to Ghana and Egypt when he promised to transform U.S. relations with Africa and the Middle East.

The glimmer of hope soon faded into the distance as Obama doubled down on Bush’s policies. Like his predecessor, he saw Africa through a national security prism that focused on terrorism and counterterrorism. He expanded the reach of the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) and increased the use of drones to assassinate alleged leaders of terrorist organizations. The continued militarization of U.S. foreign policy on the continent is reflected in a 2014 initiative called the Security Governance Initiative for Africa, which proposes combining economic and military policies to create a secure environment for U.S. investors.

This continued emphasis on military solutions was mostly ineffective and counterproductive. The NATO-led invasion of Libya, for instance, destabilized the region, turning Libya and Mali into terrorist havens and strengthening terrorist organizations such as Ansar al-Sharia and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. In Somalia, drone strikes and support for regional “peacekeeping” forces degraded the capabilities of al-Shabaab within Somalia but has yet to tackle the task of state- and institution-building. The group continues to export terror in East Africa and exacerbate the region’s refugee problem. Meanwhile, Washington has maintained strong bilateral relations with Egypt despite the brutal tactics deployed against pro-democracy activists by the country’s strongman, president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

Missed Opportunities

The Obama administration failed to ride the wave of optimism about African economic development in international business circles. While Obama was focused on the terror threat, other countries were forging strong economic ties with Africa.

China overtook the United States in 2009 as Africa’s main trading partner. Brazil, India, and even Turkey expanded their presence on the African scene, filling the space previously occupied by Africa’s traditional trading partners in the United States and Europe. These countries recognized the opportunities represented in Africa’s economic growth over the last two decades. They appreciated that Africa has the fastest growing economies in the world, a burgeoning middle class, and a youthful educated population. They forged partnerships with states and private sector investors that have revitalized Africa’s infrastructure and stimulated exponential growth.

Despite these setbacks, Obama reiterated his pledge to transform U.S. relations with Africa during his 2013 trip to Senegal, South Africa, and Tanzania. His solution seemed to be a shift toward the Clinton administration’s emphasis on entrepreneurship and trade. He touted his administration’s Power Africa initiative to deliver electricity to millions (albeit often via fossil fuels), a scholarship program for young leaders, and continued efforts to combat AIDS and other infectious diseases. He expanded Clinton’s Africa Growth and Opportunity Act and pledged to hold the largest White House summit on Africa ever. Once again this initiative echoes Clinton’s Africa-America summits held periodically during the 1990s.

During the 2014 U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, the president announced a $7 billion package designed to promote U.S. exports and trade deals and $14 billion in pledges from U.S. corporations. Obama evoked the Africa Rising mantra, praising the assembled heads of state for “embracing economic reforms [and] attracting record levels of investment.” He extolled the continent for its record economic growth, its growing middle class, and youthful population. He promised a new “partnership of equals” focused on African goals and solutions. “Africa’s rise,” he said, means “an opportunity to transform the relationship between the United States and Africa.”

Despite the positive rhetoric, analysts saw the summit as little more than “business as usual.” According to Emira Woods of ThoughtWorks, a technology firm committed to social and economic justice: “If there is business as usual, we will continue to have a situation where people on whose land resources lie will be pushed further and further to the brink, left without health care, housing, education, or any means of benefiting.”

Woods’ caution is confirmed by a comment by a key organizer of the summit, GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt, who let slip the real motivations behind the summit: “We kind of gave Africa to the Europeans first and to the Chinese later, but today it’s wide open for us.” The goal, therefore, is to help U.S. corporations compete effectively in the scramble for African resources. The positive rhetoric about “partnership of equals” and “African goals and solutions” serves as a cover for looting Africa’s resources.

The Legacy Trip

Given these setbacks, the current trip represents a last chance for the president to fulfill his transformative agenda. The president is expected to hold bilateral meetings with leaders in Kenya and Ethiopia, address the 2015 Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Nairobi, and meet with African Union leaders in Addis Ababa. According to a press release from the White House, the trip “will build on the success of the August 2014 U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit” and continue efforts to “accelerate economic growth, strengthen democratic institutions, and improve security.”

Obama has definitely stepped up his engagement with Africa during his second term. He visited three countries in 2013 and announced visits to Kenya and Ethiopia in 2015. He hosted of 40 heads of state and government in 2014 and announced billions of dollars in financing to promote U.S. corporate interests in Africa. He held bilateral talks with Nigeria’s newly elected president Muhammadu Buhari on July 20. He’s also expanded trade and health initiatives started by his predecessors. Channeling predecessors’ achievements, however, does not make for an inspiring foreign policy.

Contrast this record with that of former Chinese premier Hu Jintao, who visited Africa five times — and covered 18 countries — between 2009 and 2012. His successor, Xi Jinping, signified Africa’s importance by visiting the continent on his first trip abroad. During that trip, he pledged $20 billion in loans to African countries over the next three years, in addition to signing deals to build ports in Kenya, Tanzania, and the Republic of the Congo. In 2014, China announced that it was increasing the loan guarantees by an additional $10 billion.

The Chinese president has already hosted dozens of African heads of state during a high-level summit held every three years since 2000. The Sixth Forum on China-Africa Cooperation is scheduled for South Africa this year, where China is expected to announce new loans guarantees and infrastructure projects.

The charm offensive is calculated to garner support for China’s economic interests, which have grown exponentially since the 1990s. China increased its trade and investment in Africa by 1,000 percent between 2000 and 2010. This trade is driven, for the most part, by China’s need for raw materials to feed its industries. In return, China has helped transform many African countries with its infrastructure projects. Chinese firms are building hundreds of roads, bridges, ports, and airports across the continent. Bilateral trade with African countries was an estimated $198 billion last year. U.S. trade lags behind at $100 billion.

Breaking Out

How can Obama break out and make a lasting impression in this competitive environment? Does the United States have a special message for Africa?

Although the United States cannot compete with China in the volume of trade and the scale of infrastructure investments, the president still has some political capital that he can deploy on the continent. To succeed, he’ll have to push back against his image as a shill for security firms and corporate interests.

His Power Africa initiative is to be commended, but it has yet to deliver electricity two years after he announced that the program would double electricity access in Africa over the next five years. The project is still too closely associated with the corporate profit agenda to make a real difference.

There’s nothing wrong with corporations seeking profits: That’s what they do. Private investment for profit, however, cannot form the basis for long-term partnerships for African development. Chinese firms, for instance, are able to invest in long-term infrastructure development projects because they’re financed by the government and are not seeking immediate returns on investments. Transforming U.S. relations with Africa, therefore, requires imagining different means and alternative ends.

Obama has, so far, failed to break out of the mold of security- and corporate-based foreign policy. A truly transformative policy would find a way of engaging the vigorous civil society movements on the continent, including environmental and peace movements.

Kenya, for instance, is the home of the Greenbelt Movement founded by the late Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai. Members are encouraged to replace trees they use for firewood and other domestic needs. Since 1977, the movement has planted over 51 million trees to replace forest cover in Kenya. Greenbelt is an excellent example of a grassroots indigenous movement that mobilizes women’s groups to empower women and girls, promote democracy, and build sustainable lifestyles. The United States could back these efforts by seeking creative financing involving innovative ideas such as carbon exchanges, renewable energy certificates, and other inventive solutions.

The United States could lead the way in crafting international regulations that curb the awful land grabs that are destroying the lives of millions of indigenous people in Ethiopia and other African countries. In Ethiopia, for instance, indigenous people are losing their livelihoods, and in many cases their lives, to multinational agribusiness corporations. It is critical that the international community put pressure on governments to protect the rights of indigenous people. Unfortunately, Obama’s agriculture initiatives continue to emphasize the profit motive at the expense of the environment and the interests of indigenous people.

Increasing U.S. engagement with the burgeoning peace movements on the continent would be commendable. Advocates for peace have long contended that Africa’s myriad conflicts cannot be resolved by military means. Only a political solution that deals with root causes can facilitate dialogue and set the stage for meaningful conflict management. In the case of Somalia, for instance, U.S.-backed government forces and African Union peacekeepers have degraded al-Shabaab but failed to lay the groundwork for the transition to democracy and state-building that are critical for long-term stability.

If even George W. Bush could break out of the mold of U.S. foreign policy and build a unique legacy in U.S. relations with Africa, surely Obama can do the same in his remaining time in office.

Foreign Policy in Focus contributor Francis Njubi Nesbitt is a professor of Africana Studies at San Diego State University. He is the author of Race for Sanctions and has published numerous book chapters and articles in academic journals.