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Imagining Obama's Africa Policy

Author: Stephanie Hanson
December 22, 2008

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Shortly after Barack Obama's election, South Africa's Mail & Guardian newspaper ran a special issue depicting the president-elect as a superhero (Atlantic). But the newspaper's editorial page took a more measured tone, warning against viewing him as Africa's messiah. "The only lesson we can learn from him is to reimagine the art of the possible," it said. Is Obama Africa's superhero, or just its role model? A number of analysts and U.S. policymakers say he will likely be something in between, devoting new diplomatic attention to the continent but not necessarily increased aid or military support.

President Bush oversaw significant increases in foreign aid to Africa, a record lauded by development experts. On the campaign trail, Obama outlined bigger steps; his priorities for Africa policy include stopping what U.S. officials have termed genocide in Darfur, fighting poverty, and expanding prosperity. His appointment of Susan Rice, an advocate of "dramatic action" (CSMonitor) on Darfur and former assistant secretary of state for African affairs, as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is seen by Africa watchers as a sign his administration will prioritize the continent. However, many experts believe his proposal to double foreign assistance to $50 billion by the end of his first term is unfeasible in a time of U.S. economic crisis. In a September 2008 speech on Obama's Africa policy, Obama adviser Witney W. Schneidman said Obama would establish an agriculture research initiative, expand U.S.-Africa trade by strengthening the African Growth and Opportunity Act, and create a Global Education Fund.

But many experts say three major conflicts--Sudan, Somalia, and eastern Congo--will eclipse any other policy plans. These countries "matter, obviously, for humanitarian reasons, but they also matter to us for some very concrete national security reasons," says Africa expert Michelle D. Gavin, a CFR adjunct fellow and member of the national security working group advising the Obama transition team. Tackling these conflicts will require intense diplomatic engagement by the State Department. The Africa bureau is the department's smallest, and it "doesn't have the strength and depth to handle three major conflicts," Princeton Lyman, CFR adjunct senior fellow and a former U.S. ambassador to South Africa, told NPR. Some Africa experts think the new administration has the capacity to handle major conflicts. Obama should put Sudan and eastern Congo on his list of early priorities, argue the heads of two prominent organizations that work to end genocide, "not only because Sudan and Congo are the two deadliest wars in the world, but because they are wars that the Obama administration could actually help end" (WSJ).

The mood across the continent immediately after Obama's election was optimistic, almost naively so, reports the German daily Spiegel Online. Many Africans feel Obama will command a different level of respect with African leaders. "For the first time ever an American president can talk tough to African leaders and not be accused of being racist, and not be accused of being imperialist, colonialist," says Salim Amin, a Kenyan journalist. Yet Amin warns against expecting too much from Obama, as do other African politicians, journalists, and academics. "I don't think because of his African connection we should be expecting any drastic change," Reuben Abati, an analyst in Lagos, told the Los Angeles Times. There is also skepticism about whether Obama can make the policy changes Africa needs. Writing in Business Daily Africa, columnist Mukoma wa Ngugi argues that Africa needs an end to U.S. farm subsidies more than it needs an increase in "paternalistic foreign aid that masks unequal trade."

Some Africans are arguing Obama's victory should empower the continent to seek better leaders. These cries are particularly strong in Nigeria, where government corruption is endemic, and South Africa, where the ruling party recently split, pushing the nation into political upheaval. "We must end the rule of the vipers who have poisoned our lives," write four Nigerians in the Daily Independent.

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