from Africa in Transition

Influencing Africa only on the Margins

November 23, 2010

Blog Post
Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

I had a good time at the African Studies Association meeting in San Francisco, November 18-21. The events list was reminiscent of a college catalogue if all of the course offerings were Africa-related. Though the principal theme was the African Diaspora, there was a banquet of presentations and roundtables on other issues, such as Muslim politics in the Sahel or militia activity in the eastern Congo, to take two I especially enjoyed. While the quality of the presentations was variable as always, often I found myself thinking about new issues or thinking in new ways about the ones I know best.

For the Friday keynote, Assistant Secretary for Africa Johnnie Carson reviewed the principal themes of the Obama administration’s Africa policy. He did not break new ground, and, as he intended, most of his session was devoted to audience Q and A. His questioners covered the predictable range of African hot spots and issues, and he took them seriously, generally satisfying his audience--even those who did not agree with what he said.

Notably, however, many of his questioners argued that the United States should, in effect, intervene in the internal affairs of African states to address perceived wrongs. One even went over the top, urging the assistant secretary to admit that the U.S. government condoned (or practiced) ’genocide’ in the Niger Delta of Nigeria because international (including American) oil companies have so degraded the environment.

I came away with the uneasy feeling that some of the questioners did not recognize that African states rule themselves for good or for ill, and that ultimately Africa’s future is in African hands. ’Colonialism’ ended half a century ago in most of the continent, and even apartheid South Africa became a non-racial democracy in 1994. We outsiders can play only a marginal role, and as a practical matter we do best when we act in conjunction with African regional organizations, such as the African Union or the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

Nevertheless, hubris is always a temptation for ’the world’s last remaining superpower.’ But, the uncomfortable reality is that other American commitments, not least in Afghanistan, limit what any administration can do in Africa. So, we cannot ’guarantee’ such outcomes as free, fair and credible’ elections in Nigeria or Zimbabwe, a credible referendum over whether south Sudan should be independent or whether African governments take seriously their obligations to suppress trafficking in persons, to take only a few examples.