Will a black president make any difference to Africa?

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A Ghanaian jersey vendor sells shirts depicting President Obama (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

Africans were filled with joy and high expectations when Barack Obama, whose father was Kenyan, was elected president of the United States of America. On a trip to Nigeria, the country that my family hails from, shortly before last year’s election I was greeted with a multitude of questions and predictions about what an Obama victory would mean. It was hoped that having an African-American president, particularly one with such a close personal tie to the Africa, would make a real difference to Africans in America as well as in American foreign policy towards Africa.

When President Obama came into office, he promised a different approach to dealing with the world: an approach focused on diplomacy and cooperation that would see an end to the heavy handedness which has tarnished America’s image in the eyes of the rest of the world over the past eight years.

However, there is some uncertainty as to how much of a difference Obama’s presidency will make towards Africa. Finally this weekend the president will make his first long-awaited yet very short presidential visit trip to Africa, to Ghana to be precise, where he will outline his policy on the continent. The fact that the trip will only last for one day perhaps symbolizes where Africa stands on the president’s list of priorities. But, nevertheless, Africans all over the world wait with baited breath to hear what the president has to say.

Until now, there have been several tests which have provided some insight into how President Obama might approach Africa for the rest of his term. On the plus side, he has shown understanding about the plight of Africans living in America. In March he extended Deferred Enforced Departure status to 3,500 Liberians who came to America before October 1 2002 due to the Liberian civil war. This allows them to stay in the US for another year without the threat of deportation. While this status has been denied to many more thousands of Liberians who came to America after October 1 2002, it is still welcome for those who are able to benefit from it.

President Obama has also had to deal with the issue of piracy in Somalia. In April the world watched on, enthralled, as Richard Phillips, the American captain of a ship, was captured and held hostage by Somali pirates for several days. He was eventually rescued by the US Navy after a failed escape attempt. While President Obama’s response was commendable – he was calm, unconfrontational and unwilling to fuel the media circus about the situation – he also offered no concrete solutions regarding confronting the ever growing and increasingly serious piracy problem.

President Obama has been keen to distance himself from George Bush on a number of key domestic and international issues. But when it comes to Africa there is plenty for him to do if he’s going to be viewed as different from his predecessor. While Bush had some success with African initiatives – such as the President’s Malaria Initiative which committed $1.2 billion towards fighting malaria – there was much that he didn’t do correctly or just failed to do at all.

The lack of intervention in Darfur, where 300,000 have died in the past 5 years and close to 3 million have been displaced from their homes, and the Republic of Congo are glaring examples of America’s failure to act despite rhetoric about their best wishes for Africa.

During his historic election campaign, Obama said that ending the genocide in Darfur would be a priority on ‘day one’ of his presidency. He also talked about mobilizing the international community and having America take on a leadership role with regards to action in the region. His ensuing inaction, therefore, has been surprising. To his credit he has met with some advocacy groups and individuals, including the actor George Clooney who works actively on behalf of Darfur. However, while the situation in Darfur has got progressively worse the new administration has failed as yet to establish a new and/or strong policy on resolving the conflict.

Another potential thorn in the new president’s side when it comes to Africa is the hugely controversial Africom, the US Africa Command, a strategic military unit established in 2007. Its aim is to aid “military operations…[in order to] promote a stable and secure African environment in support of U.S. foreign policy”. It is considered by many skeptics to be a modern attempt at America imperialism whose real reason for being is either allowing the US more access to African oil or giving them military domination which could be used against African leaders who oppose US foreign policy.

When Obama was elected, commentators opined on what Africom (a Bush initiative which Obama was in support of) might look like under an African-American president. Perhaps, some thought, Africom could be used positively in places like Darfur and the Congo, but that hasn’t been seen yet.

One thing is certain, however: if President Obama genuinely cares about the US’s relationship with Africa he must actively change the perception (and indeed the reality should be the case) that Africom is a symbol of the US using Africa to serve its own interests.

There is also the issue of how much emphasis the US will put on aid, rather than trade, to Africa. Under George Bush, aid to Africa tripled. This isn’t necessarily a good thing. As African economist Dambisa Moyo argues in her bestselling book Dead Aid, aid is a loan with many strings attached – a sort of golden handcuff if you will – which is often used in order to get countries to open up to American interests. Further indebting already struggling African nations will never help Africa to realize its potential; it remains to be seen which route Obama will take.

While faced with a number of pressing domestic issues, there is much that President Obama could do to really help Africa. According to the White House, “the president and Mrs. Obama look forward to strengthening the U.S. relationship with one of [its] most trusted partners in sub-Saharan Africa, and to highlighting the critical role that sound governance and civil society play in promoting lasting development.” The rhetoric sounds good; hopefully, the actions will match.

This weekend we’ll find out if an African-American president will make any real, meaningful difference to Africa and the lives of its millions of inhabitants.

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