Adebajo: Obama’s Africa legacy

UNITED States (U.S.) president, Barack Obama, this month announced the withdrawal of a 3,000-strong military contingent that had been deployed since October to build hospitals in Liberia and Senegal. The troops had been sent to support the treatment of victims of Ebola which has killed 9,268 people in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea. Obama had termed the deployment a “national security priority.” Although 100 American military personnel and civilians remained in West Africa, many wondered whether this departure was not premature, with Ebola having been contained, but not eradicated. With only two years left of his presidency, what is likely to be the legacy of Obama’s Africa policy? 

   Obama continued George W. Bush’s President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), which had provided treatment to 1.7 million people AIDS sufferers between 2003 and 2008. Although the Obama administration cut some of this funding, it still increased the number of people receiving treatment for AIDS to an impressive 6.7 million by 2013. 

    In the security and governance spheres, Obama has, however, not lived up to his pledge – in a 2009 speech in Ghana – to support “strong institutions, and not strong men.” He instead continued the militarisation of Africa policy from the Horn of Africa to the Sahel, and applied support for democratic governance selectively in countries like Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, and Rwanda. Obama significantly described the aftermath of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s (NATO) 2011 intervention in Libya as his “biggest foreign policy regret”, noting that “there has to be a much more aggressive effort to rebuild societies that didn’t have any civic traditions”. Anarchy continues to reign in Libya.

   Obama’s New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition was launched in 2012. Washington sought to create 650,000 jobs and benefit over 5 million smallholder farmers. However, by August 2014, only 37,000 jobs had been created, though 3 million smallholder farmers had reportedly been reached. Civil society critics have argued that the programme has benefitted large foreign agri-business at the expense of African smallholders. They also accused the alliance of “neo-colonial” tendencies in forcing African governments to change laws in favour of foreign investors, and noted the lack of effective monitoring and accountability mechanisms in the programme to measure its impact on hunger and poverty. 

   In the area of education, various U.S. programmes have sought to improve early-grade reading for 500,000 children in Nigeria; to deliver emergency education to 150,000 children in South Sudan; and to provide scholarships and other support to girls in Liberia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Mozambique, Tanzania, and Côte d’Ivoire. Obama also inaugurated a Young African Leaders Initiative through which 500 African young leaders under the age of 35 (Mandela Washington Fellows)  are provided with six weeks of intensive executive leadership training, networking, and skills-building in US institutions in the areas of business and entrepreneurship, civic leadership, and public management. These programmes, however, are unlikely to be transformative. Obama’s “Power Africa” (pledging $7 billion of government funding, but involving only six out of 54 African countries by August 2014) has also unconvincingly promised to provide electricity to 20 million Africans by 2018, two years after Obama would have left office. It is unlikely these still largely unfunded pledges will be met. 

   One of the most important recent developments in U.S. policy towards Africa is that Nigeria – which had traditionally been one of the top five oil suppliers to Washington – has stopped exporting oil to the U.S. for the first time since 1973. America’s shale revolution means that it now rivals Saudi Arabia as the world’s largest producer of liquid petroleum. The drop in U.S. oil imports has also affected Algeria, Libya, and Angola. This could have serious implications for African oil exporters forced to diversify supplies to Asia, but could also allow Washington to promote democracy more consistently and less selectively in these countries. 

    That Obama’s first lengthy visit to Africa occurred in June/July 2013 after his re-election a year earlier, underlined the continuing low priority of the continent for U.S. foreign policy. There remains a lingering suspicion that the U.S. president mainly views Africa as “Europe’s backyard”, to be left to old colonial powers, France and Britain, to “fix”. As an individual, Obama still remains popular across Africa where many of the continent’s inhabitants are proud that one of their own (with a Kenyan father) has ascended the most powerful office in the world. The early lustre of Obamamania has, however, clearly faded, as the realisation has gradually dawned on Africans that even a powerful leader with close family ties to the continent cannot change five and a half decades of “malign neglect” of their continent by Washington. The enduring continuity of U.S. foreign policy has trumped the early idealism of an extraordinary individual of African ancestry. Obama has not only failed to remake Africa, he has also failed to change America and the world.

• Dr. Adebajo is Executive Director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution in Cape Town, South Africa.



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