Is there an Obama legacy in Africa?

US President Barack Obama / AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB

US President Barack Obama / AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB

In a matter of days, President Barack Obama will be stepping down after eight years in office. It is difficult to effectively capture the significance of his election and time as President in words. As he put it, many still can’t believe we pulled this whole thing off. But it was done. 

Obama has carried himself well, even in the face of disrespect for his person in some quarters. He has carried that office most admirably and discharged his responsibilities to the satisfaction of many Americans. His many accomplishments speak for him. Time will only help a proper appreciation of the great work he did. 

In the effortless grace he has exuded lies a symbolism not lost on the discerning. The audacity of his run for office and performance will continue to be passed on from one generation to another. Many Africans were naturally ecstatic at the election of Obama. Hope was rekindled in many. Expectations, all sorts, shot high of what an Obama Presidency would do for Africa. 

Eight years after, many are disappointed. In Nigeria, some are unhappy with him for not visiting the country while in office. In Kenya, that he didn’t do much for the country. Some say George W. Bush did better for Africa. They speak of the Billions of Dollars pumped into fighting HIV/AIDS, Malaria by Bush in Africa; the peace agreement in Sudan as well as the many visits to Africa, while in office.

Some even argue that it is difficult to identify a coherent Obama policy on Africa. But that won’t be correct. President Obama might not have been very upfront with his Africa agenda, but he did initiate a number of programmes aimed at addressing some fundamental problems that the continent faces. 

In 2013, Obama launched Power Africa with the goal of doubling access to electricity in sub-Saharan Africa. With this, more than $7 billion investment was expected to be made over five years, with the objective of increasing access to electricity by at least 20 million new households and businesses. In 2015, the initial goal was tripled to 60 million electricity connections and 30,000 megawatts of energy.

I do not know the level of progress that has been made with Power Africa but that the programme addresses the lack of access to electricity speaks to the depth of thought and deliberation on what ails Africa under the Obama Presidency. There was also the U.S.-African Leaders Summit.

But it is the attention paid by Obama to leadership and entrepreneurship training for African youths that is most worthy of attention and celebration, for me. He participated at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Kenya. But the defining Obama legacy in Africa, for me, is the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI), launched in 2010, targeted at the next generation of African leaders, to enable them spur growth and prosperity, strengthen democratic governance, and enhance peace and security across Africa.

The YALI Network is said to have a 250,000-membership of young Africans who connect with other leaders in their community, access free online courses in topics ranging from climate change to entrepreneurship to human rights, and receive invitations to special events. There are four YALI Regional Leadership Centres in Kenya, South Africa, Senegal and Ghana where young leaders are trained in leadership, entrepreneurship and professional development.

But it is the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders, the flagship programme of the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) that best defines the Obama legacy in Africa, for me. The fellowship which was inaugurated in 2014 annually provides up to 1,000 outstanding young leaders from Sub-Saharan Africa with the opportunity to hone their skills at a U.S. college or university with support for professional development after they return home.

Each Mandela Washington Fellow takes part in a six-week academic and leadership institute at a U.S. college or university in one of three tracks: Business and Entrepreneurship, Civic Leadership, or Public Management. Following the academic component, the Fellows visit Washington, D.C., for a Summit featuring networking and panel discussions with U.S. leaders from the public, private, and non-profit sectors. Upon returning to their home countries, Fellows continue to build the skills they have developed during their time in the United States through support from U.S. embassies, four Regional Leadership Centres, the YALI Network and customised programming from USAID, the Department of State, and affiliated partners.

The Fellows, who are between the ages of 25 and 35, are chosen on the basis of their records of accomplishment in promoting innovation and positive change in their organisations, institutions, communities, and countries. I gather that thousands of well-accomplished young Nigerians applied for the 2016 programme of which 100 were finally chosen. Last year, fellows were chosen from all 49 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, including some with disability. According to reports available, thirty percent were from rural areas or towns of fewer than 100,000 people, and fifty percent of the Fellows were women.

About 2,000 young Africans have directly benefited from the programme apart from the hundreds of thousands who are part of the YALI Network. Another 1,000 will be a part of the fellowship this year. I have interacted physically and virtually with some of the Fellows. The Bring Back Our Girls Campaigner and Coordinator, Adopt-A-Camp Bukky Shonibare, is one. The brilliant Diran Adegoke is another. Edeh Catherine, Lawyer and Disability rights Advocate who has bravely defied hearing disability to make tremendous impact in her community, is another beneficiary of the programme. These are lives that have been positively touched by the programme initiated by Obama. They have, in turn, taken on the baton, doing their bit in inspiring others and touching many more lives in the process.

It is in choosing to touch the lives of young Africans, raising Leaders and Entrepreneurs who can impact lives and widen the net of impact that Obama leaves a legacy in Africa. It is in the symbolism of the audacity of hope that he planted a seed in the heart of many young Africans. It is the grace and panache with which he carried himself, going high when it was easy to go low, that he leaves a legacy for the world about the African spirit. There is so much that he could have done. There is so much that is left to be done. But he did do his bit. And I dare say, he did it well, as well. Obama has lit a lamp of hope in the hearts of many a young African, it might not be that visible at the moment. But do not bet against its impact tomorrow.Olorunfemi works for Hoofbeatdotcom, a Nigerian Communications Consultancy and publishers of Africa Enterprise.

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  • Bob Nla

    Yes, he did his bit. He can as well visit and do nothing. His is first and foremost responsible for America (USA), not Africa, not Nigeria. Obama prefers to address issues of African youths rather than African leaders who are mostly sycophants, using democracy as a veil to continue their dictatorship and complete regard for institutions, while mostly denigrating the youths in other to perpetuate themselves. How do we continue to build on the leadership and entrepreneurial campaign of Obama towards African youths? It will be failure to continue to expect anything from African leaders, especially selfish and naira/dollar glutton of Nigerian leaders. This is a challenge now for young entrepreneurial Africans and Nigerians. If we think Obama did nothing, you should expect far less from inward looking Trump. Africans need to rescue Africans. We need to stop expecting a messiah from across the seas.

  • Anietie Akpan

    Nigeria problems will be fix by Nigerians not outsider full stop.

  • O. Adewole

    This writer failed to mention Obama’s profound effort to turn Africa into City of Sodom & Gomorrah. This is one big reason why he did not come to Nigeria.