Africa Rising

Obama in AfricaBy Stefani Jones.

Despite President Obama’s powerful rhetoric on US-Africa relations during his 2008 campaign, many in Africa watched his first term come and go with great disappointment. Now, after four years of what they deemed failed policies, he seems poised to meet expectations. Last month, Obama gave an address at the University of Cape Town, the flagship speech of a weeklong tour of Africa. I had the privilegee of attending the speech, which highlighted Obama’s vision for US-Africa engagement and introduced a new initiative to help power the African continent. Most significantly, the address marked a shift for the US on Africa policy – an area that, until now, has disappointed many. 

After beginning his first term as a superstar in Africa, Obama has fallen under criticism for his failure to seriously engage with the continent. As such, his speech came in the middle of a highly anticipated and criticized trip, which included visits to Senegal, South Africa, and Tanzania. Some lamented the President’s visit for being long overdue, while others protested the countries on the itinerary. During his visit, protestors gathered in Soweto, South Africa, the hometown of Nelson Mandela and a place that once cheered Obama’s election. With the tour being deemed a failure before it even began, the President faced immense pressure to deliver in his first major Africa speech since 2009.

American engagement with Africa has been heavily criticized over the last several years, as it has been increasingly overshadowed by Chinese involvement. This trip was Obama’s second to Sub-Saharan Africa since taking office, with his previous trip to Ghana only totaling 21 hours. In comparison, Chinese president Xi Jinping has already visited three African nations since taking office on March 14, and has expressed his intent to visit the continent frequently. Over the past decade, China has outpaced the US in trade with Africa, passing the US as the continent’s number one trading partner in 2009. China focuses on large infrastructure projects for African governments as kickbacks for natural resource deals, and employs a “no strings attached” approach with respect to governance and human rights. In countries like Sudan and Zimbabwe, where the US has halted trade because of human rights abuses, China continues to prop up corrupt regimes and has reaped the economic benefits.

While African leaders prefer the less-intrusive Chinese model, Obama spared few words in defending America’s approach. He tackled concerns with US strategy in Africa head-on, defending American engagement with African nations and challenging the myth of democracy as a Western import. The truth, Obama argued, is that democracy is the only system that actually gives power to the African people. He went on to remark that those who say otherwise are usually the ones selling away their country’s resources to overseas powers, with an obvious tip of his hat to Chinese policies in the region. Africa is rising, Obama remarked, but that its growth is reliant on strong institutions and good governance.

However, even with a powerful defense of democracy and human rights, few expected Obama’s speech to break free from the current American narrative of foreign aid and humanitarian assistance. Up until this point, the US has failed to emulate China’s appealing strategy of focusing on infrastructure, rather than aid. To be truly effective, the US needs to be innovative and invest in long-term solutions for Africa’s growth.

To this end, Obama announced a new initiative, Power Africa, which seeks to double access to power in Sub-Saharan Africa. The White House notes that more than two-thirds of the population of Sub-Saharan African lack access to electricity, including 85% of those in rural areas. Obama pledged $7 billion in government resources and another $9 billion from private sector partners. Over the next few years, Power Africa will begin to develop new sources of energy and expand the reach of current sources of electricity. While the project is a huge undertaking, it marks a step in the right direction for American development on the continent. Rather than pouring more money into aid, Obama pledged to spend on the infrastructure that many Africans need most. The initiative comes as both a refreshing and innovative change, and something that could shift the perceptions of those abroad on Obama’s commitment to the continent.

But possibly the greatest aspect of Obama’s speech was the narrative woven into it—a speech about the promise and capacity of Africans to determine their own fate, given from a location full of symbolism not just for South Africans, but for Americans as well. Obama noted that forty-seven years prior, Bobby Kennedy gave his famous “ripple of hope” speech in the same auditorium at UCT. At a time when Nelson Mandela was still in jail and the civil rights battle was raging in the US, Kennedy spoke of the smallest acts, the “ripples of hope,” that could combine to topple the mightiest of oppressors. In his speech, Obama hit home the importance of the parallel:

“It would have seemed inconceivable to people at that time that less than 50 years later, an African-American president might address an integrated audience at South Africa’s oldest university, and that this same university would have conferred an honorary degree to a president, Nelson Mandela. It would have seemed impossible.”

The words were powerful and effective. But while we cannot forget the incredible triumph of toppling apartheid, we should also focus on the road ahead in ensuring the prosperity of all African nations and their people. It will take much more than a well-crafted speech to truly show the President’s commitment to the continent. Obama’s speech showed the types of building blocks that could power a successful US strategy in the region, but only if followed by a continued commitment. As I talked to the South Africans around me after the president’s remarks ended, they all showed a kind of reserved hope for US engagement. For, as much respect and admiration they had for our president, they were no strangers to empty promises.

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  1. Ahmad

    Do we talk about any other continent the way that we talk about Africa? I had to cringe every time the article referred to ‘Africa’ or ‘Africans’ as if the continent or its inhabitants could be generalized in any meaningful way. In addition to playing into racist narratives that we see played out in MSM, the article ends up being shoddy and unclear.

    • dstublen

      This was my first thought when I saw the title. I expected Stephanie to bring up your specific point as a lot of academic articles on the topic of “Africa” do nowadays, but unfortunately she didn’t.

  2. Prashanth

    This article reads like a summary of White House talking points and demonstrates a shocking lack of knowledge about the actual history of US involvement on the continent — even strictly considering Obama’s term. We are indeed “no strangers in terms of empty promises” on the part of the US’s “humanitarian” commitments to any country where it’s invested heavily, but the problem on the African continent is hardly a lack of US involvement.

    Maybe we should start learning to ignore speeches and pay attention to actions. You are aware, I’m sure, of the US bombing of Libya (home to Africa’s largest oil reserves and alone among Arab Spring countries to be bombed in the name of democracy), which if you’ve been even following vaguely should know led to a coup in a neighboring country and has now thrown the entire region into unprecedented turmoil. Libya, Mali, and much of the Sahel now live under a fear of violent extremism virtually unheard of prior to US involvement in the region.

    A well-researched piece to begin embarking upon a journey of facts and history instead of symbols and rhetoric:

    Some highlights:

    * After all, in 2006, before AFRICOM came into existence, 11 African nations were among the top 20 in the Fund for Peace’s annual Failed States Index. Last year, that number had risen to 15 (or 16 if you count the new nation of South Sudan).

    * As the U.S.-backed war in Libya was taking down Qaddafi, nomadic Tuareg fighters in his service looted the regime’s extensive weapons caches, crossed the border into their native Mali, and began to take over the northern part of that country. Anger within the country’s armed forces over the democratically elected government’s ineffective response to the rebellion resulted in a military coup. It was led by Amadou Sanogo, an officer who had received extensive training in the U.S. between 2004 and 2010 as part of the Pan-Sahel Initiative. Having overthrown Malian democracy, he and his fellow officers proved even less effective in dealing with events in the north.

    With the country in turmoil, the Tuareg fighters declared an independent state. Soon, however, heavily-armed Islamist rebels from homegrown Ansar al-Dine as well as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Libya’s Ansar al-Sharia, and Nigeria’s Boko Haram, among others, pushed out the Tuaregs, took over much of the north, instituted a harsh brand of Shariah law, and created a humanitarian crisis that caused widespread suffering, sending refugees streaming from their homes.

    * The U.S.-backed war in Libya and the CIA’s efforts in its aftermath are just two of the many operations that have proliferated across the continent under President Obama. These include a multi-pronged military and CIA campaign against militants in Somalia, consisting of intelligence operations, a secret prison, helicopter attacks, drone strikes, and U.S. commando raids; a special ops expeditionary force (bolstered by State Department experts) dispatched to help capture or kill Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) leader Joseph Kony and his top commanders in the jungles of the Central African Republic, South Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo; a massive influx of funding for counterterrorism operations across East Africa; and, in just the last four years, hundreds of millions of dollars spent arming and training West African troops to serve as American proxies on the continent. From 2010-2012, AFRICOM itself burned through $836 million as it expanded its reach across the region, primarily via programs to mentor, advise, and tutor African militaries.

    * A strategic partner and bulwark of U.S. counterterrorism efforts, Kenya receives around $1 billion in U.S. aid annually and elements of its military have been trained by U.S. Special Operations forces. But last September, Foreign Policy’s Jonathan Horowitz reported on allegations of “Kenyan counterterrorism death squads… killing and disappearing people.” Later, Human Rights Watch drew attention to the Kenyan military’s response to a November attack by an unknown gunman that killed three soldiers in the northern town of Garissa. The “Kenyan army surrounded the town, preventing anyone from leaving or entering, and started attacking residents and traders,” the group reported. “The witnesses said that the military shot at people, raped women, and assaulted anyone in sight.”

    Another longtime recipient of U.S. support, the Ethiopian military, was also involved in abuses last year, following an attack by gunmen on a commercial farm. In response, according to Human Rights Watch, members of Ethiopia’s army raped, arbitrarily arrested, and assaulted local villagers.

    The Ugandan military has been the primary U.S. proxy when it comes to policing Somalia. Its members were, however, implicated in the beating and even killing of citizens during domestic unrest in 2011. Burundi has also received significant U.S. military support and high-ranking officers in its army have recently been linked to the illegal mineral trade, according to a report by the environmental watchdog group Global Witness. Despite years of cooperation with the U.S. military, Senegal now appears more vulnerable to extremism and increasingly unstable, according to a report by the Institute of Security Studies.

    And so it goes across the continent.

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