The US leader might have roots in the continent but he has been more style than substanceby Ismail Einashe / July 31, 2015 / Leave a comment
Last Friday, the first Kenyan-American President of the United States returned to the country of his father’s birth. He arrived in Nairobi amid tight security (Kenya’s airspace was shut down). He was greeted by his half-sister Auma Obama as well as President Uhuru Kenyatta. Kenyatta had been facing charges of crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for allegedly stoking ethnic violence after Kenya’s 2007 presidential elections. The violence cost the lives of 1,200 people and displaced 600,000. But, the case against Kenyatta, son of Kenya’s founding father, was dropped in 2014, because the ICC could not bring a case against him—they accused his government of obstructing their investigation. This thorny issue had delayed Obama’s visit.
During a speech in Nairobi, Obama recalled his last visit to Kenya in 2006, when the Democratic senator from Illinois was greeted like a rock star. Back then, Obama was able to visit the village of his father—an economist who died in a car crash in 1982 and whom Obama barely knew. On this visit, though, he complained about being holed up in swanky hotels and conferences rooms of Nairobi.
But although Obama may have visited Africa more than any other US president, he has been a largely disappointing one for Africa. Hopes were raised when he became president in 2008, partly because he was seen as a son of Africa. Yet during his seven years in power, he’s lacked a clear vision and a strategy. Obama’s focus has been on Asia. In contrast, his predecessor George W Bush made Africa a key foreign policy priority for his administration and through his efforts to combat HIV/Aids helped to save millions of lives.
Bush launched the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) in 2003. It was initially a five-year plan to spend $15bn tackling the global HIV and AIDS epidemic. (There was controversy about the programme for its Christian overtones and refusal to fund groups that supported abortion.) Before the programme began, just 100,000 people were on anti-retroviral drugs in Africa. By the time Bush left office in 2008 that number had jumped to two million.
This wasn’t Bush’s only success in Africa. He backed the cancellation of $34bn worth of debt for 27 African states and launched a $1.2bn programme to combat malaria in the 15 hardest hit African nations. He also led on peace efforts in Sudan. His aid budget for Africa quadrupled from $1.3bn in 2001 to $5bn by 2008. All this explains why in some parts of the continent Bush remains popular.
Under Obama America’s interest shifted away from Africa. During his first term he spent less than one day in sub-Saharan Africa, in Ghana, where he memorably visited the Cape Coast Castle, where enslaved Africans were sent to America. In his second term initiatives have been too hastily announced, with no strategic vision—and little desire to address the systematic issues Africa faces. Take the Young African Leaders Initiative, which may help some educated, globalised young Africans. But it does little to support Africa’s vast youth population, who require serious investment in education and jobs. And who need reasons to stay at home and build their nations, rather than embark on dangerous boat journeys to Europe.
During his visit to South Africa in 2013 to speak at the funeral of Nelson Mandela, Obama launched his flagship Africa initiative in Cape Town: Power Africa, a $7bn-project led by the US international development agency, which aims to double electricity output in Africa within a five-year period. Obama’s ambition was to bring “light where currently there is darkness,” yet the reality, two years later, is that the promise of Power Africa has not met its aspiration. No electricity has yet been delivered. The project has been heavy on ambition, but light on delivery. It has been met with the sharp reality of getting things done on the ground in a continent where change is often painfully incremental. Power Africa is focused on six countries: Tanzania, Nigeria, Ghana, Liberia and Ethiopia and Kenya, where Obama has been visiting. There’s also been criticism about the management of the project, especially with consultants such as US consultancy Tetra Tech winning contracts worth $64m and Tony Blair’s Governance Initiative given $3m: the funds have in large part subsided US companies.
Speaking to 54 African leaders in Addis Ababa at the African Union on Tuesday, Obama once again spoke about his ambitions for the continent—he told listening leaders to embrace the prospect of becoming ex-president, as he shortly will be. A powerful message for sure, but in today’s Africa, few leaders will heed Obama’s advice. Many now look to China, which does not make the same demands of Africans as Obama. For many Africans no longer feel in a mood to engage with America’s moral lessons, or listen to Obama talk about gay rights, or other human rights issues. According to Freedom House, last year marked the ninth consecutive year of overall democratic decline in Africa, in effect erasing the gains the continent made in the early 2000s.
The one area of US policy in Africa, which has expanded under Obama, is security. Kenya is still in turmoil from the horrendous Garissa University college attacks in April, in which 147 students died. During his visit Obama’s has focused on security concerns, and the threat of al Shabaab, the Somalia-based Islamist militant group. He paid his respects at the memorial to commemorate the 1998 al Qaeda bombings of the US embassies in Nairobi, which killed more than 218 Americans and Kenyans, and injured more than 5,000 people—arguably the birth of the war on terror. In Addis Ababa, Obama praised Ethiopia as an “outstanding partner” in the fight against al Shabaab. He didn’t mention that American’s support for Ethiopia’s invasion in 2006 of south-central Somalia led in part to the creation of al Shabaab. To underscore their relevance, al Shabaab launched a savage suicide car attack in Mogadishu on Sunday killing 13 people at the Jazeera Palace Hotel, a spot popular with diplomats. Both Kenya and Ethiopia contribute troops to the African Union force fighting the al Qaeda affiliated group in Somalia—and Obama’s visit in large part has been about giving America’s support to these efforts.
Obama has expanded the militarisation of US policy in Africa. Tiny Djibouti, an ex-French colony in the Red Sea, is home to Camp Lemonnier at Djibouti’s sole international airport. It is also home to the Combined Joint Task Force—Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) part of the US-Africa Command (AFRICOM), and this site constitutes the sole permanent US military base in Africa. Camp Lemonnier has undergone an upgrade under Obama: it now houses 4,500 American military personal and is undergoing a $1.4bn renovation. From this camp, America has carried out a secret drone programme into Somalia and Yemen—and it has rendered many terror suspects, including some British nationals.
Meanwhile, China has growing clout on the continent. The Chinese are building roads, ports, dams and railways across Africa—including a metro system in Addis Ababa. Ethiopia, where Obama ended his Africa visit—has been one of China’s biggest investments, they recently completed a vital railway connecting landlocked Ethiopia’s 90 million people to Djibouti’s Red Sea port. Eventually the Chinese say they want to build a railway from East Africa all the way to the Gulf of Guinea, which shows the scale of their ambition. Even the gleaming glass edifice headquarters of the African Union in Addis Ababa, where Obama become the first American president to speak at, was financed by China.
Obama has less than two years before he leaves office. It seems unlikely his attitude to Africa will shift. The visual rhetoric of Obama’s visit may have been minutely and expertly choreographed, but in reality under his leadership America’s reach in the continent has declined. Obama has been heavy on symbolism and light on substance.