By G. Pascal Zachary
In a dusty remote village in eastern Uganda, I stare across a mud-hut at a retired government worker who echoes the millions of people across of Africa, young and old, women and men, who want Barack Obama, the next American president, to be their leader too.
‘As Obama is an African himself, he will help to develop Africa for those of us here,â€ says Abraham Wekabira of Bukhalu, Uganda.
Wekabira’s words “ and the hope and dreams of many Africans “ contain a large measure of fantasy. The United States faces dangerous economic problems and is mired in two wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The country’s health-care system and basic infrastructure are woeful “ and require expensive repairs. As President Obama prepares to take the oath of office on January 20 in Washington, he contemplates urgent challenges, even crises; and none directly involve sub-Saharan Africa.
There is every chance that Obama won’t even mention Africa in his inaugural address. And he may not visit his fatherland in his first year.
Yet Obam’s ties to Africa“ both personal and political are real. In both of his best-selling memoirs, his African roots play important roles. And as president, he has an opportunity to tackle significant African problems in fresh ways. Here is an introduction to these opportunities and Obama’s options:
The Western media exploits African conflicts, and the image of a region consumed by violence reinforces wrong-headed views that Africans can’t govern themselves. In most of sub-Saharan Africa, peace reigns. Civil wars, in short, are the exception in the region. Even in such countries as Ghana and Kenya, where tight elections raised tensions, politically violence proved short-lived.
Yet four conflicts persist: in Sudan’s Darfur region; in Somalia; in northern Uganda; and in eastern Congo. These three conflicts raging in the region impose enormous costs: in loss of life, economic growth and diminished confidence in the ability of African leaders and institutions to solve their own problems.
Each of these conflicts have different roots; and no one solution will fit each. The question for Obama, of course, is whether American diplomacy can end these conflicts and, if not, what can he do, as commander-in-chief of the US military role, to end them?
In dealing with Darfur, President Obama (likely) will come under some pressure to intervene militarily. An alliance of human-rights activists and Christian conservatives have championed the cause of peace in Darfur and they have openly called for some US military response, such as a ‘no fly zone’ enforced by US air power against the government of Sudan.
In Eastern Congo, where forces of the United Nations have failed for years to impose stability, appeals may come for President Obama to send US troops.
In northern Uganda, President Obama could consider sending assassination teams to eliminate, once and for all, the menace of Joseph Kony.
President Obama surely will engage in an effort to end these three conflicts, assigning his choice as U.N. ambassador, Susan Rice, and other officials in his new administration to the front-lines.
Whether he chooses any combat options is an open question, since the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan loom large in his thinking on global security.
Perhaps only Somalia presents an untenable situation for President Obama. The Bush administration bungled a major attempt to restore some semblance of order to this troubled country“ and failed miserably. Even American allies in the region, such as Kenya and Ethiopia, are discouraged. Obama might opt for ignoring Somalia “ notwithstanding all the media attention grabbed by the pirates from the country.
Oil & natural resources
At the end of the Cold War, 15 years ago, experts on international affairs shrewdly declared that America no longer had any â€œstrategicâ€ interests in Africa. Elite Africans, tired of the CIA propping up African dictators and disruption dissidents, cheered at first. Indeed, a period of democratic flowering occurred in the region in the 1990s.
Yet the loss of a ‘strategic’ US interest in Africa also carried costs. US policymakers no longer cared about the core issues of physical security and economic growth in the region. Lacking a compass, they got sidetracked by important and ‘morally relevant’
issues such as fighting HIV-AIDS and promoting improved public health.
President Bush’s PEPFAR initiative, which is sending $8 billion a year to Africa to cover health needs, exemplifies the humanitarian turn in American relations with the region. Americans view morality as a crucial foundation for policy.
The intellectual currents, however, are swinging back to a more ‘realistic’ and ‘strategic’ approach to Africa, based on old-style power politics and ‘real politique.” President Obama clearly prefers the ‘realist’ tradition of foreign policy and, as president, he surely will find common ground with sub-Saharan Africa in areas of mutual benefit. The largest single area of mutual benefit is oil. Africa has plenty of it, and the US needs it.
Already, Nigeria and Angola are major suppliers to America, and oil-producers in sub-Saharan Africa are likely to surpass Arab producers as the top international source for U.S. consumers before the decade is over. What an astonishing transformation. Suddenly, Americans can’t simply justify their engagement with Africa on the basis of ‘saving’Africans. Now Africans ” and their oil“ can help ‘save’ the American way of life, or at least, preserve the US addiction to foreign oil.
Since market forces are pushing so much African into American hands, the opportunities for policymakers are not obvious. Yet since oil seems to spawn conflict in Africa, President Obama likely will see opportunities for addressing the question. Perhaps lucrative new supplies of oil found in Ghana and Uganda will destabilize these peaceful countries, promoting targeted US interventions. Or maybe the persistent tensions in Nigeriaâ€™s Delta, home to its oil riches, will finally trigger an American engagement. Or perhaps the troubled Chad-Cameroon oil project, run by the largest US Corporation Exxon, may face a new crisis that justifies an American military incursion.
Again, the legacy of President Bush may constrain Obama. Violence and corruption has been fueled by petro-dollars for some time in Africa. The lawless governments of Angola and Equatorial Guinea seem to have acquired impunity from international censure on the strength of their oil holdings. While Africa’s surging oil holdings guarantee more strategic attention from an Obama administration, the options for actions are uncertain.