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One Year of Obama: Any Change for Africa?

By Sverine Koen

January 20 was the one-year anniversary of Barack Obama’s presidency. It has provided analysts and critics an opportunity to reflect on the President’s achievements and failures, in domestic and foreign policy alike. As an American with a Kenyan father, Obama’s foreign policy could have been expected to hold Africa as a greater priority than previous administrations. Yet how much has American foreign policy toward Africa changed under Obama?  The Independent assesses how Obama’s presidency has served Africa.

On July 11, 2009, President Obama made a powerful speech in Accra, Ghana, the first Sub-Saharan African country he visited as President of the United States. His choice of Ghana, instead of his father’s Kenya, was justified as a ‘reward visit’ for Ghana’s admirably smooth power transition after very close elections.  He underlined four areas that he deemed critical for the future of Africa: Democracy, opportunity for development, health and the peaceful resolution of conflict. He stressed that America would be a friend and a partner to Africa, but a recurrent theme in his speech was: ‘We must start from the simple premise that Africa’s future is up to Africans’.

A month later, his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, embarked on a seven country tour of Africa, which yielded mitigated reviews. She not only visited resource-rich countries such as Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Nigeria, but also Kenya, South Africa, Liberia and Cape Verde. Her messages echoed Obama’s Ghana speech. Perhaps less charismatic than Obama, she was criticized by some media outlets in South Africa and Nigeria for a neo-colonial style of ‘lecturing’ the African governments and people she met with. Overall, however, her tour of Africa reaffirmed America’s commitment to the African continent and to seeing it overcome its development challenges.

And yet, thus far no intrinsically new solutions have been articulated by the Obama administration. The chief policy tools used include the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), the Millennium Challenge Account (MCA), and the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), all inherited from the Clinton and Bush eras. Although these policies certainly have benefits, they are not yielding any new results.

Concerning democracy and the consolidation of strong governments, the U.S commitment was felt recently when the U.S. Congress directed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to monitor Uganda’s 2011 elections and gave Uganda US$70,650,000 of assistance for free and fair elections. Yet the U.S also seems to have framed their commitment to good governance and regime stability in terms of the fight against terrorism. According to Daniel Volman, a Washington-based specialist on U.S military policy in Africa, the Obama administration is continuing the fight against al Qaeda and other terrorist groups such as al Shabaab by strengthening American military presence across Africa and giving funding to regimes such as the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) of Somalia. In addition, it is believed that President Obama asked the governments of Uganda and Burundi to transfer weaponry from their own stockpiles to the armed forces of the TFG in exchange for promises that the US government would reimburse them. Regarding the protection of human rights, the U.S continues to uphold them-at least in rhetoric. For instance, in December 2009, the White House released a strong statement condemning Uganda’s anti-homosexuality bill.

With regards to health, and most notably the fight against HIV/AIDS, an assessment report by several groups such as Africa Action, Treatment Action Group and the Global AIDS Alliance, gave President Obama a grade of D+ for his first year of responses to the global AIDS crisis. Although the report recognizes several achievements such as Obama’s shift toward science-based prevention and re-instatement of funding to the UN Population Fund, it also criticises the administration for cutting the Global Fund budget (by the same amount it increased the bilateral AIDS funding) and for its plans of general flat-lined funding for HIV/AIDS, when now more than ever, increases in aid are needed. Dr. Peter Mugyenyi, the director of one of Uganda’s leading AIDS clinics, is quoted in the report as saying: ‘Soon we fear the carnage of AIDS will once again surge and the obvious success we have seen of PEPFAR may begin to be reversed.’

Concerning security issues and the peaceful resolution of conflict, on October 19, 2009, the White House belatedly released their Sudan policy. It is said to look good on paper, but results are still pending. More recently, after the attempted suicide bombing of a Detroit-bound plane by a Nigerian man, three African countries (Nigeria, Somalia and Sudan) joined the list of countries whose citizens will undergo additional screening before entering the U.S.

Finally, with regards to energy and oil, Daniel Volman writes that, although President Obama believes in reducing America’s dependence on oil and developing alternative sources of energy, he also understands that for now he must continue to supply reliable and relatively inexpensive gas and other petroleum-based energy to the American people, which means he must tread carefully in his relations with major African oil suppliers to the US, such as Nigeria. Thus, the Obama administration tripled the budget for the Military Command for Africa (AFRICOM), established under George W. Bush, and whose main goal is to protect U.S. access to oil and U.S. corporate interests in Africa.

In the end, Obama’s first year in the White House might not have yielded all the expected results in terms of a change in the U.S. policy for Africa’¦but Africa must remember, first and foremost, that the U.S, even under Obama, will put its own interests first. Looking forward now, what can Africa expect for 2010? The recently released Africa Policy Outlook 2010, co-published by Africa Action and Foreign Policy in Focus, underlines poverty, climate change and HIV/AIDS as the major challenges for America’s 2010 Africa policy.  Let us hope President Obama will rise to those challenges.

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