Tue, 28 Oct 2008 Feature Article

“President” Obama and Africa

US Presidential hopeful, Barack ObamaUS Presidential hopeful, Barack Obama

United States Senator Barack Obama is an American running for the office of President of the United States, not Kenya, his late father's home country.

Thus, whereas Obama's presidency in the United States will be a source of pride for Kenyans, it would not likely change the politics of Kenya.

This is the paraphrase of a sentiment expressed recently in a radio interview given by a Kenyan immigrant residing in Maryland when he was asked if the election of Obama as President of United States in November would affect the nature of politics inside Kenya.

By inference and deduction, one should feel comfortable that the above sentiment expressed by a Kenyan immigrant, regarding the effect of United States on the politics of Kenya in the likelihood of a Barack Obama administration, could be extended to cover the continent of Africa and would still be apropos.

In that instance, one could infer that whereas election of Obama as President of United States would be a source of pride for most Africans and people of African descent, the chances that it could change dynamics of internal African political practices are nil.

It is almost beyond the pale of possibility that any president of United States can effect reduction of strategic corruption of the ruling elite in the various African societies; minimize the role of ethnocentrism in the politics of Africa; overturn the near-fascist tendencies of certain African governments; and counsel against the dominance of economic dependency as development approach by almost all governments of oil-importing African societies.

To say that the president of United States has little chance of affecting the internal dynamics of politics in Africa is different from how the foreign policies of both sides could be impacted upon by the individual American president, taking the history of the process into consideration. President of the United States has the constitutional authority to effect the direction and trajectory of America's foreign policies towards any social formation of the world.

Within the past 15 years, United States, for the first time, has implemented comprehensive Africa-wide policies that affect more people positively on the continent: President Bill Clinton left “Africa Growth and Opportunity Act” as United States' legacy during his presidency and Pres. George W. Bush can make claim on America's contribution towards Africa's struggle with malaria and HIV-AIDS as his legacy. Thus, a question to ask, relevant to the discussion in this commentary, has to do with whether “President” Barack Obama would be willing, politically, to match or better what his previous two predecessors offered Africa.

Given the nature of foreign policy-making process of the United States, it is not as if Pres. Obama would rush to the White House pressroom the morning after his inauguration and announce a package of massive United States policies designed to transform Africa in the positive direction overnight.

That height of expectation is too unrealistic to materialize. Ultimately, all foreign policies of United States are crafted to have positive effect on the national interest of the country and one cannot expect that to be different in an Obama administration.

The nature and content of United States foreign policy formulation are instructed by domestic economic and political conditions. The press and the legislative branch of government that controls the power of the national purse, so to speak, contribute to the content of Unites States foreign policies.

Even though the president of United States has the final word on the nature and content of specific foreign policies of the country, it has been the tradition for the president to be consulted by his appointed immediate advisers as well as from heads of relevant departments in the administration.

In this context, any expectation of the points of departure and arrival of Obama's foreign policies towards Africa can be gleaned by knowledge of political advisers he appoints to positions such as National Security Advisor, Secretary of State and Secretary Defense as well as the political appointees supporting such offices.

Of course, the level of knowledge of the benefit to the national interest of America by the president of United States from relations with Africa would tend to have a far-reaching effect on policy decision-making. At the eleventh hour before taking residency in the White House in January 2001, Pres. George W. Bush did not think Africa was of strategic geo-political interest to United States. Before long, George Bush went through a transformation made possible by the officials he appointed and he saw the value of the continent to America's national interest.

Relevant to the above, active observers possibly have an inkling of which direction Obama's administration would go with its policies towards Africa considering that Susan Rice has been a foreign policy adviser to the Barrack Obama presidential campaign team. Ms. Rice served as Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs in the administration of Pres. Bill Clinton. The aggression with which Ms. Rice attacked problem areas in Africa from United States' policy standpoint tended to be result oriented, in the positive direction.

If anybody asked for my advice, I'd ask Pres. Barack Obama to retain Dr. Jendayi Frazer, current Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs in the Bush administration to complement Susan Rice and he would have value for his judgment.

From the American perspective, Susan Rice and Jendayi Frazer have been at the center of the country's policies towards Africa, albeit instructed by their knowledge of the continent's problems and interest in the welfare of the people. I have heard Dr. Frazer argue, off the record, against the counterproductive outcome of Africa's dependency on foreign assistance, loans, and grants. Susan Rice, during her tenure at State Department had “in your face” attitude towards protecting the lives of displaced people on the continent when she had to communicate with the ruling class elements at hostile spots on the continent. With Susan Rice in charge of United States policy towards Africa in an Obama administration, the Darfur issue will be solved. Because of these instances, I'd advise Pres. Obama to keep one of these ladies in the White House and the other at the State Department.

Another advantage for Africa for keeping Susan Rice and Jendayi Frazer in an Obama administration is the fact that they are aware of the aspects of United States' policies towards Africa in the past 15 years that the African people disagree with. For example, Africanists have held the view that the selective approach towards eligibility to participate in the AGOA program has tended to single out countries on the continent characterized by “good governance” for reward. It is believed that not offering similar opportunities to all countries on the continent tends to hurt the citizens of the countries who already suffer from lack of “good governance” conducted by their rulers.

In addition, some active Africans have expressed concern about the recently created United States “AFRICOM,” a military unit expected to takeover the operations of American policies towards Africa. There is a view that AFRICOM is a direct way for United States to protect its interest in the crude oil fields on the continent and are frightened of the possibilities of hostilities by proxy. Some of the Africanists believe there is no need for United States to have a military presence on the continent to protect its commercial interest – Africans are interested in fair trade without the use of force.

Evidence from the presidential campaign in the United States has shown that Americans are not looking forward to a Black President in the White Hose, only an American president. Similarly, Africans are not expecting an African president of United States to deliver them from the negative aspects of their predicament; they expect an American president who will relate to the people of the continent with dignity, respect and on merit.

Credit: Yaw Adu-Asare, [email protected], the writer, Yaw Adu-Asare, is the author of “Ghana, In Search of Illusive Positive Change: A Review of the First Kufuor Administration.”