What has Obama done for Africa? (Part 1)

Three weeks ago, I was a guest on 93.3 KFM’s “The Hot Seat,” with Democratic Party Chairman Norbert Mao, Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment (ACODE) Executive Director Godber Tumushabe, Daily Monitor journalist Angelo Izama, and the talk show host, Charles Mwanguhya. We spoke for an hour about the U.S. elections, what Obama has done for Africa, his handling of the Arab Spring, and U.S./Chinese rivalry in Africa.

If you like political talk shows, then here is the full audio of the broadcast. The clip is unedited, so I apologize for the commercials and I will certainly understand if you skip around or choose not to listen.

When Angelo invited me onto the show, I didn’t really know what to expect, but he told me that we would talk about the U.S. elections and what Obama has done for Africa. This got me thinking…what has Obama done for Africa?

When Obama was elected, people celebrated his victory across the continent and the Los Angeles Times reported swarms of people cheering in his father’s village of Nyangoma-Kogelo. One villager epitomized the lofty hopes that people had in the newly elected president:

 “I feel so very good now because my neighbor Barack Obama is president of the United States,” said Richard Onyango, 30, an unemployed resident. “My area has been poor for such a long time, but now I think Obama will make things better.”

Because Obama has roots in Kenya, people like Mr. Onyango rightly assumed that the President would have a very vested interest in African affairs. But four years later, these same individuals are disappointed that Obama hasn’t made any significant political or economic changes in Sub-Saharan Africa. If anything, politics in Kenya have gotten worse and African economies have suffered from the slow economic recovery in the United States.

But perhaps it was misguided to assume that the President of the United States could transform countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. A few of my Ugandan friends sometimes talk about Obama like he has the same powers as President Museveni, without realizing that the U.S. President is restricted by politics and checks and balances.

In Uganda, the President’s Office oversees most of the ministries and has the final say on government policy; but in the U.S., the legislature sets the agenda and budget for the agencies that affect Africa—the State Department, Department of Defense, and the US Agency for International Development (USAID).

Meanwhile, Obama has lacked the political leverage to make Africa part of his first-term agenda. There is still a perception among some Americans that Obama wasn’t born in the U.S. and that he is a socialist trying to redistribute wealth. Giving more aid to Africa would have infuriated those who share these misguided beliefs.

More importantly, however, is the fact that Africa is excluded from the political horizons of the average U.S. voter. Talking about Africa wouldn’t have given Obama many votes, especially when most voters were only concerned with jobs and the economy.

While these are the excuses for why Obama hasn’t engaged with Africa more, let’s take a look at what he has done for the continent.

Not making things worse

As I argued on “The Hot Seat”, the first goal of any leader should be not to make things worse. I realize that this is a pretty low standard, but if you look at U.S. foreign policy since World War II, most U.S. presidents have tended to screw things up for other countries. In Korea, Vietnam, Latin America, and the Middle East, the U.S. military and CIA have been the global bullies for the last sixty years with devastating consequences.

I doubt that American voters and presidents have intended to be bullies abroad, but misguided analysis, bureaucratic intransigence, and poor decisions have ensnared us in bad situations. Deep down, the predominant values behind U.S. foreign policy seem to be the same as they were in World War II—we want to be the heroes and we see ourselves as crusaders for freedom and democracy.

Regardless of political affiliation, most Americans share this ambition, but Democrats and Republicans have tried to realize it in very different ways. Some of my Ugandan friends greatly admire George W. Bush for his bold stances on freedom and democracy. “He’s not afraid to topple dictators or send in troops,” they say. For those who celebrate this black and white take on morality, then of course the U.S. should send in troops to stop the situation in Syria, which some observers have started calling a genocide.

The problem with this viewpoint is that war is never black and white and stopping killing by force requires more bloodshed. Even if the intentions for invading Afghanistan and Iraq were noble, U.S. involvement in these two wars has cost tens of thousands of lives and more than $3.7 trillion, according to Reuters.

Democratic presidents have also engaged in fighting for freedom and democracy abroad, but they have been a bit less cavalier about it and have tried to balance these goals with other considerations, like the U.S.’s reputation abroad. In 1993, Bill Clinton sent troops to stabilize Somalia, but when it resulted in the humiliating debacle that set the plot for Black Hawk Down, he quickly pulled out and hesitated to take action during the Rwandan genocide in 1994.

Clinton epitomizes the Democratic approach to international intervention in that he tried to wait to see what his allies were doing, weighed the political and humanitarian costs and benefits, and made his decisions. Unfortunately, his decisions in Somalia and Rwanda show the pitfalls of making a quick decision and sending U.S. troops into a bad situation and waiting too long and watching 800,000 Rwandans die. Either error can prove disastrous.

The Obama administration is acutely aware of Clinton and Bush’s failures. I therefore imagine that one of the goals of the current administration is not to screw things up. And if that is their objective, then how have they performed when confronted with the challenges of the Arab Spring?

Engaging in the Arab Spring

Without question, North Africa took up much more of the foreign policy spotlight this last election than the rest of the continent. With Ambassador Chris Stephen’s death in Benghazi coming less than two months before the election, Libya was thrust into the limelight and the Romney campaign accused the White House of dropping the ball. But the attack was impossible to avoid and the only real criticism of the administration’s response is that they weren’t more forthcoming with information.

Other than the Benghazi incident, the Obama team’s handling of the Arab Spring has been fairly adept. A common criticism of Obama that I hear in Uganda is that he hasn’t toppled all of Africa’s dictators yet. While some Americans might love to go around the world forcibly spreading freedom and democracy, there are ideological and pragmatic constraints to intervening in protests and rebellions.

Take Uganda as an example. There have been dozens of protests against Museveni’s government in the last few years, but just because the government manipulates elections and discourages dissent does not permit a foreign power to infringe on state sovereignty and overthrow the regime. Under international law, states can only violate the sovereignty of other states for humanitarian reasons. In other words, the U.S. can’t invade your country if you have a dictator. However, international law allows us (and sometimes requires us) to intervene if you have a dictator who is massacring his own people.

In Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt, the Obama administration stood with the rebels when it was clear that ruling regime no longer had legitimacy in the eyes of its citizens and was killing the people it was supposed to protect. While this seems like an easy choice, I think Obama deserves some credit for supporting the rebels, especially in Egypt.

As the U.S.’s strongest ally in the Middle East, President Mubarek benefited from billions of dollars in military aid and the administration’s North Africa policy revolved around a close friendship with Mubarek. Perhaps Obama could have ditched him sooner, but the ultimate choice to stand with the Egyptian people against the U.S.’s long-term ally was bold. Obama had no way to predict what would happen in Mubarek’s absence and neither the U.S. nor Israel wanted the Muslim Brotherhood to come to power.

In other countries where protesters continue to oppose repressive regimes, the administration walks a fine line between supporting dissent and respecting states’ sovereignty and autonomy. The situation in Syria seems to warrant international humanitarian intervention, but the U.S. has limited options because of Russia’s strong support of President Assad and their use of the veto on the UN Security Council. Whereas Bush was willing to spurn the Security Council and invade Iraq without its blessing, Obama seems willing to wait and see what happens. While a unilateral invasion might be able to stop the Syrian civil war, it could also escalate the conflict and ensnare the U.S. in another conflict in the Middle East. So perhaps the best course of action is to do exactly what Obama has done: quietly supporting the Syrian rebels with weapons and logistics while working with Egypt and Turkey to provide humanitarian aid.

I apologize for being very long-winded in this post, so I will take a brief hiatus. But in a forthcoming post, I will talk about how the Obama administration’s policies have affected Sub-Saharan Africa and what changes, if any, might be on the horizon for the second term.

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1 Comment

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One response to “What has Obama done for Africa? (Part 1)

  1. Anonymous

    Certainly no apology necessary for being “long winded”. This is an excellent analysis of a very complex question. I like your moderate tone and acknowledgement that there is only so much the US can do. I’m looking forward to the next installment!

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