Obama Administration May Swing U.S. Policy On Africa

Obama Administration Africa Policy
President Obama during a visit to Ghana

AFRICANGLOBE – Barack Obama’s second term may witness an American pivot towards Africa — and not for the reasons you might have expected.

As the president of the United States publicly takes the oath of office for the second time, it is understandable why, in stark contrast to four years ago when Barack Obama’s unique personal history made his election to the White House the cause for intense pride and excitement across Africa, many Africans have shrugged off the event and carried on with their lives. To be fair, many Africans’ expectations of the then-new American president were wildly unrealistic and Obama had quite a number of pressing challenges demanding his immediate attention, not least of all a U.S. economy in meltdown.

Nevertheless, the sense of let-down acutely felt, both in African capitals and among the Africa constituency in Washington, over the lack of engagement during most of the administration’s first term, remains palpable. Even for the administration’s most reflexive defenders, there is no getting around the data.

While veteran diplomat Johnnie Carson was installed as assistant secretary of state for African affairs within four months of Obama’s first inauguration, an ambassador to the African Union was not on post until nine months after the president’s swearing in and, until just nine months ago, there was no permanent assistant administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) for Africa. The U.S. Strategy toward Africa was not released until June of last year. As for the president himself, he has not set foot on African soil since his brief visits to Egypt and Ghana during his first year in office–and the latter a stopover lasting less than twenty-four hours.

Of course, the administration has scored some noteworthy successes, not least of which was helping see the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) to its fulfillment in the largely peaceful referendum and subsequent secession of South Sudan–although the continuing conflict between Africa’s newest independent state and the country it left behind remains a challenge the administration must tackle in its second term alongside the overall lack of economic development and general governance capacity in Juba. Likewise, the defeat of Somalia’s al-Shabaab as a military force, the improved security in and around Mogadishu, and the installation of a new parliament, president, and prime minister represent relatively big advances, even if the progress is still far from consolidated.

With this rather modest record of accomplishments, rendered all the more so when set next to the activist Africa agendas of Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, some Africa watchers have set fairly low expectations for the U.S. policy during the next four years of the Obama presidency, citing in addition the political gridlock in Washington that show little sign of abating. Such pessimism might well be justified, but it need not be dispositive. In fact, there are indications that a modest, but not insignificant, pivot toward Africa may well be in the offing.

Ironically enough, one reason for the optimism is precisely the current dysfunctional state of America’s divided government. Within Washington’s insular foreign policy community, the tiny Africa constituency has long been known for bipartisan comity–it could hardly be otherwise given how Africa has long been the stepchild of U.S. foreign policy–and has largely retained this pragmatic ethos, an achievement reflected in the broad continuity of policy through administrations of both parties. Moreover, even if specific measures will still have to be negotiated, current issues of concern on the continent lend themselves broad agreement between Democrats and Republicans–an important attribute given that polls indicate most Americans are increasingly frustrated with the inability of their elected leaders to get even the most routine business conducted.

Given the growth and spread across Africa of militant Islamist groups in general, and the French intervention in Mali against and the subsequent siege of the Algerian gas plant by security Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in particular, (both of which invited comparisons to an Afghanistan-like entanglement,) security may be the most immediate item on the administration’s agenda for Africa as President Obama begins his second term. Yet the U.S. Africa Command (USAFRICOM), the umbrella military structure responsible for implementing whatever military operations are eventually deemed necessary, whether training and equipping African forces or taking direct action against terrorist leaders and groups, has never been properly resourced, having been launched in 2006, a time when America was already deeply involved in two difficult wars.

Irrespective of what comes out of the upcoming debates over the federal debt ceiling and the Pentagon budget, Congress and the administration will have every incentive to strike a side deal that ensures that AFRICOM will be able to carry out the tasks assigned to it–including the strengthening of African capacities as well as conflict prevention and management so as to avoid the one course of action for which there is virtually no appetite for in Washington, direct American involvement in combat operations on the continent.

As important as security is and will probably remain for the next four years, the real focus of U.S. policy towards Africa will likely be trade and investment and involve strong public-private partnerships, with an emphasis on the latter. Part of the reason is simple arithmetic: given the parlous state of the American government’s accounts and the historical indifference, if not more than occasional outright antipathy, of the country’s electorate to all but the most modest foreign assistance programs, there is little expectation of initiatives requiring spending on any scale. Add to this calculus the recognition that there can be no fixing the sluggish American economy without bolstering trade and, in this respect, Africa, home of six of the world’s fastest growing economies over the last decade, beckons with its growing middle class and markets which have been delivering double-digit annual returns.

One engine that has driven increased US trade with Africa has been the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), enacted under the Clinton administration and expanded and extended under Bush. AGOA will be up for renewal during President Obama’s second term and while Congress does not need to take up the matter until 2015, an early extension would allow businesses a great deal more certainty with which to develop their plans. The legislation, however, focuses primarily on trade in goods; there is need to also encourage investments which would also strengthen America’s position vis-à-vis China, which in 2009 surpassed the United States as Africa’s biggest trading partner, and other countries which have expanded their presence in the service and manufacturing sectors of African economies.