Friday, January 29, 2010

Obama Ignores Africa in the State of the Union

I had not intended to come back to the Obama Administration Africa policy so soon, having just discussed it four days ago (January 25). However, the lack of Africa in the President’s State of the Union address is getting increasing coverage and discussion – not for what he said, but rather what he didn’t say.

The only mention of Africa came in passing when Obama presented examples of how the U.S. government supports human rights worldwide. He mentioned briefly “why we advocate for the young man denied a job by corruption in Guinea.” That was it for Africa in the entire speech, which was, granted, focusing on domestic policy such as jobs, health care and education. Still, it seemed a bit strange to mention Guinea, a nation in which the coup leader who promised to return the country to democracy sparked demonstration by reneging on his promise not to run for office, presided over a massacre and mass rape of peaceful demonstrators, got shot by a former compatriot and now is in exile without mentioning any of these developments. That jobless young man has more to worry about than a job.

Then there is the political crisis in Nigeria in which President Umaru Yar’Adua has been out of the country and out of sight in Saudi Arabia because of urgent medical treatment. He apparently has been ill for much of his presidency. Former President Olusegun Obasanjo, who hand-picked Yar’Adua as his successor, was forced by ongoing criticism to deny that he know how sick Yar’Adua was before he took office and now has joined the chorus of prominent Nigerians calling on the president to resign. The legislature is in turmoil over how to force a satisfactory resolution to the constitutional crisis. Nigeria is, mind you, America’s leading African oil supplier.

There are a number of significant elections in store for Africa in this year – from Cote d’Ivoire to Madagascar, but no mention of these electoral events made it into the Obama speech the other day. Even if good news in foreign policy was the order of the day, there is the fiber optic wiring of East and Southern Africa, which provides a stepping stone for African countries into 21st century information technology. But no good or bad news on Africa was heard other than the passing reference to Guinea.

In some corners, the lack of mention of Sudan was particularly galling since a key election also is taking place there this year, and the peace process in Southern Sudan seems to be unraveling. The two previous Administrations and the last few sessions of Congress devoted a lot of time and energy to solving various Sudan crises – from the peace accord that ended the North-South conflict to the genocide in Darfur. To those who raised money for Darfuris, marched to draw attention to the plight of people in Sudan and devoted years to the effort to bring peace and democracy to all people in Sudan, the lack of attention to Darfur must be especially galling.

The President also didn’t mention the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) or economic development for Africa generally as his predecessors had done in just about every State of the Union speech dating back more than a decade. At one point, AGOA was the first major piece of trade legislation to pass Congress in years. AGOA is responsible for expanding U.S.-Africa trade and putting the commercial relationship between America and the nations of Africa ahead of the previous preoccupation with foreign aid.

Actually, one would think that given active military operations in an around Somalia (remember the pirates?), security engagement in Africa might get a mention. Keep in mind that we have young men from Minnesota who went to Somalia to join in the fighting on behalf of Islamic extremists. This is no small thing and deserves at least some acknowledgement.
Given his concentration on climate change, it would not have been out of order for President Obama to discuss how our nation, historically the largest emitter of carbon, would help Africa, which is most vulnerable to climate change. Each day in Africa, the deserts expand, the coastlines disappear and water becomes scarcer. Might that not rate a mention?

As I acknowledged in my previous blog post, President Obama has a lot of domestic and international issues on his agenda, and he wants the world to know he is not fixated on the home continent of his father. Nevertheless, Africa, like the jilted lover in the movie Fatal Attraction, will not be ignored. Those of us who work on Africa issues regularly would just appreciate hearing this President acknowledge Africa more as Presidents Clinton and Bush did so regularly. We promise not to pigeon-hole him into the role of “Africa’s President.” Really.

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