One year after President Barack Obama’s historic election, pundits have begun assessing every aspect of his presidency. Even though Africa policy has not been at the public forefront of Obama foreign policy, there have been assessments of how this Administration has conducted its Africa business, and the results are mixed.
The President’s supporters give him generally high marks on Africa, although some issues do arise even among their ranks. Foremost is the Administration's intransigence on helping Zimbabwe’s Government of National Unity. Last March, the Administration extended legislation prohibiting the World Bank and International Monetary Fund from providing loans, loan guarantees and lines of credit to Zimbabwe’s government. This restriction was placed on a brutal Zimbabwe government by the Bush Administration, which also pushed the ruling and opposition parties into the Government of National Unity to end turmoil in the aftermath of a disputed election in 2008. Some see the current Administration as being intransigent in failing to support a government the United States helped to create.
The Administration gave Zimbabwe Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai tough love when he came to Washington last year, which is consistent with President Obama’s theme of urging African governments to be more accountable. The Administration tied the loosening of restrictions on aid to Zimbabwe to repeal of repressive laws and other reforms that had not been done. In his well reported Ghana speech last July, Obama said Africa’s future is up to Africans. “Development depends on good governance,” he said. “That is the ingredient which has been missing in far too many places, for far too long. That’s the change that can unlock Africa’s potential.”
This position is behind the Administration’s tough stance on corruption in Kenya and its effort to shift the burden for funding and management of HIV-AIDS programming under the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) to African governments. Unfortunately, Senegal, generally a positive example in Africa, is spoiling the Administration’s record in this regard. After signing a Millennium Challenge Account compact for US$545 million, Senegal’s government is engaging in predatory behavior against foreign investors and questionable administrative tactics to pave the way for President Abdoulaye Wade’s son, Karim, to succeed his father in office. The Administration thus far has taken no action to put a hold on any MCA funds due to questionable Senegalese policies.
Human Rights Watch said Obama “has brought a marked improvement in presidential rhetoric on human rights compared with his predecessor.” According to Human Rights Watch, Obama, unlike President George W. Bush, has pledged to accept the results of free and fair elections – no matter who wins. Bush, the organization said, stopped affirming that pledge once Hamas won elections in the Palestinian territories and the Muslim Brotherhood did better than expected in Egyptian elections.
The human rights agency also said Obama has avoided the error of the Clinton Administration, which lionized “new African leaders” such as Paul Kagame of Rwanda and Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia, who have become more authoritarian. In contrast to his Democratic predecessor, Obama said in Ghana that Africa does not need strong men.
Africa columnist J. Peter Pham, who spoke for Senator John McCain on Africa policy during the 2008 campaign, gives President Obama a mixed assessment, but overall is rather positive about the Obama Africa policy, especially praising his foreign policy team, especially Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson.
Pham said the President needs to do three things to be successful on Africa policy: 1) continually manage expectations to avoid resentment, 2) work with Republicans on Africa policy and 3) acknowledge the limits on U.S. policy. The first will be difficult to do retroactively since rampant expectations are already out there. The second is more the province of Congress than the White House. The third is already done at least to some extent.
I believe there are two dynamics controlling Obama’s Africa policy. One is his determination to use his status as a “son of Africa” to push for accountability in a way no white President could do. Second is the double bind of not wanting to be seen as the “Africa president” and the limitation on his ability to put Africa policy above all the other foreign policy dynamics he faces. This last point was seen as Obama failed to bring focus on Sudan during his discussion with Chinese leadership last year. America had much more pressing matters to talk with China about than Sudan or other Africa issues in those meetings.
Given the global economic downturn, terrorism, climate change and other matters, President Obama has a full international policy agenda, and his framework for Africa policy depends on African governments accepting the challenge of greater accountability and good governance. So I would give the President an incomplete grade at this point with the possibility of at least limited success on an ambitious, but justified agenda.