November 4th, 2008, marked a great milestone in American history and the history of people of African descent. For the first time in the history of mankind, a junior senator of African heritage got elected to the office of the President of the United States of America. It was a moment of jubilation and thrill…the euphoria was felt around the world. Millions wept out of happiness and for witnessing the unimagined prospect of an African-American president in a once the most racist nation on earth.
That great ecstasy was deeply felt in Africa more than any other place outside the United States. A young senator, whom many in Africa referred to as a native son, won the highest trophy ever imaginable. From the streets of Kogelo – Obama’s ancestral village, to the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa and anywhere in between, the jubilation was rampant.
Just like the triumph, expectations for a favorable American policy towards Africa were high in the air. Even African dictators, ironically the very people who have denied freedom to Africans and condemned them to a miserable life by failing to tackle or exacerbating the issues of corruption, mismanagement, environmental degradation, mal-governance, abuse of power, conflict, poverty and what not, praised Obama’s historic victory one after another. The worst of African dictators jumped on the bandwagon glorifying and praising Obama’s victory as historic and momentous. Here are few such praises from African leaders:
Mr. Moi Kibaki, President of Kenya described Obama´s victory as a “momentous occasion for Kenya…it is our own victory because of his roots here in Kenya… as a country, we are full of pride for his success…your victory is not only an inspiration to millions of people all over the world, but it has special resonance with us here in Kenya.”
Nigerian President Oumaru Yar´Adua…”the election of Barack Obama … has finally broken the greatest barrier of prejudice in human history. I believe for us in Nigeria, we have a lesson to draw from this historic event…that the election of Obama had “created a totally and completely new era.”
Denis Sassou Nguesso described Obama´s victory as a “…moving historic moment…we see how visionaries like Martin Luther King saw coming events. His dream has come true.”
Chad’s National Assembly Leader; Nasser Guelindoksia agreed that Obama´s victory “…is an example to follow, especially by Africans as Americans show that democracy knows no color, religion or origin.”
Somalia’s former President of the Transitional Somali Government, Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed defined Obama´s victory as “…a great moment for America and for Africa…I am hopeful that he (President Obama) will help end the major crisis in the world, particularly the endless conflict in my country.”
Sudanese President Omer Hassan Al-Beshir noted “…we would hope that the slogan of President Obama – change – would be reflected in the foreign policy of the United States…we would like to see some real change between Sudan and the United States.”
South African President Kgalema Motlanthe expressed “…your election…carries with it hopes for millions of your country men and women as much as it is for millions of people of … African descent.”
Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe wrote “…as the government and people of Zimbabwe join you in celebrating this event in the history of the U.S.A, I take this opportunity to assure you Mr. President-elect that the Government of the Republic of Zimbabwe remains ready to engage your government in any desirable endeavor to improve our bilateral relations”.
During his rigorous campaign season, Obama vowed to change American policy towards Africa. Among other things, Obama called on “Ethiopia and Eritrea to walk back from the brink of war which seemed unavoidable at the time…called for an increased pressure on Robert Mugabe to follow through with power-sharing agreement…promised to end the genocide in Darfur… pledged to formulate a new approach to the deteriorating situation in Somalia…strengthen Africom to promote peace, security, and stability on the continent.”
Obama raised the bar even higher in his inaugural speech when he declared “to those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist…to all those watching tonight (January 20, 2009) from beyond our shores, from parliaments and palaces …huddled around radios in the forgotten corners of our world – our stories are singular, but our destiny is shared, and a new dawn of American leadership is at hand…those who seek peace and security – we support you.”
Today, after 100 full days in office, Obama got an A or B on most of the things he has accomplished so far and for keeping most of his campaign promises. In his own words Obama acknowledged that he is “pleased with what has been accomplished so far, but we have got a lot of work to do”. Most commentators/journalists based their grading on wide range of issues but notably on the economy, transition into power, hiring scrambles, Afghanistan and Pakistan, Environment, Women Rights, Health care, Transparency and Accountability, Bipartisanship, the Closure of Guantanamo Prison and etc.
I wanted to look at what Obama folks have accomplished the African policy conundrum in their first hundred days in office. Practically, nothing. I am not aware of any major campaigns by the African Diaspora or African interest groups with the exception of Save Darfur Coalition that had an agenda for the President in an effort to hit the ground running. Rather a whole host of expectations that the Obama people would be favorable in their approach towards African issues; Hunger, Poverty, HIV, corruption, democracy, regional Peace and Stability etc that are not addressed. There is no doubt that the financial meltdown and the many challenges Obama has inherited from his predecessor has overshadowed his African and other policy initiatives [IV]. But it seems to me that the no-drama Obama team could have done a lot better if they moved “swiftly and quickly” as they have promised us – the enthusiastic supporters.
The visit of Senator John Kerry to Sudan and U.S. Rep. Donald Payne – chairman of the Africa subcommittee on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, to Mogadishu and the dramatic saga of Somali Pirates were among the few major African news makers involving the current U.S Administration.
John Kerry’s visit to Khartoum pushed the Sudanese government to agree to allow some of the expelled humanitarian and aid agencies back to Darfur. The piracy incident was hailed by many as Obama’s first national security test that he proficiently passed. There were also reports that the Obama administration is rethinking its Somalia strategy and Defense Secretary Robert Gates went as far as stating “…the ultimate solution for piracy is on land… there is no purely military solution to it…” and the instability and lawlessness in Somalia is key to the problem.
Whereas the insurgents fired mortar at Representative Payne’s plane, there was little coverage of the purpose and result of the visit. But the congressman stated that “…the policy of constructive engagement [is] where you deal with the government, and let them deal with their internal problem” is essential to curbing piracy off the Somali coast. He added “…the Somali government doesn’t want Americans to come run any nation-building programs…they want technical assistance… they need financial support, and they’ll take care of it for themselves.”
Very few journalists/pundits considered African Policy in their grade report/card. Bruce A. Dixon for the Black Agenda Report, one of the few people I have seen grading the President on African policy, gave him one out of five [vii]. I do not know if there are major initiatives in the works for Obama’s African policy. I sincerely hope so. But based on the selection of Ambassador Jonny Carson, a career diplomat noted for a track record of working in Africa, as Assistant Secretary State for African Affairs, I give the President a passing grade with an optimism that the administration will soon move “swiftly” to act on some of the pressing African issues and fulfill Obama’s campaign promises. It should also be noted here that Obama has followed through with his campaign promise to double overseas USAID which will be valuable in achieving the so called “Millennium Development Goals”. Of course only if African leaders can use it for intended, and most of the time unintended, purposes [viii].
American foreign policy on Africa usually focused disproportionately on short-term stability by embracing dictators. The Bush administration went even farther by subordinating the promotion of human rights, democracy and the rule of law to terrorism concerns, a practice very much reminiscent of cold-war tactics, and thereby alienated the vast majority of freedom seeking Africans. In a recent article Jason McLure of the Newsweek detailed how cunning and enterprising African leaders like Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia used US concerns about terrorism not only to silence his domestic political opposition but also wage a costly war on another already battered and failed African state, Somalia, with huge humanitarian, financial and political cost. After 100 days in office Obama did not even indicate if he would make a departure from this approach that failed both Africans and Americans or continue with it with a slight twist by default.
In short, it remains to be seen if the Obama Administration’s policies will match the rhetoric, the great expectations and the universal goodwill that the President enjoys! Africans of all walks of life are looking up to him to deliver them from repression, war, poverty and HIV/Aids.
Ultimately it is up to Africans not Obama, to fix Africa’s mess. But a just, foresighted and generous hand of a powerful President of the powerful country won’t hurt.