Obama visits Africa: the return of the prodigal son?

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When President Obama was elected in 2008, many people across had great hopes, including people in Africa, who saw the election of the first black president of the U.S. as a symbol. When Obama visited the continent shortly after his inauguration in 2009, the president and his wife were welcomed by ecstatic crowds. I personally experienced this when I travelled to Ghana in 2009. There were pictures of the U.S. president on the streets, his face had been painted on buses and walls, and many people I met spoke about him and their believe in change. For them, it was like a dream come true.

Fast-forward to 2013 and you get a different image. This week President Obama started his second visit to the African continent in four years. Even though thousands of people awaited him in Senegal, Tanzania and South Africa, the welcome was much cooler and, like in the US and Europe, Obama seems to have lost his star-power appeal. One of the main reasons for this is probably the president’s absence from the continent, both physically and politically. People in Africa feel neglected. Not only did Obama only spent less than a day on the African continent during his first terms but many analysts think that his predecessor President Bush for whom I have very little sympathy, was more involved in Africa than Obama. I personally did not think that Obama would have a “special” agenda for the African continent simply because he is African-American and of Kenyan origin. We are talking about politics here. However, Washington has realized that the U.S. is slowly falling behind and is now ready invest time and money.

But let’s start with the positive aspect of U.S. policy in Africa in terms of conflict and peace-building. When South Sudan became independent in 2011, the President recognized the new nation as a sovereign and independent state. One must acknowledge the efforts played by the Bush administration, which brokered the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, but Obama nonetheless exerted pressure and pushed for the referendum to take place despite poor preparation and manipulations by the Khartoum regime. Though the relationship between Sudan and South Sudan continues to look bleak today, the agreement and the South Sudan’s independence nonetheless put an end to the twenty-year long conflict.

Obama has also been tougher with Rwandan President Paul Kagame than his predecessors. President Clinton, ridden by “genocide-guilt”, and President Bush were not inclined to criticize his undemocratic tendencies and only saw the “economic miracle” that is Rwanda. This year, when a UN group of experts accused Rwanda of backing the M23 rebels in the DRC, the US suspended its military aid to Rwanda.

The Obama administration also tried to tackle the long-existing problem of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), which continues to operate in the Great Lakes Region. The LRA has been accused of committing widespread human rights violations, including murder, rape, and recruitment of child soldiers. In 2010, the Congress and President Obama passed a legislation called the “Lord’s Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act”, which led to the deployment of 100 American soldiers to serve in an advisory role to remove LRA leader Joseph Kony. The US also offers a $5m reward for information on the Ugandan warlord. While Kony is still at large and Ugandan army faces challenges, the legislation was nonetheless widely supported.

Finally, it should be noted that for this second Africa trip Obama has chosen countries that have a rather positive record in terms of human rights and democratic progress: Senegal, Tanzania, and South Africa. Last year, Senegal held violence-free elections (the political turnover was surprisingly peaceful as well), Tanzania has a lot of economic potential and is quickly developing, and South Africa, as the leading country in Sub-Saharan Africa, cannot be ignored despite continued problems there. Because America’s economic investment in Africa has been rather poor, it is looking at these three countries to have a stronger economic foothold on the continent.

Now to the negative aspects. The Obama administration has been too silent on several human rights issues. First in Sudan. Like many Western countries there is almost complete silence from Washington regarding human rights violations committed by the government in the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile region. This could very well be the next Darfur – if it isn’t already. While the international community concentrates on Syria (though with little success), there is little policy on Sudan and South Sudan. In March the White House invited Nafie Ali Nafie, the Advisor and Assistant of Al-Bashir, to the US and only suspended the visit when Khartoum decided to halt its cooperation with South Sudan, not because human rights violations are being committed in Sudanese regions. His visit would have violated President Obama’s Proclamation suspending entry into the U.S. to individuals who “planned, ordered, assisted, aided and abetted, committed or otherwise participated in, including through command responsibility, war crimes, crimes against humanity or other serious violations of human rights, or who attempted or conspired to do so.” Washington’s should not only be focused on South Sudan-Sudan relations but also on what is happening within Sudan’s borders. One must be careful not to repeat the failure to prevent genocide in Darfur when the international community focused on North-South peace accords, intentionally ignoring what was happening in Darfur.

The US also maintains strong ties with controversial authoritarian regimes, including in Uganda. President Yoweri Museveni has been increasingly tough on human rights activists, journalists and the opposition. Like his predecessors, the Obama administration has backed Ugandan institutions, including security services and the army, who are responsible for the crack down. Of course, this is a difficult situation since Washington provides aid to the military in order to get rid of the LRA. But it should be contingent on democracy-building, good governance and respect for human rights, especially freedom of speech. This a promise Obama made in Ghana in 2009. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that the U.S. would stand up for human rights “even when it might be easier or more profitable to look the other way, to keep the resources flowing. Not every partner makes that choice, but we do and we will.” Yet it was not always the case. 

The White House’s relationship with Kenya is a difficult one as well, as Obama himself explained. The US has strategic interests in Kenya, who has long been a strong ally. Kenya plays a key role in counterterrorism efforts, especially in the fight against Al-Shabab, an Islamist militant group linked to Al-Qaeda in Somalia. Despite fears of violence, the Kenyan elections were rather peaceful. But elected President Uhuru Kenyatta was indicted by the ICC for crimes against humanity after the 2007 election that caused the death of 1,300. Vice president William Ruto faces similar charges. The U.S. should perhaps have pushed for more accountability and justice in Kenya and Obama now faces a dilemma, especially since prior to the elections the US State Department made it somewhat clear Kenyatta’s elections would have consequences. Obama decision not to visit Kenya this time around sends, I think, a message to Kenyatta but considering the U.S.’ strategic interest in Kenya, I have little hope that his election will actually carry great consequences on the Nairobi-Washington relationship.

If the US is now trying to have more influence on the African, it is likely to do so economically in order to prevent China from making more inroads into the continent. But while China does not set any political conditions to its investments, the U.S. should do so. While in Johannesburg, While in South Africa, President Obama described Nelson Mandela “an inspiration to the world”, and praised his “moral courage” as well as South Africa’s transition to “a free and democratic nations.” The president should honour Mandela’s struggle by keep these principles alive.

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