From The Economist
Barack Obama said all the right things about Africa—and left a few ticklish ones unsaid. The tone may shift a bit but the policy will be similar to George Bush’s
“DEVELOPMENT depends on good governance.” Said by a white Texan dynast in Ghana, an African country once ravaged by the slave trade, that unexceptionable insight might sound a shade patronising. Said by a son of Africa whose election to the world’s most powerful post thrilled the continent, it was taken at its respectable face value. “We must start from the simple premise that Africa’s future is up to Africans.” In other words, throwing aid at bad governments—and Barack Obama made plain that there were still far too many of them—will not work. The president’s candour was well received.
In truth, Mr Obama’s Africa policy is unlikely to differ much from his predecessor’s, which was viewed favourably by Africans in general and by most pundits of African development. There was little in the speech that could not have been said by George Bush, who poured a cascade of cash—far more than any of his forerunners—into such projects as the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and into his Millennium Challenge Accounts, whose largesse was partly meant to reward good governance.
Mr Obama acknowledged Mr Bush’s “strong efforts”. But he puzzled analysts by declaring that his own administration had “committed $63 billion to meet these challenges”. It was unclear whether that sum included projects under way or was new money and, either way, what it was for and over what period it would be spent.
In several passages he stressed that bad governments, especially corrupt or repressive ones, could not expect his help. “I have directed my administration to give greater attention to corruption in our human-rights reports,” he said. He also assailed tribalism, which had, he said, “for a long stretch derailed” his own Kenyan father’s career. And he singled out several miscreants for blaming their self-inflicted woes on others. “The West is not responsible for the destruction of the Zimbabwean economy over the last decade,” he declared.
The choice of Ghana for his first African visit as president was pointed. Citing its recent success both in economics and democracy, he praised “strong parliaments; honest police forces; independent judges [applause]; an independent press; a vibrant private sector; a civil society.” And he lauded “leaders who accept defeat graciously”, as they did recently in Ghana, a rare event in Africa. “Africa doesn’t need strong men; it needs strong institutions.”
Mr Obama’s speech was equally notable for what it omitted. Some delicate but pressing issues were mentioned only cursorily. In keeping with his pronouncements elsewhere in the world, he avoided the phrase “war on terror” and skated over America’s growing need for African oil: about a quarter of what America requires will soon come from Africa, mainly Nigeria and Angola. He did not mention Nigeria’s crisis of security and production in its oil-rich Delta region; this week, rebels for the first time attacked Nigeria’s commercial capital, Lagos, killing eight guards and setting oil facilities ablaze.
In fact, though Mr Obama did not wish to dwell on security, his biggest headaches in Africa, as for Mr Bush, do still relate to armed conflict. His worst problem is Somalia, where his closest advisers upbraided Mr Bush for worsening matters by arming Somali warlords who claimed to be fighting militant Islam. More recently, however, Mr Obama won a waiver from the UN to send arms to Somalia’s beleaguered government, which is threatened by jihadists (“terrorists”, he bluntly called them) with links to al-Qaeda. He is unlikely to let his warships or aircraft bomb jihadist strongholds in Somalia for fear of enraging the civilian population. But equally he is plainly loth to let that failed state slide further into the domain of al-Qaeda.
Rather vaguely, he welcomed “steps being taken by organisations like the Africa Union…to better resolve conflicts.” The AU, he preferred not to say, is patently failing to bolster Somalia’s government. Several of Mr Obama’s closest advisers on Africa are known to be disgusted by the AU’s refusal to isolate—let alone encourage the arrest of—Omar al-Bashir, Sudan’s leader, who has been indicted on charges of war criminality. “When there’s a genocide in Darfur,” said Mr Obama, “these aren’t simply African problems.” “We will stand behind efforts to hold war criminals accountable,” he said, without naming names. He failed to deplore the AU’s reluctance to co-operate with the International Criminal Court at The Hague, where Mr Obama hopes Mr Bashir will be sent.
Mr Obama’s administration may not yet have determined its policy towards Sudan. Several of his team, notably Susan Rice, his ambassador to the UN, and Samantha Power at the National Security Council, have in the past urged more robust action to deter Mr Bashir over Darfur. But Mr Obama’s new envoy to the conflict zone, Scott Gration, is seeking diplomatic engagement. It was under Mr Bush’s watch that a separate peace accord was hatched between the Sudanese government and a rebel movement in the south that may be offered the option of secession following a referendum promised for 2011. Mr Obama may well be called on to help sort out that mess if conflict breaks out again, as many fear, within the next year or so.
Another awkward area for him is Kenya, the land of his own forebears. Along with the Nigerians and the South Africans, who may get a visit by Mr Obama during next year’s football World Cup, the Kenyans were sad to have been passed over. (His secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, is due to visit next month for a big trade meeting.) Mr Obama barely mentioned Kenya in a favourable light. For sure, he is aware that the current president, Mwai Kibaki, is widely thought to have stolen the presidential election a year-and-a-half ago from Raila Odinga, now prime minister in a floundering power-sharing government, who happens to hail from the same ethnic group as Mr Obama’s father. Yet the country has long been an American ally in security matters in the region. Mr Obama’s moment to try sorting out Kenya’s many problems may come. But not yet.
The deeper truth is that Africa is not high on the American president’s agenda. His Ghana speech was sensible and stirring. But in the end his message was that African-American relations would see no grand change.
Source: The Economist