What Obama’s re-election means for US Africa Policy

On the 14th of June this year President Obama outlined his policy for Sub-Saharan Africa. Included in the policy statement were four key strategic objectives: (1) strengthen democratic institutions; (2) spur economic growth, trade, and investment; (3) advance peace and security; and (4) promote opportunity and development.

In my view, of the four aspirational goals the one that will receive the most attention in the near future will be the third (especially security).

US strategic security interests in Africa mainly involve two key concerns: (1) China’s growing economic presence in the region and (2) the spread of Al-Qaeda linked groups in the region, stretching from Somalia to Mauritania (This is why Mali featured more prominently than the EU in the Presidential foreign policy debate). Before talking about China, here are my thoughts on the US campaign against  al-Qaeda in Africa.

While I don’t foresee any success in the creation of an African base for AFRICOM, the US will continue to cooperate with AU member states in fighting Islamist extremism in the region. The “successful” AU mission in Somalia could provide a blueprint for future operations against potential terror groups. The biggest lesson from Somalia is that the US cannot just pick one nation (in this case Ethiopia) to fight its wars in the region, and that a collaborative effort with the blessing of the regional umbrella organization (the AU) and others such as IGAD can deliver results.

Having helped (both directly and indirectly) in the ouster of Al-Shabaab from strategic locations in Somalia, the next big task will be dealing with the mushrooming Islamist extremism in the Sahel (especially in northern Mali but also in Niger and Nigeria).

The problem of extremism in the Sahel is further compounded by the link of some of the groups to the drug trade flowing from Latin America and into Europe. There is significant evidence that drug money has financed the activities of separatist groups in northern Mali. The fight against these groups will necessarily involve dealing with this crucial source of finance. This means that for the operation to succeed the US will have to engage in capacity building and the strengthening (and clean-up) of security institutions (especially the armies) in states like Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, South Africa, Kenya, among others, in which officials in the security sector have been implicated in the drug trade.

The Sahelian challenge might yet prove more formidable than Somalia. The latter case had relatively stable neighbors that served to contain the anarchy. The Sahel (Sahelistan, if you will) is much larger and includes some of the least governed spaces on the planet.

On China, the US (and for that matter, the rest of the West) has to change its present approach of total freak-out overt suspicion over Chinese involvement in Africa. Africans need protection from China only as much as they need protection from the West. China is not out to “exploit” Africa any more than the West has. Nobody should expect China to engage Africa more benevolently than the West did for the better part of the last 60 years (Mobutu and Bokassa were not that different from Bashir and Mugabe).

A constructive approach ought to include policies designed to strengthen African states so that they can engage China on their own terms. It is ultimately African leaders who mortgage their resources and sovereignty to China (or the West). Instead of focusing too much on China, a better approach might be one that creates strong regional organizations (like the SADC or the EAC) that can improve the bargaining power of African states.

The other policy objectives outlined by Obama appear to fall in the business-as-usual category. Democracy promotion will not yield much in the face of other more pressing priorities (notice how security has triumphed over democracy in Mali). And unless the US is willing to get involved in massive infrastructure projects like China has (last time I checked they were in 35 African states), I don’t see how it can help spur economic growth in the region (AGOA was great, but Africa needs something better). Plus the US continues to be hampered in its development-promotion efforts by its aversion to state industrial policy. It’s about time Foggy Bottom realized that it is really hard to have a thriving private sector and American-style free enterprise in places with bad roads, very few (and bad) schools, and governments that are run by personalist dictators. In these instances some corruption-laden developmental state policies may be the best way to go.

obama is coming to Africa

US President Barack Obama is scheduled to visit Accra, Ghana in July of this year. Mr. Obama will hold talks with his Ghanaian host Mr. Atta Mills, the President of Ghana. Accompanying Mr. Obama will be his wife Michelle. This will be the Obama’s first trip to Sub-Saharan Africa since Barack Obama, the son of a Kenyan, was elected president of the United States.

It is my hope that besides the expected fanfare that will greet the Obama’s in Accra there will be a sober discussion of the problems afflicting millions of Sub-Saharan Africans – from poverty, to aids, to conflicts to poor governance. I hope that the US president will be as candid as is diplomatically permissible in telling African leaders to style up and realize that the region will continue to remain the global backwater if they do not stop their kleptocratic ways.

I also hope that the president will talk frankly about US commitment to improving living conditions in Africa by allowing for more free trade between the Continent and America (and please do something about the farm subsidies that are killing Global South farmers, Mr. President). President Obama will also most certainly continue former president Bush’s generosity to Africa in tackling AIDS, TB and Malaria through PEPFAR – although minus Mr. Bush’s crazy (religious??) objection to the use of contraceptives in the fight against HIV/AIDS.

I dare say in advance, Akwaba Mr. and Mrs. Obama.

Kudos to Ghana

The Ghanaian electoral commission announced Saturday that the opposition candidate John Atta-Mills had won the fiercely contested run-off election. After losing in the first round to incumbent candidate Nana-Akufo who did not get the 50% plus one vote required to win,  Atta-Mills came back to win by a mere 0.46% of the total votes cast in the run-off.

With the conclusion of this election Ghana has proven that it is indeed a constitutional democracy – at least according to political scientists. Twice it has exchanged power after elections without any chaos and this time round it was a tight election too. And it is the second time that an incumbent party lost an election and conceded defeat. It happened when Kufuor won his first term as Rawlings stepped down and it has happened again now that Kufuor is stepping down.

My hope now is that other countries in Africa will feel challenged to rise to Ghana’s level of sobriety (and beyond) when it comes to democratic politics. Ghana’s example of reasonably free and fair elections, contested by two stable major political parties contrasts sharply with the electoral processes of most other African nations. Kenya for instance sees the birth of a major political party (a coalition of greedy politicians to say the truth) every time there is a general election. We saw it with FORD in 1992, NARC in 2002 and PNU in 2007.

Back to Ghana, congratulations on this wonderful show and best wishes to Atta-Mills as he begins his work to develop the land of the Osagyefo.

ghana does Africa proud, again

It was the idealism of the founding fathers of the Gold Coast, now Ghana, that brought to reality the idea that African nations would one day become independent and be able to govern themselves. “Seek ye first the Kingdom of political independence,” Said the Osagyefo. Although in between things got bloody messy – with Nkrumah’s failed presidency and the ensuing chaos that lasted until Rawlings brought some semblance of calm and then handed over to the largely successful Kufuor – Ghana has re-emerged to be one of the few countries in Africa with  a functional pluralist liberal democracy.

With the elections over this past weekend, it seems likely that the incumbent party’s Akufo-Addo will win with more than 50% to obviate the need for a run-off. Regardless of the outcome, Ghana’s election was impressive, coming after the madness that marked the Nigerian, Kenyan and Zimbabwean elections. I am still not too happy with Ghana for its dismal performance on the modernizatin front. But I am happy that I am watching news which show that an African country held peaceful and fair elections and that there is no specter of violence and chaos as the country awaits the final results.

I hope that with the scheduled production of oil in the next few months Ghana will embark on a serious development plan to make it not just an exporter of cocoa but an industrialised nation in its own right.

And may this be a lesson to crazies who run elections in places like Kenya, Nigeria and Zimbabwe.

ps: why are we being held hostage by Kivuitu and his gang? This is a group of men and women whose incompetence nearly plunged our country into civil war. If anything they deserve to be charged with gross negligence and slapped with heavy fines.