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.

some good news from Guinea

Abubakar  Diakite, the guy who almost assassinated Guinean dictator Moussa Camara, should be handsomely rewarded. Well, unless he was actually responsible for the massacre of more than 150 pro-civilian-rule opposition protesters last year in which case he should be tried for crimes against humanity and locked away for life. Either way his actions may have put Guinea on the path towards civilian rule. Capt. Camara has agreed to “voluntary exile” (yeah right) in Burkina Faso. His henchmen (now led by his second in command) have also agreed to hand over power to civilians after a six-moth transition period. All active members of the armed forces are barred from running in the elections to be held in six months. This is a good start, although things may yet change.

In other news, the Senegalese President (Abdoulaye Wade) is not smart. Haitians do not need Senegalese land. Haitians need to get their act together in Haiti. He is like the bleeding hearts who are willing to help strangers in foreign lands while their own relatives starve. Senegal has an income per capita of $1600. Life expectancy stands at 59 years. The country also has the 40th worst infant mortality rate in the world. Mr. Wade’s nonsensical grandstanding is an embarrassment.

another african big man won’t leave

Mamadou Tandja, the president of Niger, yesterday announced that he will ignore a court order against a referendum on whether to extend his rule or not after his term expires later this year, adding that he will continue to rule by decree. Mr. Tandja has been in office since 1999 and is constitutionally barred from running for a third term. His second term ends later this year. The country’s parliament was dissolved in May. It is unclear whether parliamentary elections scheduled for August 2oth will be held.

Niger, a nation of 15 million, is one of the poorest countries in the world. Its per capita income is US $700 despite being a major uranium exporter. Most Nigeriens depend on subsistence agriculture for their livelihood in this mostly desert country. Ever shortening drought cycles, continued desertification in the Sahel and a rapid population growth have conspired to retard meaningful economic development.

It’s weird how things never change. We have heard this story countless times in many an African country. President Tandja belongs to the crazy bunch running the Continent who see themselves as irreplaceable demiurges entitled to rule for life. What amount of hubris would make a scarcely educated 71 year old man think that there is no one else in a country of 15 million that can fill his shoes? And given the dismal state of Niger’s economy it can’t be that hard to outdoor Mr. Tandja. He should simply go home.

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.

giving a voice to the voiceless

The New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof has a piece on the plight of women in rural Africa. The story is as heartwrenching as it is evocative. Nearly one in ten women die during childbirth in rural Africa. Getting pregnant is almost a death sentence for these women. Poor nutrition, poverty (which forces pregnant women to engage in hard labor that further endanger their lives) and regressive cultural practices – like genital mutilation – make childbearing a most dangerous activity.

A while back I wrote a piece on this same issue with figures from IRIN. I am glad and encouraged that Kristof is shining an infinitely bigger spotlight on this issue. The world needs to know more about the voiceless poor in rural Africa and the rest of the Global South who are condemned to live short and brutish lives dictated by their dire economic situations and formidable structural factors (poor governance, gender bias, dependency etc etc) that forever condemn them to live like it is still 20,000 BC.

As Kristof notes in his piece, it does not take much to make a difference. Four dollars can save a woman’s life. But such measures should be seen as band aid. The real cure for the healthcare mess that persists in rural Africa is education of women (and men). Statistics have proven again and again that educated women have fewer, healthier children. Education also serves to delay the onset of childbearing, therefore avoding the dangers associated with teenage motherhood.

The right to life is the most sacred human right. The poor women of the Global South deserve better than they are getting from both their governments and the international community at large.

new Guinea-Bissau president sworn in

Raimundo Pereira, former speaker of Guinea-Bissau, has been sworn in as the new president of the West African nation. As speaker, Mr. Pereira was next in line to succeed the president, who was assassinated on Monday by suspected agents of the military. President Vieira was assassinated only hours after the army chief of staff, his political rival, was also killed by a bomb in his office.

The new president urged the international community not to forget Guinea Bissau. The impoverished nation of 1.5 million has seen slow recovery from a disastrous civil war in the late 1990s. With a per capita GDP of $ 213 ($ 600, PPP) it still has a long way to go. It is heavily dependent on farming and fishing, with cashews being the major crop. One can only hope that the new president will offer some change. I doubt this though. After the circumstances of former president Vieira’s death, it is obvious that president Pereira will be beholden to the generals in the military, at least  until elections are held in 60 days – if they ever get held.

Guinea-Bissau president killed

Joao Bernado Vieira, President of Guinea-Bissau, was shot dead today as he tried to flee his house. Earlier in the day the army chief of staff, Gen. Tagme na Waie, was killed by in explosion in his office at the army HQ. It is suspected that it is Tagme loyalists that killed the president. The two – the president and his chief of staff – had recently seen a deterioration in their relations. The Guinean (Bissau) army however claims that this is not a coup. It remains unclear whether the civilian government or the army is in charge right now.
The African Union has condemned both killings, stating that the latest turn of events is a setback to the peace building initiative in the poverty-stricken West African country (per capita nominal GDP is at a mere $213). Vieira himself came to power in a coup in 1980. He won the country’s first multiparty elections in 1994 before being ousted in a coup in 1999 and then being re-elected in 2005. In 1986 he executed his own vice president after a coup attempt.
This is the third coup in West Africa in the last one year. Mauritania and Guinea witnessed coups in August and December of last year respectively. It is a shame that in 2009 West African Generals still see coups as acceptable means of power transfer. The region has seen the most coups on the continent of Africa. Since 1955 there have been 49 successful military led coups among the 16 West African States. Unsuccessful plots approach 100. A lot of blame also goes to authoritarian governments in this region that have denied their citizens of any means of loyal opposition. To paraphrase that old saying, those that live by the gun eventually do die by the gun.

some unwelcome radicalism

I am not a radical, or at least I don’t think of myself as one. But after reading this story about pastoralists in Eastern Kenyan, a rather radical idea came to my mind. You see, ever since man began living a sedentary life, history has proven that it is the best way to live. It offers security, provides opportunity for the development of a strong government, enables easy provision of essential services like education, healthcare and social care, among others. There are a few exceptions to the rule. The Mongols were a nomadic bunch that terrorized the life out of sedentary city states. But they were the exception that proves the rule. Civilization and human society flourishes in a sedentary setting, period.

So knowing this, I wonder if it would be a bad idea to make it government policy that nomadic pastoralist communities (in East Africa, the Sahel and Southern Africa) be offered incentives to settle down. Not forced, but given the right incentives. They move around not because they love to, but in search of pasture and water. The government could dig wells and start grass farms for these communities. It sounds naive and outlandish but think of the difference such an initiative would make in two or three generations.

Now before you anthropologists come for my neck I challenge you to be honest with yourselves. Why do you believe that it is OK for the such communities to live the way they do, with their short life spans and limited options while the rest of humanity does infinitely better? And don’t tell me that they are happy with their lives. I doubt that they would be if they had the options that other people have. I hearken to Amartya Sen’s arguments here. We need to expand these communities’ options if we are going to develop a single united country. They are not samples of past human existence for our study and amusements. They are people who are ends in themselves.

This reminds me of a post that I have been working on forever (still coming) on the approach to development in Africa. The prevailing mentality is that the African is developed when he is not dying of aids, malaria, hunger, civil war and the like. The current development efforts all across the continent aim at keeping people alive and comfortable at a very low station in life. I think this should change. Sustainable developmetn in Africa will only be achieved through real transformation of African societies. China is doing it. India is doing it. Africa can, and will, do it.  I know that some will argue that we should stop the civil conflict, eradicate HIV prevalence and do all other kinds of things before we think of putting refrigerators in people’s homes and housing them in modern houses. I say this is a heap of horse manure. Botswana, although with a high HIV prevalence rate, is doing fine. And the civil wars are not everywhere. Somalia, Darfur and Eastern Congo, compared to the rest of the vast continent of Africa can qualify as “isolated incidents” (yes, I can push the envelope on this one).

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.

army takes over mauritanian government in a coup

Well, if you thought the era of coups was gone, think again. The Mauritanian army has ousted the country’s president, Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi, in a bloodless coup. The army has cited the president’s overtures to Islamic fundamentalists and his recent sacking of four of the country’s top military commanders as the reason for his ouster. The president has apparently been getting too close to Islamic fundamentalists and supposedly planned to build a mosque within the presidential compounds.

He and his wife have also been accused of corruption. Earlier in the year the president narrowly avoided a vote of no confidence in the nation’s parliament. The EU has threatened to withhold aid the Mauritanian if the president and his prime minister – both detained by the coup leaders – are not reinstated soon.

The leader of the coup, Gen. Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, has instituted a state council in place of the presidency. It is unclear how long he plans to rule the country.

Mauritania, a former French colony, is a vast country in West Africa with a population of 3.4 million. It is predominantly Arab and is a member of the Arab league. The country has large deposits of iron ore and in 2006 struck oil, making it one of Africa’s newest oil producers.