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.

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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.

mauritania, still fighting slavery

Mauritania remains the last outpost of the distasteful practice of slavery. Although the government abolished the practice in 1982, little was done to stop the country’s well to do, black and barber alike, from enslaving their own fellow citizens. According to the Open Society Justice Initiative, about 20% of the population- close to 500,000 people – have been enslaved over the last three decades.

This grim situation might soon change. There have been signs of progress in this desert country since its first ever democratic elections in March of 2007. The new government has shown its commitment to ending the vice by passing a much awaited legislation to criminalize slavery in August of this year. This was followed in November by an announcement by the finance minister of a 19 million euros plan for the reintegration of former slaves into the community. The money will be channeled towards poverty alleviation and empowerment of the rural poor who have bore the brunt of this most heinous violation of human rights.

Human rights groups are “very pleased,” with the development but at the same time one wonders why it took so long for the government of Mauritania or other regional organizations to take action and end this most abhorrent practice.