US-Africa relations: The modest foundations of Obama’s four-pillar platform

Image: Flickr, Marc Nozell
Image: Flickr, Marc Nozell

US PRESIDENT Barack Obama is the methadone of the US’s international relations rapid rehab programme.

Driven by fear, intoxicated with the gluttony of hard power and addicted to military security solutions for the past eight years, Obama is now beginning to wean the world’s hyperpower off its toxic dependency. Indeed, Obama’s Africa policy speech delivered in Ghana at the weekend illustrated as much about the US’s own foreign policy renaissance as it did about its desired relationship with the continent of 54 countries and almost a billion people.

The most import policy departure contained in the speech was the replacement of the instrumentalist view of Africa, in which the continent was evaluated by the US in relation to its importance to and role in the “war on terror”, by one that sees the development of Africa as intrinsic to the security and development of the global community of nations. To wit, Africa is finally being recognised as key to the achievement of globally shared ideals such as food sufficiency, sustainable energy, human security and the management and mitigation of global warming.

The four pillars of the Obama administration’s new engagement with the continent are: the buttressing of democracy and good governance, smart development assistance, strengthening public health, and support for conflict reduction and resolution. It remains to be seen whether an integrated and coherent set of US Africa policies will emerge from and be properly funded by Washington following the speech.

Despite its felicitous rhetoric and riveting delivery, Obama’s four-pillars speech implicitly acknowledged a relatively modest set of expectations for relations between the US and Africa. Underlying the new approach is the sobering reality that the US economy is in the throes of an unparalleled financial, economic, industrial and debt crisis that, perforce, will limit the quantum and content of its African engagement. Moreover, Obama has inherited a dirty global war for which no textbook, or historical precedent, exists and in which America’s status as the military hyperpower is mocked by a tiny network of religious zealots that continues to tantalise, taunt and terrorise its armed forces, almost at will.

Despite these daunting strategic concerns, Obama’s Africa speech cannot be dismissed as a tactical manoeuvre in a bigger game of post- 9/11 global chess. Africa holds deep personal and political significance for the US president. Once dismissed by elements of the African- American political elite as being an unworthy presidential candidate due to his non-slave heritage, Obama is an authentic African-American of growing global stature, whose own political consciousness was awakened by meeting anti- apartheid activists at Harvard. Yet, the key to Obama’s electoral success last year was his embodiment of a new, hopeful, smart, post- racial vision for America. It is a vision that, judging by his pop-star-like reception in Ghana, holds riveting appeal for Africans too. He is at once American, African and global.

Despite his sincerity, Obama is facing a new African reality. The US’s influence on the African continent has diminished markedly since the invasion of Iraq. Preoccupied with fighting wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, a new configuration has unfolded across Africa in which the US is no longer first among equals. While the Bush administration was perfecting the art of losing friends and influence, China and the European Union have been filling African leaders’ dance cards.

For China, there is no “vision” for Africa, but rather a prescient and finely calibrated understanding of China’s domestic economic, demographic and political imperatives, complemented by a diplomatic modesty that inquires of African leaders (irrespective of political stripe) how China can assist them in achieving national goals. It is a successful formula. Obama’s four pillars of US-African engagement fail to match the programmatic coherence of the Forum for Africa-China Co- operation and fall lamentably short of trumping the comprehensive European Union-Africa strategic partnership. Moreover, regional powers such as Russia, India and Brazil have all launched new political, diplomatic, trade and investment sojourns into Africa.

For Africa, these are potentially welcome developments as, despite the global recession and for the first time since the Cold War, the continent is being increasingly courted with the promise of meaningful partnerships, less onerous financial packages, investment options and strategic choice. The challenge confronting the continent’s governments today is to negotiate the most favourable terms of investment, finance and trade that will assist in propelling African countries on to sustainable paths of growth and development.

Judiciously managed, this new courtship of Africa, including by the US, could translate into the forging of new alliances based on mutual self interest, rather than that of ideology, tradition and habit. For example, Ghana could increasingly strengthen links with China to deliver the infrastructure required to achieve its objective of becoming a middle-income country by 2020. This is entirely compatible with Ghana partnering with USAID to strengthen its domestic democratic institutions, while tapping into US funding and expertise to tackle the country’s debilitating health challenges. These linkages are consistent with Ghana contracting with Russia to improve the country’s threadbare energy sector, with Brazil to develop its mineral resources, and with India to strengthen its information technology capacity.

Yet the smartest element to Obama’s speech was the absence of the word terrorism. Even the much-maligned US Africa Command (Africom) earned a mere passing sentence of re-assurance to sceptical African leaders. This is particularly significant given the regional context in which Obama delivered his speech. West Africa and the Gulf of Guinea are difficult neighbourhoods and are likely to become more so as the scramble for natural resources and oil in particular intensifies. Unresolved civil conflict in Cô te d’Ivoire, ungovernability in the Niger Delta, insurgency in Niger, al-Qaeda abductions and murders in Mali, fundamentalist threats in Senegal, a coup in Mauritania and narcotrade in Guinea are just some of the ingredients of this toxic regional cornucopia.

Ghana is not immune to these regional threats and is facing the domestic challenge of managing the impact of commercial oil extraction in 2010, with all its attendant fiscal, currency, environmental and corruption challenges. That Obama chose to deliver his Africa speech in Accra was message enough that the US is fully cognisant of the contrast between Ghana’s consolidating democracy and the uncertain trajectory of its regional neighbours.

So to bring the discussion full circle, Osama (Bin Laden) or Obama — who shall overcome? It is far too soon to tell, but in the struggle for the supremacy of ideas and ideals, Obama’s Africa speech constitutes a swing in the direction of those who seek to join and strengthen coalitions of the virtuous.

14 Jul 2009