Would Barack Obama be good for Africa?

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

If Barack Obama is elected President of the United States, becoming the world's most powerful leader, what difference would it make to America's engagement with Africa? Will the son of a Kenyan do things differently from his predecessors, and will Africa benefit?

At the very least, an Obama presidency could give the U.S. an opportunity to regain the world’s trust. A new face to American power could help salvage the country’s tarnished image. This would depend on decisive action to resolve the protracted war in Iraq – a costly quagmire that has claimed over 4,000 American lives and those of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians.

It will not be an easy task. Obama’s critics argue that he is naïve and that reconciling the deep rifts in Iraq will require much more than he appreciates. Nonetheless, a change of tack in the Middle East is likely to redefine how the rest of the world, including Africa, perceives and engages with the U.S.

Apart from improving confidence in the moral authority of the United States as a global leader, the election of Obama could see the country take a stronger stance on the conflict in the Darfur region – an African security issue that Obama’s young support base takes seriously.

On a rhetorical level, Senator Obama has said all the right things about resolving the crisis – including calling for a well-equipped peacekeeping force for the region. He has also played a leading role, with fellow Democratic Senator Harry Reid, in securing U.S. $20 million for the African Union’s Darfur force.

The influence of Obama’s top advisor on Africa, Susan Rice, is expected to push an Obama administration into squeezing Sudan’s leadership and pressurising the global community to bring a speedy resolution to the conflict. Dr. Rice feels strongly about Darfur, has reportedly hinted at U.S. military intervention in the region and could be critical in developing a more muscular U.S. engagement in the issue.

Nonetheless, whether a President Obama will engage with Africa where it really matters is doubtful. For Africa, it is critical that he articulates a clear position on trade with the continent. This is an area to which he has not given explicit attention.

African countries would be eager for a concrete U.S. commitment to do away with the subsidisation of American farmers. The controversial U.S. agricultural subsidies (along with similar policies in Europe and elsewhere) deny African farmers the opportunity to enter the U.S. market freely and sell their goods on a level playing field. Furthermore, American farmers, buoyed by state subsidies, can market their produce at artificially low prices and flood developing markets with cheap produce.

Whether Obama would be able to reverse this is questionable. Support for cotton subsidies among U.S. lawmakers remains strong – they recently passed a farm bill worth U.S. $290 billion that will maintain subsidies to domestic farmers, a move that is likely to cost African and other cotton farmers U.S. $3 billion in potential revenue each year.

A President Obama would also likely focus on domestic policy. Running on a Democratic Party ticket demands that he deliver on issues close to the hearts and minds of his support base. This will likely result in a left-leaning budget with greater spending to ensure affordable healthcare, provide more citizens with access to education and ensure higher minimum wages and the protection of domestic jobs.

But would Republican candidate John McCain be a more engaged U.S. President on Africa? Maybe. McCain has called for the international community to engage with Africa’s leaders on the root cause of most of the continent’s most pressing problems – poor governance. He has called for what he calls a “League of Democracies” to promote democratic governance and he has made somewhat fuzzy calls for the U.S. to “strongly engage” with African governments to promote transparent government and “the rule of law”.

McCain’s philosophy, if developed into a set of concrete goals to support African efforts to promote transparent government such as the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM), could penetrate better the roots of what ails African countries, and redefine U.S. engagement in a more meaningful manner.

Nevertheless, the prospect of Barack Obama in office is tantalising. But it would be a disappointing non-event for Africa if he failed to grab the opportunity to tackle issues that matter to the whole developing world: trade and partnering African governments to improve governance on the continent being foremost among them.