President Obama concluded weeks of travel not in Russia or Italy, but in Ghana. While there less than a day, he outlined four areas of partnership that begins, in his words, “from the simple premise that Africa’s future is up to Africans.”


This construction has become common to illustrate the limits external actors can play, allay concerns about neocolonialism, and inspire Africans. Yet, the challenges are significant. Governments in power do not necessarily want to reform, fight corruption, or improve institutional mechanisms that would weaken their hold on power. In spite of this, President Obama sees the starting point of partnership with “strong and sustainable democratic governments.” He told the Ghanian Parliament, “In the 21st century, capable, reliable, and transparent institutions are the key to success-strong parliaments; honest police forces; independent judges; an independent press; a vibrant private sector; a civil society. Those are the things that give life to democracy, because it is what matters most in people’s everyday lives.”

At the end of 2008, Freedom House characterized 18 out of 53 countries in Africa “not free” and 11 as “free.” While African countries benefited from post-conflict reforms in the early 2000s, there have been sufficient reversals of freedom to be concerned. According to Freedom House, “political manipulation of ethnic and regional tensions and political intolerance by many of the region’s leaders were clearly important contributing factors in a number of countries.” We saw this last year in Kenya, which was considered one of the most stable African countries.

The second opportunity the president emphasized was supporting development. In contrast to the Cold War where development meant large infrastructure projects, the United States now seeks many small projects to provide greater opportunities for more people. This approach is different from China’s that relies on building large public buildings as visible gift. However, history suggests that development is unlikely to occur when small businesses and the majority of the population are ignored. Micro-lending, facilitating investment, and lowering trade barriers in the United States and Europe will have the greatest impact. As we’ve learned, providing food assistance can have the short-term impact of famine relief, but can undermine sustainable agriculture and local economies. As development assistance increases, governments should understand the impact of the aid before it is dispersed.

The third area of cooperation is public health. With few exceptions, African states have higher child mortality rates, lower life expectancies, and poor water and air quality. As the world is learning from the H1N1 virus, a small boy in Mexico can be the start of a global pandemic. Disease knows no boundaries. To limit the scope of future pandemics, public health assistance is moving beyond HIV/AIDS and is addressing more common diseases of malaria and tuberculosis. This should also have a positive impact on development, which has been stymied by disease that impacts labor forces around the continent.

Finally, Obama addressed security in Africa. He sees it essential to partner through diplomacy, technical assistance and legal support. With the new US Africa Command up and running, it will be busy if it can develop sufficient partnerships with skeptical governments. As I wrote in the New Atlanticist last fall,

[AFRICOM commander General Kip] Ward has had to convince African leaders that U.S. goals for Africa are vastly different than those of  its former colonial masters. This is difficult because of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.  At the time, Nelson Mandela criticized the United States: “If there is a country that has committed unspeakable atrocities in the world, it is the United States of America. They don’t care.” When one of Africa’s heroes calls the United States dangerous, it generates obvious resistance.

Obama certainly draws on his family’s experience in Africa to underscore that “it’s easy to point fingers and pin the blame of these problems on others . . . . But the West is not responsible for the destruction of the Zimbabwean economy, over the last decade, or wars in which children are enlisted as combatants.” With this in mind, professionalizing militaries in Africa has been a major goal of the United States. Using military mentors, advisors and contractors to conduct the training in the host country, Africa Contingency Operations Training and Assistance (ACOTA) trains members of African militaries to be trainers and equips their militaries to conduct peace support operations and humanitarian relief. Since 2004, ACOTA has trained approximately 68,000 African soldiers and 3,500 African trainers from 21 African partner countries. US-trained and equipped forces are attempting to stabilize Darfur, Somalia, and Democratic Republic of Congo. Without this training and equipment, there would be even fewer options for international negotiators to bring peace to parts of Africa that lack adequate security.

While the number of available African peacekeepers has increased, current efforts are deficient and fall short of the goal of Africans providing for African security. Of the seven UN peacekeeping missions in Africa in 2009, only the hybrid UN-African Union mission in Darfur is composed of an African majority. Non-Africans primarily compose the other six UN operations. In addition to the short fall on UN missions, there are open billets on African Union peacekeeping missions too. In sum, there is a shortfall of at least 45,000 African peacekeepers necessary to meet the African Union objective of Africans providing for their own security. Given standard deployment cycles, the number can be multiplied by three to account for forces that are training to deploy, be deployed, and recover from deployment. This is substantial and requires significant amounts of new resources from the United States, Europe, maybe China and India. Without security, it is unlikely that the other goals of improving governance, advancing development, and improving living conditions in Africa will be successful.

Derek Reveron, an Atlantic Council contributing editor, is a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, RI.  These views are his own.