Obama in Africa: Take Two


Africa is occupying a larger space on the world stage. Security threats posed by new Islamic extremist groupings, the continent’s rapid GDP growth, and a bullish China blowing past the US in bilateral trade suggest that the continent will rise higher on the presidential agenda. 

Presidents Bush and Clinton took a special interest in Africa, and China’s new president, Xi Jinping, is clearly alert to Africa’s rise (he traveled there within weeks of assuming office). Obama is late to the party—he spent less than a day in Africa during his first term—but his departure tomorrow for Senegal, Tanzania, and South Africa is a signal that he is finally starting to think about his Africa legacy.

Obama’s interest in Africa is long overdue. The administration’s whitepaper on Africa policy is painfully insubstantial: it was released in June 2012 and was clearly geared more towards the campaign cycle than the substantive policy debate. A recent Obama meeting with leaders of four of Africa’s smallest and least typical nations (including Cape Verde, population 531,000) was a nice gesture, but was similarly irrelevant.

In reality, the administration hasn’t fared well in Africa. US engagement helped lead to the creation of the independent nation of South Sudan and a new federal government in Somalia — the two events Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson claimed as primary accomplishments prior to his 2013 exit — but both those entities seem increasingly unstable, embroiled in corruption and conflict. And on the downside, a host of Islamist extremist groups have sprung up on the continent under Obama’s watch—including Boko Haram in Nigeria, and a reinvigorated iteration of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in Mali and Niger. The escalating security threat from those groups—and from al Shabaab in Somalia—has prompted the Administration to prioritize counterterrorism objectives above all else, and certainly at the expense of democracy and humanitarian concerns. (Nowhere were the administration’s priorities more clearly illustrated than in Somalia, where Obama callously reduced food aid by 88 percent in the two years leading up to an imminent and excruciating  famine.)

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tried to fill in for the president in Africa, visiting twenty-three African nations on four separate trips, but her efforts — the promotion of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) as a functioning engine of US policy and the moderate expansion of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation’s (OPIC) and the Export-Import Bank’s (Ex-Im Bank) African portfolios, to name a few — failed to bolster declining US influence in the face of surging BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) investment in the continent.

To be fair, Obama probably hasn’t neglected Africa by choice. During his first term, the financial crisis focused resources domestically, and the Arab Spring, Iraq and Afghanistan, and the “Asia pivot” dominated foreign policy. And Obama’s Kenyan heritage proved to be a double-edged sword: expectations were set unrealistically high among Africans, even as his background became a political liability in the hands of the slanderous but tenacious “birther movement.”

Africa tends to be a second-term accomplishment for American presidents. Clinton botched interventions in Somalia and Rwanda during his first term, and only built a positive Africa legacy late in his second term after passing the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). Bush’s impressive humanitarian projects in Africa didn’t pick up steam until the middle of his second term, when funding for the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), the President’s Malaria Initiative (PMI), and the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) began to speed up. This historical record suggests that Obama may well gain his footing and approach Africa with renewed vigor in his second term.

But the political context probably makes any Africa focus unlikely.

In the first place, the United States cannot imitate the model of the successful BRIC countries in Africa, where it has far fewer incentives to take risks. Massive increases in domestic demand for energy and raw materials have led China, for example, to aggressively pursue bilateral agreements with African nations. And China’s admirable weathering of the financial crisis allowed Beijing to use its advantage as holder of the largest foreign exchange reserves in the world to direct its “Going Out” strategy, which aimed to increase China’s foreign investment in 2009, just as the rest of the world was turning inwards and tightening its belt. The US on the other hand is nearly energy independent, faces unrelenting political pressure for a tighter budget, and has little control over the actions of American firms. Market mechanisms that decrease barriers to trade with Africa are already in place, and further attempts to push business towards Africa are already becoming controversial, as demonstrated by the ‘Increasing American Jobs Through Greater Exports to Africa’ bill fizzling out in the US Senate in 2012. Passing a grand new initiative for Africa would require far more financial and political capital than Obama can spare. So an effort as energetic as President Bush’s evangelical humanitarianism or as economically impactful as AGOA probably isn’t in the cards.

However, there are still some low-cost economic policy options on the table. Bipartisan support for Clinton’s AGOA initiative means that its renewal in 2015 should be a cinch for Obama. He might try to accompany the renewal with the construction of new regional trade pacts to build integrated economic sectors, the expansion of Trade and Investment Framework Agreements (TIFAs), and proposals to consolidate private investment facilitation functions spread over multiple agencies. None of these efforts would be a hard sell to the Congress, or the public, and won’t cost much to implement, but they could help shift US policy in a more constructive direction, away from hard power and towards the use of economic development in support of peace and security.

Better diplomacy would also go a long way towards improving US-Africa relations in Obama’s second term.  The Administration sent mixed signals to Kenya during that country’s recent elections, and helped to galvanize public support for a candidate who had been indicted for crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court. (Arguably) little harm was done by Uhuru Kenyatta’s election, but it was the kind of unnecessary embarrassment that Obama will want to avoid as he begins to burnish his reputation in Africa. And reputation is important: if bold new policy initiatives for Africa are indeed off the table, Obama’s upcoming trip to the continent should be read as an exercise in building goodwill and controlling expectations.

The US will inevitably fall short of competing with the engineered strategic investments of BRIC countries, but Obama may yet prove at least competent in Africa, though probably not transformational.

Sam Fishman is a program assistant with the Michael S. Ansari Africa Center at the Atlantic Council.

Photo credit: White House.

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