Obama and Africa

Following a G8 meeting where leaders announced a $20 billion commitment to help alleviate hunger and improve food security in the developing world, and a short stop-over in the Vatican to exchange pleasantries with the Pope, Barack Obama traveled to Ghana for his first presidential trip to the African continent.

Obama’s visit generated a wave of enthusiasm across the region, and he was welcomed in Ghana by a huge government delegation, as well as throngs of electrified Ghanaians. Needless to say, the president’s choice of Ghana elicited feelings of national pride for its people and its government – as noted by Cadman Atta Mills, the Ghanaian president’s brother and chairman of the National Economic Advisory board, “Ghanaians have extremely high expectations for this visit. A lot of it is sentimental and personal.” Knowing Accra, I’m sure the vibe there must have been incredible.

In spite of the historical nature of the visit, the speech delivered by Obama didn’t represent any dramatic shifts in the American position toward Africa. Some critics were disappointed that it didn’t represent more of a “shakeup of U.S.-Africa policy”; others lamented that it did not address the tougher issues such as the protection of human rights or how to deal with the continuing tragedies in Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Still, l believe that Obama’s speech sent the crucial message-in no uncertain terms-that good governance is key to solving the continent’s chronic underdevelopment issues.

While this position does not represent a departure from previous administrations, who also touted democracy and good governance as fundamental elements of peace and prosperity, I think it’s important to take note of the concrete implications of Obama’s speech and visit.

Obama sends a powerful message by choosing Ghana over Kenya (his father’s homeland), Namibia, Botswana (both stable, democratic countries), South Africa (arguably the continent’s most successful nation), or, most significantly, Nigeria, Ghana’s resource-rich neighbor and the world’s fourth largest nation (and, by the way, also America’s biggest trading partner in sub-Saharan Africa; the U.S. imports about 20 percent of its oil from Nigeria…)

Obama explained that he chose Ghana, a nation of 23 million that has had two peaceful democratic transitions, to “highlight” its adherence to democratic principles and institutions, ensuring the kind of stability that brings prosperity. Nigeria, in contrast, is notorious for its entrenched corruption and chronic lack of effective governance – indeed, in spite of tremendous oil wealth, poverty rates are still alarmingly high (70% of the population fell under the poverty line in 2007.)

His words were quite stern:

“This isn’t just some abstract notion that we’re trying to impose on Africa […] The African continent is a place of extraordinary promise as well as challenges. We’re not going to be able to fulfill those promises unless we see better governance”

“No country is going to create wealth if its leaders exploit the economy to enrich themselves, or police can be bought off by drug traffickers […] No business wants to invest in a place where the government skims 20 percent off the top, or the head of the port authority is corrupt. No person wants to live in a society where the rule of law gives way to the rule of brutality and bribery. That is not democracy, that is tyranny, and now is the time for it to end.”

By “snubbing” Nigeria and pointing to Ghana as an example of good governance in the region, Obama is probably also hoping to signal to the Ghanaian government that he is expecting them not to mismanage the profits from the country’s new-found offshore oil. A well-timed message, as large oil deposits were recently discovered off the coast of Ghana, with production slated to come online in the next couple of years – and along with it, a steep increase in government revenues. There is reason to hope that the country will be stepping up to its responsibilities. Ghana’s energy minister,Joe Oteng-Adjei, recently declared: “We are committed to doing the right thing for investors and for the country … our concern is that we bring in a third party to deliver the synergies that we expect.”

Human Rights Watch recently released a grim report on Equatorial Guinea, reminding us that the “resource curse” is still very much a reality to contend with in Africa:

“Since oil was discovered there in the early 1990s, Equatorial Guinea’s GDP has increased more than 5,000 percent, and the country has become the fourth-largest oil producer in sub-Saharan Africa. At the same time, living standards for the country’s 500,000 people have not substantially improved. Here is a country where people should have the per capita wealth of Spain or Italy, but instead they live in poverty worse than in Afghanistan or Chad.”

Additionally, many countries in Africa face a common challenge of having to address the creation or strengthening of institutions that guarantee the rule of law and enforce respect for the constitutional rights of citizens. Ghana has done well on that front, especially relative to most other countries in the region, and it’s clear to all of Ghana’s neighbors (particularly Nigeria) that to win the favor of the U.S. and its charismatic president, a proactive stance on good governance is necessary.

In spite of Obama’s strong and meaningful message, I don’t think this is a watershed moment in the U.S.-Africa relationship. First off, for all the verbal commitments to being “a friend and a partner every step of the way,” let’s get real about what the current recession implies: a bit of turning inwards for rich countries who will again not deliver the necessary policy changes to really make a difference; the lowering of tariffs for African products; a complete overhaul of agricultural subsidies – these are among some of the critical areas for policy intervention. In this climate of fiscal constraint and tightening credit across the globe, access to finance is also a key issue for African development. Despite their significance for the continent, Obama failed to speak about the aforementioned issues.

Probably because he knows that in one brief (albeit historical) visit, and one speech, one can only deliver so much.

Bono’s assessment is that “presidential attention would be a shot in the arm for these [anti-corruption, rule of law improvement] efforts — an infusion of moral and political amino acids that, by the way, will make aid dollars go further.”

I’d like to believe that a one-day visit to West Africa and a speech before the Ghanaian parliament could truly galvanize country-level efforts in promoting effective democracy. But, at the risk of stretching Bill Easterly’s Man in Charge argument, I think we need to have a humbler understanding of what this speech means for America’s relationship with Africa. Efficiently dealing with issues as varied as corruption, nonexistent infrastructure, protracted conflicts or subpar education, will require significant – if not dramatic – shifts in policy and attitudes. While Bono seems to believe that Obama’s words inevitably produce change, African commentators are (surprisingly?) far more sober in their assessments. An editorial in the South African Daily News notes that “even the most devoted Obama fans are aware of the fact that the first black American president – whom they love to call a ‘son of Africa’ – cannot solve the continent’s many problems.”

I agree with David Rothkopf, who discusses the natural limitations of presidential influence and power: “It’s time recognize that it really does take a big team of empowered leaders to make the complex foreign policy of the U.S. work and evolve in the right directions. It’s time to recognize that it does not reflect badly on the president if we all agree he cannot transform the world single handedly, that however different he may be from his predecessors, that alone is not enough.”

One thought on “Obama and Africa

  1. Wow, what a great post! You've demonstrated significant insight into his speech and it's implications, and I have to say I completely agree with you.

    You're right in that his speech did not represent a substantial shift in US-Africa relations, which is what I was concerned about. Moreover as you alluded to Obama did not mention human rights concerns in other countries, like Uganda/DRC/CAR, and chose to focus on more well-known topics. There was not too much about what the US is going to in the future, as well. There was no significant shift.

    But, I think you're also right in highlighting the importance of choosing Ghana over some other countries, and especially bringing the spotlight to a country that is often not highlighted in international news.

    Great post and insights!!

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