Opinion: Has Africa Benefited From First Black Man in White House?


Our writer Njonjo Kihuria delves into President Barack Obama’s Africa policy and argues that the chance for the leader of the free world to do something for the continent is now

President Barack Obama will not bring his ‘brothers’ in Kogelo ‘viatu vya America’ (shoes from America) and even the possibility of his visiting that remote town are next to zero. Obama is coming to Kenya as the leader of the free world and not as a half Kenyan who first came to the land of his father as an adult. Residents of the small village in Nyanza or Kenyans in general should not expect much from him in terms of personal goodies.

Despite the euphoria with which his presidency was received in the continent, Obama paid little, if any attention, to Africa in his first term in office. Like one writer put it, “President (Obama’s) inattention to the continent (Africa) is ironic for someone who has often wrongly been accused of being African rather than American”. Writing on ‘President Obama’s failed Africa policy’, American Lionel Beeher says when Obama comes to Kenya this week, he will not be able to point to any significant foreign policy successes on the continent, unlike his predecessor, George W. Bush, whose President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (Pepfar) “was broadly hailed”.

The administration of George Bush also supported the fight against malaria and apart from his fervently pro-democracy policy towards the continent, Bush supported trade, investment and development including the promotion of the Millennium Challenge Corporation and Africom. But Beeher, quoting one Yochi Dreazen, wrote in his recent article, “Africom, is just a command in name only; it has no troops, tanks or aircraft of its own”, due to budgetary shortfalls.

While Bush tried to push western style democracy down the throats of Africans and pegged his administration’s support to it, Obama was rather aloof to Africa in his first term and only visited Egypt and Ghana, despite the high expectations by the people of the continent. He has really done little for Africa in education, eradication of terrorism, food security or in solving conflicts in such regions as South Sudan, Egypt and Libya. “Our grand strategy resembles more a reactive whack-a-mole game rather than any kind of preventive approach to manage festering conflicts,” wrote Beeher.

According to a Brookings Institution document titled, ‘Foresight Africa: top priorities for the continent in 2015’, “It appears that the US security engagement in Africa lacks an overall strategy framework and as a result is made up of a series of loosely connected programmes and initiatives that are successful to varying degrees”.

The report recommends that the Obama administration do more to rationalise and enhance the US engagement in Africa’s security challenges in 2015 and review its strategic approach to responding to these challenges.

In 2012, Obama’s administration issued the US strategy towards sub-Sahara Africa, since then the American government has developed a series of initiatives, which could change the negative perception of Obama in Africa.

One of these initiatives is ‘Power Africa’, a public-private sector partnership meant to provide electricity to some of the many Africans living in darkness. Originally the programme enjoyed the support of 12 American agencies and the commitment of the US government to the tune of $7 billion (Sh700 billion) in direct loans and guarantee facilities. It was supposed to supply 20 million homes and businesses with electricity but last year, Obama tripled the target from 10,000 to 30,000 megawatts of electricity generation. This would increase the number of beneficiary households and businesses to 60 million.

Kenya was one of the original partner countries and while the jury on the success of the US programme is still out there, the country has embarked on an ambitious initiative to provide citizens with electricity by lowering the connection fees from Sh75,000 to Sh15,000 in the last two years.

Power Africa could however be to Obama what the African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa) trade programme was to President Bill Clinton and Pepfar was to Bush. Agoa introduced trade as a key stimulus for the economic development of Africa. Agoa provides duty free access to the US market for 6,400 products from 40 African countries. Earthier this month, President Obama signed the bill that extended the non-reciprocal trade preference programme for another 15 years. This makes trade and investment a secure priority in the US-Africa relations and enhances Obama’s credibility in Africa.

Given that the US has not signed Bilateral Investment Treaties (BITs) with its largest African trading partners including Kenya, South Africa, Nigeria and Angola, the US trade ties with the continent are in most cases dependent on Agoa.

Obama will also be credited for participating in the US-Africa business forums, one in Tanzania in July 2013 and the other in Washington in August last year.

Obama’s private sector driven ‘Feed the Future’ food security initiative provides leadership training for young Africans to assist African countries in the implementation of their national food security strategies. His Young African Leaders Initiative (Yali) has received $38 million (Sh3.8 billion) funding from the US Agency for International Development to build regional leadership centres in Kenya, Ghana, South Africa and Senegal, funds that will be matched by investments doubling that amount from American and African companies.

Although Obama will score some points for his response to the Ebola crisis, it will remain at pains to explain the nine months delay in responding to the crisis. Beeher argues that despite the noble intention of the US in intervening following the Ebola outbreak, it (America) left a number of health care facilities that were barely used which was a costly misallocation of resources.

To fully define his legacy in Africa, the Brookings report advises that, among other initiatives, Obama’s administration ensures the pending ‘Energize Africa Act’ is passed to guarantee continued funding of ‘Power Africa’ and its existence after Obama leaves office. The institution also calls on America to foster trilateral cooperation in specific areas among US, Chinese and African companies. “The president should convene an African Leaders Forum in Africa that would focus on the gains made by Power Africa, Feed the Future, Yali and hopefully renewed and strengthened Agoa.” He is also advised to make an address to the African Union, something that would be historical and have special resonance for millions of Africans. His defense secretary should also initiate ministerial dialogue with his African counterparts.


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