Obama's Africa express

US president must invest some political capital in the region

Barack Obama arrives in Ghana on Friday night for a two-day sojourn that marks the first visit to sub-Saharan Africa by the United States’s first black president.

This follows a brief stopover in Egypt last month. Obama is due to deliver a major address to the Ghanaian Parliament on development and democracy on Saturday and will visit the Cape Coast Castle—a major slave post with suffocating dungeons from which human cargo was transported to Europe and the Americas.

The symbolism of the first African-American president at the site of a tragic and sordid historical monument to a trade in which an estimated 20-million Africans perished will be particularly poignant. This could, however, also revive feelings within sections of the US’s black community that Obama is not a “real” African-American, since his ancestors—his father—came by aeroplane from Kenya to study in the US and not on a slave ship from Africa.

After this trip Obama will have made two presidential visits to Africa, both of which resemble refuelling stops on the way to or from more strategic destinations. His aides have, however, insisted that the Ghana trip is linked to the Group of Eight summit that the president attended in Italy this week at which issues of critical importance to Africa—food security, climate change, world trade and the global financial crisis—were discussed. The idea is to use Ghana—which has held five multiparty elections between 1992 and 2008—as a role model of democratic governance and civil society in promoting development in Africa.

The choice of Ghana is also not disinterested: the country is about to become an important oil exporter. About two-thirds of US trade with Africa has historically been with oil-rich Nigeria, Angola and Gabon.

In understanding the symbolism of Obama’s African diplomatic safari it is essential to revisit his African heritage. His elegant 1995 memoir, Dreams from My Father, describes a painful quest for identity and a vulnerability triggered by the death of a Kenyan father (in a car crash in 1982) who left his family when Barack was only two years old. Obama met his father only once when he was 10.

He idolised his father (a goat-herder as a boy) and they both studied at Harvard University. But Barack’s father died in penury, an alcoholic and abusive character who failed to fulfil either his personal ambitions or his family responsibilities.

Obama was therefore determined to correct these flaws. Becoming president of the US was born out of a determination to fulfil personal ambitions that his father had failed to do. The love and attention that the US president devotes to his two daughters, Malia and Sasha, appear to be a conscious attempt to make up for his own lack of paternal affection.

During his visit of self-discovery to Kenya as a 26-year-old, described in his memoir, Obama meets his large extended family; he is exposed to the corruption and ethnic tensions of Kenyan politics; he rides in matatus (rickety taxis); he goes on safari and discovers the beauty of the historical site of the biblical Garden of Eden; he makes connections between black Americans in Chicago ghettoes and Kenyans in dirt-poor Nairobi shanty towns; and he is appalled by the continuing pernicious socioeconomic impact of British colonialism on Kenya.

In a final moving scene in his ancestral rural hometown Barack breaks down and cries next to his father’s grave. (Obama also visited Kenya, South Africa and Darfuri refugees in Chad as a US senator in 2006.) None of the previous 43 American presidents of European ancestry could have recounted such an experience, which is what makes Obama’s ascent to the White House so phenomenal and of such great interest to Africa.

But, despite his obvious identification with Africa symbolised by his visit to Ghana, Obama has other pressing policy priorities, which will undoubtedly take precedence over the continent. These include reviving the US’s economy and securing a viable healthcare plan; ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; making peace in the Middle East; repairing relations with European allies; fighting nuclear non-proliferation in North Korea and Iran; and engaging an increasingly wealthy China and erratically assertive Russia.

There is still no powerful, cohesive domestic constituency on Africa in the US that can wield the influence of the Israel lobby, even though the Jewish-American population is much smaller than African-Americans, who account for 12% of the country’s population.

Israel receives $3-billion of US aid a year, whereas Egypt obtains $2-billion a year to remain friends with Israel. Forty-eight sub-Saharan African countries, including some of the poorest in the world, share less than $1-billion annually—the clearest sign of the political nature of American aid.

In contrast to policy towards Israel US policy towards Africa is not based on consistent congressional support and often involves seeking ad hoc coalitions in support of specific policies. The Congressional Black Caucus has only one senator out of 100 and 43 out of 435 members in the US House of Representatives.

It is thus important that pro-Africa lobbyists work closely with progressive legislators and Washington-based interest groups to influence Obama’s policies towards Africa as they successfully did in sanctioning apartheid South Africa in the Eighties. The tens of thousands of highly educated Africans in the US must also be mobilised to build a viable constituency for Africa.

Obama must support more strongly the role of United Nations peacekeeping in Africa, as well as the strengthening of African regional organisations. Washington should play a greater role in annulling Africa’s $290-billion debt. The US must also eliminate its deleterious agricultural subsidies to its farmers ($108-billion in 2005) and allow free access to its markets for Africa’s agricultural products. This must be done not just out of some altruistic feeling of charity, but to take advantage of the potential of trade with an African market of nearly one billion consumers.

It is these issues in which Obama must invest some political capital. Otherwise, these sporadic trips to Africa will become mere symbolic photo opportunities that feel the continent’s pain but yield no concrete benefits for the president’s ancestral homeland.

Dr Adekeye Adebajo is executive director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution, Cape Town

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