Published 06 Nov 08
by J. Peter Pham, Ph.D.
World Defense Review columnist
Africa in an Obama Administration
Senator Barack Obama's election as the forty-fourth President of the United States is, of course, a historic milestone in America. But it is also a major moment in African history as well. The president-elect's unique personal history means that he is the first son of Africa in the diaspora to be entrusted with the leadership of any major power, much less the chief magistry of what is still the world's political, military, economic, and cultural superpower. As I traveled in Africa over the course of the past year, the excitement of many Africans at the mere prospect of an Obama presidency was palpable. The spontaneous celebrations that broke out as word of the Democratic candidate's victory spread across many parts of the continent, including in Kenya, the president-elect's father was born on the shores of Lake Victoria and raised in the nearby village of Nyang'oma Kogelo in Nyanza Province, attest to the incredible emotional investment which many Africans have made in the contest and the attention with which they have followed its vicissitudes. What remains to be determined, however, is what role Africa will actually play in the foreign policy of President Obama and what approaches he might adopt in with respect to the continent.
As an Africanist who has used this column space for more than two years to make the case for Africa's strategic significance to the United States, I was always convinced that the continent would have an increasing prominence irrespective of who succeeded George W. Bush. And while I had the honor of serving as the Africa advisor on Senator John McCain's foreign policy and national security team during the campaign, I believe that, for reasons of national interests and domestic politics as well as his own personal history, the incoming commander-in-chief can likewise be expected not only to continue but to enhance America's already extensive engagement with Africa.
At a panel discussion on the future of U.S.-African security and defense relations hosted by the American Enterprise Institute last month, I argued that there are three potential challenges to key American interests in Africa which will need to be faced in the near-to-intermediate term:
The first is, in the context of the ongoing global war on terrorism, the necessity of preventing of Africa's poorly governed spaces being exploited to provide facilitating environments, recruits, and eventual targets for Islamist terrorists. As the 2002 National Security Strategy of the United States of America noted, "Weak states ... can pose as great a danger to our national interests as strong states. Poverty does not make poor people into terrorists and murderers. Yet poverty, weak institutions, and corruption can make weak states vulnerable to terrorist networks and drug cartels within their borders." With the possible exception of the Greater Middle East, nowhere did this analysis truer than Africa where, as the document went on to acknowledge, regional conflicts arising from a variety of causes, including poor governance, external aggression, competing claims, internal revolt, and ethnic and religious tensions all "lead to the same ends: failed states, humanitarian disasters, and ungoverned areas that can become safe havens for terrorists." The attacks by al-Qaeda on the U.S. embassies in Dar es Salaam Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya, in 1998, and on an Israeli-owned hotel in Mombasa, Kenya, and, simultaneously, on an Israeli commercial airliner in 2002 only underscore the deadly reality of the terrorist threat in Africa, as have the "rebranding" and increased activism and violence of the Algerian Islamist terrorist organization Salafist Group for Call and Combat (usually known by its French acronym GSPC) as "Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb" (AQIM) and the ongoing activities of al-Qaeda-linked Islamists in the territory of the former Somali Democratic Republic as well as the challenge of Somali piracy, which events like the September 25 heist of a Ukrainian-owned, Belizean-registered freighter, the MV Faina, which was carrying thirty-three refurbished Russian-made T-72 tanks and other armaments, have served to highlight (see the updated report this week by the Voice of America's André de Nesnera).
The second is protecting access to hydrocarbons and other strategic resources which Africa has in abundance and promoting the integration of African nations into the global economy. In his 2006 State of the Union address, President Bush called for the United States to "replace more than 75 percent of our oil imports from the Middle East by 2025" and to "make our dependence on Middle Eastern oil a thing of the past." In 2007, according to data from the U.S. Department of Energy's Energy Information Administration, African countries accounted for more of America's petroleum imports than the states of the Persian Gulf region: 969,722,000 barrels (19.8 percent) versus 791,928,000 barrels (16.1 percent). Moreover, most of the petroleum from the Gulf of Guinea off the coast of West Africa is light or "sweet" crude, which is preferred by U.S. refiners because it is largely free of sulfur. While production fluctuates, the significance of Africa for America's energy security cannot be underestimated. And it goes without saying that U.S. planners have not been oblivious to the fact that other countries, including China, India, Japan, and Russia have been attracted by the African continent's natural wealth and recently increased their own engagements there. Although we should avoid the path of confrontation – and, indeed, seek cooperation in areas where our interests complement, both our mutual benefit and that of Africans – we need to also be vigilant that there are no monopolies or preferential treatment. Africa must have an "open door" to the world.
The third, which arises out of both the calculus of national interest as well as the inherent moral strain in American foreign policy, is empowering Africans and other partners to cope with the myriad humanitarian challenges, both man-made and natural, which afflict the continent with seeming disproportion – not just the devastating toll which conflict, poverty, and disease, especially HIV/AIDS, exact on Africans, but the depredations of the continent's remaining rogue regimes. The United Nations Development Programme's Human Development Report 2007/2008 determined that all twenty-two of the countries found to have "low development" were African states. While the National Strategy for Combating Terrorism argued that terrorist organizations have little in common with the poor and destitute, it also acknowledged that terrorists can exploit these socio-economic conditions to their advantage. Under this heading the complex humanitarian emergencies of which Africa has perhaps more than its share. The ongoing campaign of ethnic cleansing in the western Sudanese region of Darfur – whether or not one calls it a "genocide," as both President Bush and the U.S. Congress did – has already taken a toll of at least 250,000 victims and more than two million displaced; a hybrid United Nations-African Union peacekeeping force (UNAMID) is both undermanned and lacking in basic resources. In the same country, the fragile peace that has existed between the regime in Khartoum and the government of South Sudan since the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) brokered with the help of the United States shows signs of unraveling as the deadlines for both the 2009 nationwide elections and the 2011 referendum on South Sudanese self-determination rapidly approach (see my July 15 update on Sudan). Somalia, with the exception of the self-declared "Republic of Somaliland" in the northwest, remains without an effective government for over a decade and a half as a growing Islamist and clan insurgency threatens not only the current interim authorities (and their Ethiopian backers), but the stability of the entire Horn of Africa as waves of hundreds of thousands of civilians flee the conflict and more than half of the remaining 6 million face what might be the greatest humanitarian catastrophe in the region since the 1984-1985 Ethiopian famine. And while the intensity of the conflict is lower, Zimbabwe, once the bread basket of Southern Africa, continues to present a major humanitarian challenge as well as an uncertain future with the refusal of the Robert Mugabe regime to implement the power-sharing agreement it signed with the Movement for Democratic Change and its continual use of violence against its political opponents.
These relatively fixed considerations of the national interest, I would argue, virtually guaranteed that either a McCain or an Obama administration would have built on the foundations laid by its Bush predecessor whose numerous initiatives – including the Millennium Challenge Corporation, the President's Emergency Program for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), the extensions and expansions of the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), and the establishment of the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), which became fully operational as a unified combatant command last month – have cumulatively result in the United States being more engaged with Africa than at any other period in American history (see my survey of the incumbent administration's Africa policy). Over the course of the campaign, I had the opportunity on a number of occasions to speak alongside and debate Dr. Witney W. Schneidman, the co-chair of Senator Obama's Africa advisory group. At forum sponsored by the Constituency for Africa at the National Press Club in Washington last month, we both had the opportunity to present the Africa vision of our respective principals (see Dr. Schneidman's "Africa: Obama's Three Objectives for the Continent" as well as my "Africa: McCain's Vision for Freedom, Peace, and Prosperity"). While some pundits on the right have already begun to express reservations about the priorities which might be embraced by the incoming administration, at least with respect to Africa policy, I have little to quarrel with the three fundamental objectives outlined by Dr. Schneidman on behalf Barack Obama: "to accelerate Africa's integration into the global economy...to enhance the peace and security of African states...to strengthen relationships with those governments, institutions and civil society organizations committed to deepening democracy, accountability and reducing poverty in Africa."
Dr. Schneidman, who served as deputy assistant secretary of state for Africa affairs in the Clinton administration, was also quite balanced in his assessment to President Bush's accomplishments:
But let's give credit where it is due. PEPFAR, with 1.7 million people in Africa on anti-retrovirals, has been an extremely important initiative, as has the Bush administration's program to eradicate malaria and address neglected tropical diseases. It is often said that this administration's legacy in Africa will revolve around these programs and the tripling in development assistance from $2 billion in 2000 to $6 billion today – and rightly so. Nevertheless, the picture is incomplete if we stop there. The reality is that the bulk of this increase is due to increased spending on HIV/AIDS, humanitarian assistance and debt relief. In fact, development assistance to the poorest countries in Africa has decreased by half in this time frame. Ironically, the percentage of development going to the best-governed countries has dropped even more, by two-thirds, in this period. The Millennium Challenge Account may change this latter trend, given the $3.7 billion in commitments to ten countries in sub-Saharan Africa.
As Gregory Simpkins, vice president for policy and program development at the Leon H. Sullivan Foundation and a former professional staff member of the Africa subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives, pointed out in an allAfrica.com op-ed last month, there has been remarkable continuity in recent U.S. policy toward Africa, with succeeding administrations building on their predecessor's legacies. I anticipate that that bipartisan tradition will continue, as my hitherto counterpart has acknowledged it needs to:
What all of us who are engaged in Africa have in common is a willingness to put partisanship aside when it comes to advocating for resources for Africa. There is no question that this bipartisan consensus, especially in Congress, needs to be nurtured, deepened and expanded. The consensus was first forged in 2000, when the Clinton administration advocated for the African Growth and Opportunity Act. It was enhanced during the Bush administration, which extended AGOA three times, created the Millennium Challenge Account and, of course, the $15 billion PEPFAR program. This bipartisan consensus was evident several months ago when the Bush administration asked Congress to double to $30 million the amount that the U.S would spend on AIDS relief. In a stirring act of American compassion, Congress funded the program at $48 billion with another $2 million being allocated for programs in the U.S.
I would suggest that that bipartisanship will be more needed in the coming months than ever. Achieving U.S. strategic interests in Africa and advancing the just causes like ending the genocide in Darfur, assuring the full implementation of the CPA between the Khartoum regime and the South Sudanese, and resolving the conflict in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo are not Democratic or Republican causes, but American priorities on which both presidential candidates largely converged, even if they differed on emphases (see the responses by both to a comprehensive questionnaire submitted by the Enough Action Fund, the Save Darfur Coalition, and the Genocide Intervention Network). However, given the recent financial panics and the overall climate of uncertainty with respect to the economy, mustering the political wherewithal to pursue these consensus goals – to say nothing of President-elect Obama's ambitious Africa agenda, including the doubling of America's foreign assistance budget to $50 billion per year – will require that Africa's advocates on both sides of the political aisle work together. And, given the large areas where Democratic and Republican positions on Africa have overlapped, the incoming administration might find that Africa policy might be one are where it can most easily achieve an early success in the drive for "bipartisan unity on foreign policy" that the Obama-Biden campaign has promised to deliver.
Just one possible avenue for bipartisan cooperation is ensuring that the new Africa Command receives the resources it needs to adequately assume the responsibilities which have been entrusted to it, including fighting the global war on terror's African front and managing the military relationships America must maintain with African countries in order to assist in the building up of their own security and other governance capabilities. Another is accelerating Africa's integration into the global economy. As Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and DeBeers Chairman Nicky Oppenheimer argued in an International Herald Tribune op-ed two months ago, "Aid is good, business is better." While advocating free trade is a sensitive issue with some elements in the Democratic coalition, the Obama administration should nonetheless not only seek to open up additional trade opportunities for African economies under a strengthened AGOA framework, but it should work to mobilize the private sector to invest in Africa, creating new opportunities not only for American business, but also for Africans to achieve their own dreams. After all, worldwide it is private enterprise, especially small-to-medium firms, which delivers the sustainable economic growth which so many Africans and their friends seek to jump-start. Republicans, whose 2008 national platform strongly advocated this position, should not hesitate to support President Obama in expanding trade with Africa. The new administration also needs to call for an intensified effort by African governments to eliminate unnecessary barriers, uncertainties, and other disincentives that continue to discourage both African and foreign private investors from doing business in Africa. The U.S.-Rwanda bilateral investment treaty, signed earlier this year by President Bush and President Paul Kagame, is one of only a handful of such accords that America has with a Sub-Saharan African nation (the others currently in force are those with Cameroon, the Republic of Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mozambique, and Senegal) and ought to be a model which the incoming administration should try to replicate across the continent.
One additional task that the new administration might undertake is to develop a comprehensive national strategy for U.S. engagement in Africa. It's a step that I advocated for during the campaign, not for political points, but because I am convinced it is genuinely required as a tool of statecraft. As needed and welcome as the acknowledgment of select American stakes in Africa and consequent new programming, institutional design, and personnel deployments – all undertakings which have gotten underway during the eight years of President Bush's tenure – were, these steps by themselves do not equal what is really required: a high-level national dialogue aimed at building a policy consensus, captured perhaps in a document, which articulates American strategic interests in Africa (especially, obviously, those interests which coincide with the needs and wants of our partners on the continent), prioritizes them, defines the vehicles for achieving these objectives, and allocates the relevant responsibilities. During the campaign, Senator Obama and his running mate, Senator Joseph Biden, pledged to convene a bipartisan consultative group of leading members of Congress – including the chairs and ranking members of the Armed Services, Foreign Relations, Intelligence, and Appropriations Committees – to foster better executive-legislative relations and review foreign policy priorities. A similar consultative effort, perhaps modeled on a study body like the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, ought to be set in motion to consider America's Africa strategy.
Alongside developing a more comprehensive strategic approach to Africa, the new administration needs to think about better coordination of the various governmental stakeholders. While AFRICOM and other institutions of U.S. government has made tremendous strides towards achieving greater cooperation between themselves on the continent, the reality is that National Security Council process which is supposed to coordinate the action of the interagency community does little than provide opportunities for dialogue and information sharing without the ability to actually prioritize and ensure the resources are forthcoming from individual departments to actually implement agreed-upon national policies.
Of course, America's Africa policy needs to be a two-way street. Many Africans I have spoken with over the course of the last eighteen months or so were not only highly enthused by the Obama candidacy, but have very high – I would even say unreasonable – expectations of what he would do for the continent once he is ensconced in the Oval Office. The new president and his team will need to be very careful in their management of these expectations. A more realistic list of what African leaders would want from the next administration was ticked off by Jean Ping, the chairperson of the African Union (AU) Commission, in a speech he gave in Washington last month:
Firstly, it is our hope that a new U.S. administration will remain engaged with Africa as it has been over the last few years. This engagement is illustrated by the establishment of a U.S. mission dedicated to the African Union Commission separate from the U.S. mission to Ethiopia. Thus far, the U.S. is the only country with such a mission in Addis Ababa and the granting of diplomatic status to the African Union mission in Washington is also unique. Consequently, it is our hope that strengthening Africa-U.S. Partnership, underpinned by carefully balanced strategic approach to U.S.-Africa relations will continue to be maintained.
Secondly, encouraging more regular high-level interactions and dialogue both on the continent and in the U.S. for first-hand knowledge of African needs and realities as well as U.S. expectations, will also be very helpful. This will ensure that the U.S. is able to act on Africa on the basis of facts and Africa's real needs.
Thirdly, strengthening institutional working relations between both the executive and the legislative branches and the African Union Commission as well as working relations with the newly established African Union mission in Washington will be well appreciated.
Fourthly, it will be our hope that the U.S. will play a leadership role in ensuring that global commitments that are so crucial for Africa's development are duly implemented through the G-8 and other global fora.
Fifthly, encouraging targeted support to the implementation of existing African Union initiatives and programs will be, we hope, a major focus of the new administration.
All five of these are modest enough requests and one would expect that President Obama would get bipartisan backing for Washington's enhanced support of the AU and subregional bodies for especially for such African-led undertakings which truly strengthen legitimate and accountable governance on the continent, such as the African Peer Review Mechanism and the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD), which promise so much, even if they have yet to be proven.
While there are strategic and political reasons which will drive it, there is no denying that the Africa policy of an Obama administration will be given added momentum by the incoming president's personal story. What Senator McCain said in his extraordinarily moving election night concession speech about Barack Obama "inspiring the hopes of so many millions of Americans who had once wrongly believed that they had little at stake or little influence in the election of an American president" and his recognition of "the special significance [the historic election] has for African-Americans and for the special pride that must be theirs" could be easily be extended to include Africans, both on the continent and in the diaspora. The excitement sweeping across Africa now presents the new U.S. chief executive with a rare opportunity to translate effusive sentiments of good will into a windfall of diplomatic capital which, if he husbands it prudently, can significantly advance America's values and interests on the continent while helping to achieve Africans' aspirations for peace, stability, and development.
— J. Peter Pham is Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. He is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C., as well as Vice President of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA). In addition to the study of terrorism and political violence, his research interests lie at the intersection of international relations, international law, political theory, and ethics, with particular concentrations on the implications for United States foreign policy and African states as well as religion and global politics.
Dr. Pham is the author of over two hundred essays and reviews on a wide variety of subjects in scholarly and opinion journals on both sides of the Atlantic and the author, editor, or translator of over a dozen books. Among his recent publications are Liberia: Portrait of a Failed State (Reed Press, 2004), which has been critically acclaimed by Foreign Affairs, Worldview, Wilson Quarterly, American Foreign Policy Interests, and other scholarly publications, and Child Soldiers, Adult Interests: The Global Dimensions of the Sierra Leonean Tragedy (Nova Science Publishers, 2005).
In addition to serving on the boards of several international and national think tanks and journals, Dr. Pham has testified before the U.S. Congress and conducted briefings or consulted for both Congressional and Executive agencies. He is also a frequent contributor to National Review Online's military blog, The Tank.
© 2008 J. Peter Pham
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