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Obama: the Great African Hope or the Great African Hype? (II)

By Farooq A. Kperogi Obama also has a history of publicly denouncing African leaders. "If the people cannot trust their government to d...

By Farooq A. Kperogi

Obama also has a history of publicly denouncing African leaders. "If the people cannot trust their government to do the job for which it exists – to protect them and promote their common welfare – then all else is lost,” he once said while speaking of the leadership crisis in Africa. “That is why the struggle [against] corruption is one of the great struggles of our time."

On another occasion, he was quoted to have said, "Ultimately, a new generation of Africans [has] to recognize [that] the international community, the international relief organizations or the United States can't help Africa if its own leaders are undermining the possibilities of progress."

He once backed up this tough rhetoric with concrete action. Early last year, Obama included an amendment to a bill that would provide up to $52 million in aid to the Congo. The amendment he made to the bill empowered then President Bush to withdraw the assistance if the Congo did not show evidence of having made significant progress toward democracy.

Many people expect more of this kind of “tough love” for Africa from an Obama presidency.

But there is also a record to show that Obama has taken practical steps to confront the continent’s problems within the limits of his powers and resources.

As a U.S. senator, for instance, he was the primary sponsor of the Global Poverty Act, a bill that would commit the United States to "the reduction of global poverty, the elimination of extreme global poverty, and the achievement of the United Nations Millennium Development Goal of reducing by one-half the proportion of people, between 1990 and 2015, who live on less than $1 per day."

Similarly, as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Obama fought to focus America's attention on the humanitarian tragedy in Darfur.

And, in 2006, Obama invested an initial $14,000 (about 2 million naira) from his personal funds into a “microcredit” program to help a group of Kenyan women age 50 and older who have adopted children suffering from AIDS and are making a success of it.

And, although he has blamed African leaders for the continent’s underdevelopment, he has also expressed sentiments that show some sensitivity to the insidious role neocolonialism continues play in Africa’s developmental retardation. “The days of external powers on their own deciding what is best for Africa,” he once said, “needs to come to an end, once and for all.”

Well, now he is head of the greatest of the “external powers” that have been “deciding what is best for Africa” for decades. In fact, a South African writer, Patrick Bond, has perceptively and persuasively argued recently that one of Obama's leading economic advisers, Paul Volcker, “has done more damage to Africa, its economies and its people than anyone I can think of in world history, including even Cecil John Rhodes.”

It will be interesting to see how Obama harmonizes his rhetoric of not allowing “external powers” to dictate Africa’s priorities with his deeds in the next four years.

Obama’s promises for Africa
Now, what did Obama promise to do for Africa as president of the United States? During the presidential election, the Obama campaign promised to pursue three fundamental programs for the continent.

The first is to accelerate “Africa’s integration into the global economy.” The second is to enhance the peace and security of African states. And the third is to strengthen relationships with governments, institutions and civil society organizations committed to deepening democracy, accountability and reducing poverty in Africa.

Elsewhere, Obama pledged to double US foreign assistance to $50 billion by 2012 and use it to support "failing states" and sustainable growth in Africa, roll back disease, and halve global poverty by 2015.

He also promised that as president his administration would “fully fund debt cancellation for Heavily Indebted Poor Countries in order to provide sustainable debt relief and invest at least $50 billion by 2013 for the global fight against HIV/AIDS, including our fair share of the Global Fund.”

Other promises include: ending the genocide in Darfur, and launching “the Global Energy and Environment Initiative to ensure African countries have access to low carbon energy technology and can profitably participate in the new global carbon market so as to ensure solid economic development even while the world dramatically reduces its greenhouse gas emissions.”

He also said his administration would strengthen the Clinton-era African Growth and Opportunity Act to ensure that African producers can access the U.S. market and will encourage more American companies to invest on the continent.

Lofty as these promises sound, they are not radically different from McCain’s. Nor are they, for that matter, different from Bill Clinton’s and George Bus’s. In fact, in a way, many analysts point out, Obama has a tough act to follow: Some of President George W. Bush's Africa initiatives have been widely lauded as one of the few bright spots of his foreign policy legacy.

Desmond Tutu, in his Op-Ed piece in the Washington Post on the occasion of Obama’s victory, said as much. “President Bush has succeeded in working with Congress to devote unprecedented amounts of money to fighting malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS,” he wrote. “But if the United States is to show that it places as much value on a human life in Africa as on one in the United States, Obama actually has to improve on Bush's achievements.”

Why Africa should not expect much from Obama
In spite of all his commitments and promises to Africa, Obama, like any American politician, is ultimately more concerned about the well-being of his country than he is of Africa.

This fact came out clearly in 2006 when a reporter in Kenya asked for his perspective on the ways in which American protectionism is hurting African farmers.

Why, the reporter asked, do Americans retain farm subsidies and tariffs that prevent African farmers from competing in the world's biggest market?

What was Obama’s response? He talked about the soybean farmers in his adopted state of Illinois and said, "It's important to me to be sure I'm looking out for their interests. It's part of my job.”

In other words, it didn’t matter to him whether Africans are suffering as a consequence of U.S. domestic policies; what matters to him is that Americans, his compatriots, are well served by these domestic policies. That’s some discomforting home truth there. Obama, ultimately, is an American and will do anything to protect his country, even if this means hurting Africa in the process.

What is more, Obama is president at a time of extraordinary financial crisis in the United States, and his overriding preoccupation now will be to fix the economy of his country first. This, in effect, means he is limited in what he can do for Africa.

Fortunately, many thoughtful African leaders have come to terms with this reality early enough. "Africans must not ask extraordinary things from him, must not expect ... that through the miracle of his election America will drain money on Africa to change our continent," cautioned Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade. "I don't think that's going to happen, and it wouldn't be a good thing."

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, was harsher in calling on Africans to learn to look inwards and not be obsessed with the idea that Obama would somehow come and magically solve all of Africa’s problems. ''Obama, Obama, Obama! He is an American,” he was quoted to have said at a news conference last year. “Why are you looking at him and not yourself? Why don't you build your strength here?”

After all is said and done, although Africans have a justifiable reason to experience vicarious joy in Obama’s emergence as the world’s most powerful political figure, it helps to remember that he was elected to serve Americans first.

The best Africans can do to help him is to expect less from him and to accept his victory as no more than a symbolic victory for them.


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