by Judy Yi Zhou*
Last year, as the UN Security Council weighed a resolution authorizing military action in Libya, Gaddafi sent an unusual letter to Obama addressing him as “son” and urging the American president not to intervene. It was too little too late. By then Gaddafi had few friends left, in his own country, the west, and the Arab world.
Libya’s intervention is the first unanimous UN resolution in history. Before the recent killing of American diplomats in Benghazi, the success of Libya’s intervention was one of the hallmarks of the Obama administration’s foreign policy. Some even called it “the birth of Obama Doctrine.”
When Obama, whose father is Kenyan, took office four years ago, Africans at home and abroad hoped that one of their own – Africa’s own son – would do even more than his predecessor for the continent. It was unrealistic expectation, but one rooted in Obama’s poetic oratory and lofty promises.
In his historic inaugural speech, Obama proclaimed:
To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist…those who seek peace and security – we support you.
Making the case for Libya’s intervention, Obama reiterated:
Born, as we are, out of a revolution by those who longed to be free, we welcome the fact that history is on the move in the Middle East and North Africa, and that young people are leading the way. Because wherever people long to be free, they will find a friend in the United States. Ultimately, it is that faith — those ideals — that is the true measure of American leadership.
But has he really been Africa’s friend, and on the right side of history?
In his first and only trip to Africa as president, which lasted no more than 20 hours, Obama spoke of an increasingly interdependent world. What happens in Accra, he told the Ghanaian parliament, reverberates far beyond Africa’s shores. During the same speech, he also promised to commit $63 billion to help Africa combat HIV/AIDS, Malaria and Tuberculosis, as well as eradicate polio. “We won’t confront illnesses in isolation — we will invest in public health systems that promote wellness and focus on the health of mothers and children,” he declared.
However, a quick glance at the figures from a fact-sheet of Obama’s accomplishments in Sub-Saharan Africa shows a mere $6.8 billion spent on Africa related projects. That’s 10 percent of what Obama promised in his Ghana speech three years earlier. Out of the $6.8 billion, only less than $1 billion was invested on public health. Obama’s strategy toward Africa was not even released until this summer – three and half years after he took office.
Some of the successes highlighted in Obama’s Africa directive include: holding meetings with African youth leaders; strengthening democratic institutions; advancing peace and security; supporting the AU Mission in Somalia; building a secret drone base in Ethiopia; supporting the peace process in South Sudan; sending military advisers to help Ugandan forces capture LRA fighters; launching the Feed the Future Initiative; a new trade and investment partnership with the East African Community; a new African Competitiveness and Trace Expansion Initiative.
Beyond these broad and vague initiatives, Obama has largely been mute on Africa, and not just on last Monday’s foreign policy debate with Romney. And Africans have taken note. “I don’t think President Obama gives much thought to Africa — or gives much to Africa,” said Mo Ibrahim, a Sudan-born British entrepreneur, in an interview with Foreign Policy.
African activists muse why empowering young leaders is Obama’s top priority in Africa, while hardly addressing the public health concerns Obama swore to resolve back in Accra. Engaging Africa’s young leaders was also the focus of the First Lady on her controversial 2011 trip to Africa. Moreover, as Todd Moss, the vice-president of the Center for Global Development, points out, the position of USAID’s Africa chief was left unfilled for three years.
Africa is home to six of world’s ten fastest growing economies, including Angola, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Chad, Mozambique, and Rwanda, according to the IMF. China, Africa’s biggest trading partner, has raised the stake for the U.S. to rethink its Africa policy. While urging “American companies to seize trade and investment opportunities in Africa”, the Obama administration questions other countries motives for doing so.
During her strategic 10-nation tour in August, in what was seen as a veiled criticism of China’s role in the continent, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Africa is not just “a source of resources to be exploited.” She held up the U.S. engagement on the continent as “a model of sustainable partnership that adds value, rather than extracts it.”
How does Obama compare with George W. Bush?
President Bush left a negative legacy ranging from the economic crisis to many foreign policy blunders including the war in Iraq. But on Africa, as Mo Ibrahim recalled, Bush’s bold initiatives are widely celebrated.
George Bush is a hero in Africa. It is funny: In his last trip to Africa I think he was absolutely struck by the warmth of people and how he was treated as a hero when things were really going wrong in Iraq. And here was a place he did wonderful stuff and people were grateful. And I think it was probably the happiest of his trips abroad.
In January 2003, Bush announced the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) that would provide $15 billion to Africa over five years. “It was then the largest single effort by any nation targeting a specific disease,” wrote Mwangi S. Kimenyi, the director of Africa Growth Initiative. Bush also launched the President’s Malaria Initiative (PMI) with the goal of reducing malaria-related deaths by 50 percent in 15 focus countries.
Beyond the health initiatives, which the former president remains committed to even after leaving office, Bush “pushed the G-8 nations to demand the multi-lateral debt relief initiative (MDRI), which encouraged the IMF, World Bank and the U.S. to reduce the debt burden of highly indebted poor countries,” Kimenyi wrote for Brookings Institution.
The Bush administration’s Millennium Challenge Corporation, an independent U.S. foreign aid agency, committed $3.8 billion to nine countries in Africa between 2008 and 2013. He has also backed programs to cancel $34 billion worth of debt for 27 African states. During the same time, as BBC’s Martin Plaut noted, aid to Africa has risen to $5.7 billion dollars a year by 2007.
What were some effects of Bush’s initiatives?
Describing the impact of PEPFAR in a 2008 report, the Council of Foreign Relations wrote, “through the direct and indirect support, today more than one million people in Africa are on antiretroviral drugs, where their lives are quite literally being saved by these medicines.” By December 2009, PEPFAR “supported the provision of treatment to more than 2 million people, care to more than 10 million people, including more than 4 million orphans and vulnerable children, and prevention of mother-to-child treatment services during nearly 16 million pregnancies.”
The PMI has reduced child mortality by an average of 30.5 percent in 11 countries and halved Malaria in 15 African countries. The PEPFAR and PMI, both launched by George Bush, are the only two public health related programs mentioned in Obama’s strategy document, even though no more funding was increased for them, as his Africa policy fact-sheet shows.
Critics say Bush ignored African concerns and left the continent marginalized in a system of global apartheid. But compared to the Obamas, Bush and former first lady visited Africa six times, covering more than ten African countries, but more importantly had visible and solid impact in areas of health, economic, and security issues in Africa.
In a high-stake and highly polarized election, Americans will go to the polls next Tuesday to elect a new president. The economic crisis and loss of jobs has sapped the energy out of Obama’s once enthusiastic supporters. But his loss is likely to be as heartbreaking as his triumph was euphoric. In Africa, despite failure to offer any bold initiatives, Obama remains popular as ever, even if for sentimental reasons. In churches and mosques across Kenya, prayer services are being held to ask God for their son’s victory, the Nairobi-based Daily Nation reported.
“This is our son,” said Jerome Ombude, speaking to Nation from Obama senior’s Kenyan village of Kogelo. “The fact that he is the commander-in-chief of the United States is just enough reason to be proud even if he did not bring us any material things.”
For the growing African diaspora, estimated at 1.6 million in 2010 – half of whom are naturalized U.S. citizens – unlike in 2008, the choice couldn’t be harder. Beyond the symbolism and inspiration of a half-African family occupying the White House, even with a GOP controlled congress that worked to defeat him from day one, Obama has done so much domestically — including his signature legislation, the Obamacare. But many Africans, especially the recent arrivals, maintain special ties to their country of origin. The hope and aspirations of seeing democracy prevail in their “home countries” on the one hand, versus the duplicity between Obama’s rhetoric on democracy promotion and his actions on the other hand, makes their choice in this election the more difficult.
Besides, Obama’s opponent, Mitt Romney, has put out a brief but important outline of his plans for Africa, focusing on bolstering economic ties and the rule of law in order to create more jobs in Africa – and opportunities for U.S. investment. In addition, Romney vows to help resolve ongoing conflicts, “pressure the remaining despots who abuse their own people”, protect innocent civilians from violence, and ensure that humanitarian aid reaches those in need.
Obama had only four years, and some challenging domestic issues to tackle – including, as he says, the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. However, given his African roots and more so the hope and optimism that came with his triumphant election, it’s difficult to ignore Obama’s subpar policies toward an increasingly important continent.
As Obama said in Accra, ultimately, Africa’s destiny lies not in the hands of a U.S. president but in the hands of Africans themselves. However, if Obama wants to build a sustainable partnership anchored on mutual respect with Africa – a continent on the rise – he has a long way to go in order to redeem his image.
That’s the hope for his second term, lest there should be one.
*Judy Yi Zhou is a senior at New York University studying English and American Literature. Follow her on twitter: @JudyYiZhou