Obama rings the changes
17th October 2008
African citizens enthuse about the prospect of an Obama presidency, but their governments are much more cautious. A victory for Barack Obama in the United States Presidential elections on 4 November would be greeted with a roar of approval across Africa and the diaspora. For many, it would be seen as a hugely symbolic victory for Africa at a time when the continent’s economies are growing in the slipstream of the more dynamic Asian powers.
In Africa, the prospect of an Obama presidency is already raising high expectations, which are being quietly dampened by financial analysts well aware of the current damage to the US economy and the likelihood of cuts to Washington’s foreign aid budget (a possibility that Obama has already conceded). Some African governments, too, are playing down the benefits of an Obama win; particularly those harbouring concerns that as president he would take an unprecedentedly tough line on corruption and human rights abuses.
The belief inObama’s campaign teamthat he would come to the presidency with more understanding and knowledge of African issues than any of his predecessors worries some African regimes. A senior African official, whose government is receiving substantial US military aid, suggested that some regimes on the continent might soon pine for some ‘benign neglect’. The Obama campaign, complete with local sideshows, has been running in Kenya for over a year; Senator Keg beer has been informally renamed ‘Obama beer’. Last year’s barroom joke that the USA would have a Luo president before Kenya (Obama’s father hailed from Nyanza) was intended to mock the presidential ambitions of Luo leader Raila Odinga; it quickly soured amid the post-election violence that killed more than 1,000 Kenyans this year.
Odinga, who says that his and Obama’s mother hail from the same area of Nyanza, told Africa Confidential that Africans would have to be realistic about an Obama presidency: ‘He is first and foremost answerable to the US voters, maybe under him Africa will receive more attention in US foreign policy… at the moment the US sees Africa only as a humanitarian crisis but not a place where you need to do more investment.’
The two men speak regularly and Odinga says that Obama sees the need for a ‘maturing’ of the US-Africa relationship to a point where ‘we benefit not only from US technology but from US markets as well’. One of the campaign’s leading Africa advisors, Witney Schneidman, said Obama worked with a range of Kenyan politicians on a settlement after the post-election explosions. In a public debate with Senator John McCain’s Africa advisor Peter Pham, Schneidman spelt out the three main poles of Obama’s Africa policy: accelerating Africa’s integration into the world economy; enhancing the peace and security of African states; and strengthening relations with governments and civic activists who are committed to promoting democracy and accountability on the continent. Both speakers said the well-attended debate at Washington’s Press Club showed that Africa policy was growing in importance.
Critical of George Bush’s administration’s extension of the ‘War on Terror’ into Africa, Obama’s campaign has called for a recalibration and a ‘more nuanced’ approach in Somalia because they say Washington’s efforts at ‘state building, humanitarian relief and counter-terrorism’ have worked at cross-purposes. Pham agrees that the current Somalia policy is not working and argues for nimbler US diplomacy and more readiness to back the African Union’s attempts to restore some security there. He also wants to recruit South Africa, whose African National Congress government has been rather ambivalent towards Washington, to McCain’s proposed ‘League of Democracies’.
More usefully, Pham and McCain are arguing for an end to US domestic agricultural subsidies. This would be hugely popular in Africa but unlikely to be a vote-winner in the USA. McCain says the cotton subsidies, for example, cost US taxpayers about US$3-5 billion a year but only benefit elite farmers. Ending the US cotton subsidy alone, Pham argues, would raise the incomes of West Africa’s cotton farmers by some 12%. That would mean boosting Burkina Faso’s economy by some $40 million a year; the unspoken implication is that US foreign aid, running at about $18 mn. to the Burkinabé government, could then be heavily cut or dropped altogether.
Africa was missing from the presidential and vice-presidential debates save for the question of US policy on Darfur. The elevation of Darfur to a litmus test of US foreign policy commitment owes much to lobby groups such as the Enough Action Fund, the Save Darfur Coalition and the Genocide Intervention Network. When Africa Confidential asked the Africa advisors in both campaigns about their stance on the proposed indictment of President Omer Hassan Ahmed el Beshir by the International Criminal Court, both said their candidates would fully support the indictment and would veto any move to suspend or defer it at the United Nations Security Council. McCain’s campaign suggested that Washington would contribute towards the cost of trying Sudanese officials (the US is not a signatory to the ICC) and Obama’s campaign said it would seriously review the benefits of the US joining the ICC.
Obama sounded stronger than McCain on Darfur arguing that, ‘Right now there’s a peacekeeping force that has been set up and we have African Union troops in Darfur to stop a genocide that has killed hundreds of thousands of people. We could be providing logistical support, setting up a no-fly zone at relatively little cost to us, but we can only do it if we can help mobilise the international community and lead. And that’s what I intend to do when I’m President.’
McCain was more circumspect: ‘We must do whatever we can to prevent genocide, whatever we can to prevent these terrible calamities.’ He cited previous failures as indicating a need for caution: ‘We went into Somalia as a… peacekeeping organisation, we ended up trying to be peacemakers and we ended up having to withdraw in humiliation.’
As a former navy captain and prisoner of war, McCain said his first priority would be the ‘young men and women who are serving in the military.’ Then he added, ‘I understand that we have to say never again to a holocaust and never again to Rwanda. But we had also better be darn sure that we don’t leave and make the situation worse.’
On China’s ties with Khartoum, McCain says US policy should not be constrained by a Chinese threat to use the veto and Obama promised to ‘elevate the genocide in Darfur to a top level priority in our bilateral dialogue with China.’ Both candidates insisted that they would not soften US policy towards Khartoum in exchange for ‘intelligence cooperation’. These pledges will be quickly tested.
Within days of assuming office in January, the new President is likely to face calls for the US to deliver the promised helicopters and airlift capacity to boost the UN/AU mission in Darfur, and soon after that the new administration is likely to get calls for robust engagement with Khartoum over the preparations for the 2009 elections, which are meant to be precursors to the planned 2011 referendum on the independence of Southern Sudan.