President Obama and Africa: A presidency, a foreign policy and a legacy

By AT editor - 10 December 2015 at 9:53 am
President Obama and Africa: A presidency, a foreign policy and a legacy

AP Photo/Mulugeta Ayene

As the son of a Kenyan-born immigrant, Barack Obama has served as President of the United States with a special sense of identity and connections among Kenyans, and among wider Africa.

Furthermore, recent months have seen President Obama emboldened both by notable policy victories at home – with the Supreme Court affirming his health care policy aka Obamacare is legal and finding same sex marriage to be constitutionally valid – and by a growing awareness his time in the Oval Office is nearing an end. It is useful then as Obama enters his final year of his presidency to examine both his record on African foreign policy so far, as well as offer what the final year may bring.

To begin, it need first be considered where Obama began, and what he inherited from his predecessor. Despite retaining a controversial legacy within other spheres, George W Bush is widely credited as having been excellent when it comes to his administration’s record on the African continent. When Bush took office, Sierra Leone, Angola, Liberia, and Sudan were rife with war and unrest. While many factors play into achieving a brokered piece, by the end of the Bush presidency these wars were no more, and US policy supporting rebuilding in these nations had begun.

In turn, while Obama’s presidency began in high hopes for African foreign policy – both among African nations and within the USA – the first few years showed little sign of these hopes being fulfilled. To some extent this is understandable. The rising economic influence and military brinkmanship of China made Obama’s declaration, Asia was its first priority, understandable. Furthermore, the Greece/EU dramas, Russian incursions in the Ukraine, and the ongoing challenges of security in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria – only compounded by the rise of Islamic State – has undoubtedly drawn his attention elsewhere.

Yet, as Obama acknowledged in his December 6 Oval Office address, the ultimate resolution to these challenges shall now come not just from his administration, but with “future presidents”. Accordingly, notwithstanding events and issues elsewhere, Africa as a whole remains of crucial importance to the future of US influence and leadership within the world – and with the US only able to exert a limited direct influence on events surrounding the EU among the Middle East in absence of ground troops – the apparent inattention to Africa for much of the Obama presidency can only be regarded as disappointing.

Offsetting this perspective is the reality Obama’s second term has undoubtedly been more successful than his first term across an array of areas.  This has been seen in the US efforts in the Power Africa initiative, aspiring to have 60 million new houses powered when all is said and done. Then, there was the coordination of the first ever US Africa Leaders Summit. This brought collective engagement between Washington and African nations to the highest level thus far.

It would be a mistake however to suggest Obama’s time in office has brought a greater warmth exclusively to US-African dialogue.

His speech in Kenya during July of this year – where he bluntly said the country needed to decide between economic progress, and maintaining traditions that deny women chance for equal participation across Kenyan society – was a chief example of this. Though to those who live in Western nations his words are to be praised rather than condemned, it is also undoubtedly risky – and perhaps even counter-productive – to call a country’s beliefs “stupid” if you are seeking to advance progress and dialogue. ‘Why use the stick first, when carrots remain?’ people may well ask.

It is a reality that China has had a growing influence on the African continent that prior to Obama’s time in office was not as marked. It stands to reason therefore that African leaders have had a new avenue open when it comes to a major world power seeking to trade and build relationships – while also on account of Beijing’s growing presence – presented a new challenge to Obama that presidents prior didn’t have. Yet, it is also true that numerous African leaders hold concerns about China’s influence, and so US prestige and influence on the continent would have been even more valued than in the past. This means Obama’s ‘China record’ in Africa is also mixed.

So, at the end of 2015 it can be said Obama’s concrete policy achievements in Africa have left a lot to be desired. Further, notwithstanding the capacity for a strong performance in his final year, realistically there is only so much even a US President can do within their final 12 months in office. So, on policy alone it appears Obama will not leave a powerful legacy among African nations. What then of his symbolism and legacy? While the suggestion Obama is a ‘great speechmaker but poor action taker’ has long been made, it appears in Africa at least he may have a chance to turn this into a virtue (at least over the long term) and in way that could markedly improve his legacy.

This is because Obama’s presidency has been one of a very high symbolic significance. Just as JFK was heralded among the Irish for his grandfather’s emigration across the Atlantic – yet could never have been fairly expected to wave a magic wand and bring peace to an Ireland then beset by civil unrest – so too has Obama carried the mixed blessing of a presidency with immense symbolism and outsized expectations. It is true this does not altogether absolve an apparent unwillingness to display a strong interest in Africa during his early years in the White House.

Yet, what is clear is Obama’s most recent years have been his best when it comes to Africa. Accordingly, remaining a relatively young man, with a prior career in academia and distinguished for being a noted author, it is likely irrespective of his final year in office, the  period thereafter shall surely see a man more willing to engage with his status as a “Son of Kenya” and the first African-American to win the Oval Office as he has shown signs of doing in his latter presidency.

What form this may take exactly is right now unclear – and it’s true the possibility of Hillary Clinton being the first woman president means he may find the attention shifts a little to another sign of America’s advancement – but it is undoubted Obama exiting in a world increasingly conflicted over questions of citizenship, human rights and America’s international influence he shall find his voice an authoritative one in any conversation on African identity and progress. Insofar as he can contribute to that discussion with a new candor and frankness free of the restrictions of political office; Obama’s post-presidency may become the most important ‘second act’ we’ve seen in a long time.

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