Barack Hussein Obama, the native of Honolulu, Hawaii rose from relative political obscurity in 2008 to become the first black president of the United States of America. In the months leading to the elections, Obama used his easy charm, Harvard pedigree, and importantly, the embodiment of a unique Blackness, to become the political darling of a country and a world reeling from the aftermath of eight years of violence and folly under the presidency of George W. Bush.
In 2008 and the months preceding it, Obama’s presidential campaign built momentum through a rhetoric of hope and “Yes We Can” verve. Whether it was spoken or unspoken, those who found themselves persuaded by the ebullient wave of Obama’s broad political hopefulness understood that this hope was inextricably tied to his body, which is to say, his combination of relative youth, intellect and Blackness. This combination was nearly unprecedented in the history of United States politics. Those who, in those early days, saw hope and the possibility of change (or even, for some, revolution) in Obama’s Harvard earned confidence, charisma and trustworthiness, saw it in part because of this personification –a noteworthy marker of difference in the context of the aggressively, brutally White history of American Political power.
This uniqueness was seen, therefore, as an opportunity to create a necessary interruption and grasp a form of justice many thought was impossible within their lifetimes. At home in the United States, African-Americans wondered whether Obama’s Blackness would, for its symbolic and tangible political power, bring forth a new era of justice and compassion for them considering how their rights and freedoms had been ruthlessly trampled with for centuries.
Meanwhile, those in Africa, as well as those Africans living throughout the world in diaspora, honed in on Obama’s ascent for slightly different reasons; it was not just Obama’s darkness of skin and pedigree; he was also the son of a Kenyan man, an “African” (Obama has since described himself as “the first Kenyan-American” president of the United States). All this made the prospect (and eventual reality) of Obama’s presidency such a tantalizing idea. However, an additional question lingered in their minds: would Obama’s Africanness, his memory of, and proximity to, the life of his Kenyan father, change the way the United States of America would interact with African nations during his administration?
Now, eight years removed from Obama’s first inauguration, cusping on the official end of his presidency, Obama still enjoys a cult hero status among Africans globally but opinions on his legacy on Africa among Africans continue to be severely divided. This article looks at Obama’s foreign policy and how it impacted Africa. Did Obama’s brand of hope and the energy it inspired among his millions of supporters do the hard work of traversing the many kilometres between Obama’s seat in the Oval Office and the many Africans who stood to benefit from his power and privilege? This is the question we wish to explore
Obama’s Foreign Policy in Africa
Besides authorizing the killing of Gadhafi by the US and their NATO allies, which left the whole of North Africa in turmoil and created multiple other security issues on the continent, Obama didn’t really get going where Africa is concerned until after his first term in office. It wasn’t until June 2012 that the administration issued the “U.S strategy towards Sub- Saharan Africa,” a document with a clear vision and framework on how the U.S would engage with Africa. With most of Obama’s key signature policies on Africa still in their infantry, some argue that the jury is still out on the full impact of Obama’s legacy in Africa. Others have even argued that he might have a big impact on the continent post-presidency than he could while in office.
Nonetheless, in the quest to explore Obama’s legacy on the continent, it is imperative to reiterate that he came into office facing a unique set of barriers. Particularly, in his first term in office as president of the United States, his political and ideological opponents asserted that Obama’s Blackness, and in particular, his Africanness, somehow made Obama not American enough to occupy the country’s most significant political office. While the so-called “birther” movement—which demanded that Obama present his birth certificate as a way of legitimizing his status as an American– was ultimately a petty, racially-motivated tactic, it also had a meaningful impact on Obama’s relationship to Africa during his first term. The fact that his political opponents (and their allies in American news media) sought to undermine his status as an American, and stigmatize his Kenyan lineage, meant that Obama was hesitant to align himself with African nations in his policy and trade decisions.
In the early months of Obama’s presidency, he also had to contend with the on-going Afghan and Iraq wars, as well as the emerging reality of a hard hitting American economic recession. On the heels of the frustrations of George W. Bush’s political tenure, the United States of America was facing nearly unprecedented levels of unemployment, as well as the widespread economic instability, which prompted the controversial bailout of American banks in 2008. With all of this domestic turmoil to contend with in the early days of his first term, it is sensible to see why Obama was both cautious and late when it came to foreign policy initiatives where Africa was concerned.
Nevertheless, during his second term, Obama’s administration was responsible for introducing the US-Africa Leaders’ Summit in August of 2014. Three key initiatives emerged out of the summit: Power Africa, which aims to improve Africa’s electric grid; Trade Africa, which focuses on economic development in East Africa (and select other countries on the continent), and Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI), which provides young Africans with internships at companies and public institutions. The US-Africa Leaders’ summit was unique particularly in the sense that it involved the president of the United States meeting with state representatives from nearly every African nation. One of the major highlights of the summit was that the White House announced $33 billion in commitments aimed at increasing US ties with Africa. However, due to the fact that some of the commitments came from such companies as Coca-Cola, General Electric, Marriot and IBM, it could be said that one of the primary legacies of this Summit was in marking a shift away from government-led US-Africa relations, toward more private sector-led relationships. This is something that Obama should be commended for since many believe that this is the way forward. Experts have argued against “Aid” to developing nations saying aid undermines the development of local state capacities.
Gainsaying the above progressive policies, Obama’s administration has been lamented especially when it comes to United States combatant Command and its expansion. During Obama’s administration, USAFRICOM, which is responsible to the US Secretary of Defense, has grown extensively (today has relationships with 53 African nations- 2016). During Obama’s presidency, there has also been a remarkable increase in Drone operations and covert military actions on the continent. Programs to militarily train and equip Africans now exist in at least 49 countries, including Djibouti, Ethiopia, Niger, and Somalia. As well, there are currently more than 30 warships from 20 countries that are engaged in maneuvers along the western African coast. Considering the role the U.S has played in amplifying the military activity in Africa during Obama’s second term, it is clear that promoting economic growth, free markets and democratic governance has not been a higher priority of the United States in its relationship to Africa.
Interestingly, while looking at President George W. Bush tenure, some contend that he was more successful in establishing positive foreign policy with Africa than Barack Obama’s presidency has been. For example, Bush was responsible for increasing foreign aid to Africa by more than 600%. Bush is also celebrated for creating the President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief (PEPFAR) and the Millennium Challenge Corporation; initiatives that have helped curb the AIDS epidemic and save millions of lives on the continent. President Bush also increased developmental funding for other sectors such as education in the process helping a lot of countries in providing access to primary school education. As a result of budgetary pressures imposed by the recession, Obama was forced to cut funding for PEPFAR and The Millennium Challenge.
As Barack Obama era in the White House comes to a close; with some perspective, we can now look at the spectrum of his successes and failures as it relates to his legacy on the continent of Africa. All in all, some argue that Obama’s record of foreign policy in Africa contrasted with the nearly unbridled optimism, excitement and hope that many felt when he emerged as a presidential candidate in 2008, on the surface; it seems that while in office, Obama has failed to fully capitalize on the hope and potential so many people saw in him eight years ago. On the other side of the spectrum, many Africans argue that Obama has done his job, that his message of Hope in particular to young people on the continent is his ultimate and lasting legacy on Africa. Now, as Obama fades into a much less visible phase of public life, it is only through time that his legacy will be truly clear.
In concluding, other, potentially more meaningful questions that Africans should be asking themselves also loom large as Obama’s presidency narrows to a close. Questions like: What is it that made us think that Obama owed Africa and Africans anything when he was never the president of “Africa”? Are we still suffering from a messiah/ or savior complex syndrome? As well, shouldn’t the level of demand and expectations we placed on Obama be better directed toward the many leaders we’ve chosen to put in power and in charge of looking after our affairs and protecting our interests? These leaders, undoubtedly, are more directly responsible to the African people than Obama is. Perhaps they owe us more than Obama ever did. Perhaps, too, if we direct our energies, desires and careful criticisms in their direction, it will seem less reasonable and, ultimately, less necessary to cast our hopes toward charismatic political figures from abroad.
Originally published in TAP Magazine Issue 8