Moment of truth for Obama in Africa

20 Jan 2011 - 11:34
Africa is 'hot' and trendy. Thinking otherwise is like going back to prehistoric times when it was considered as the lost or forgotten continent.

President Clinton put the spotlight on Africa when he toured the sub-Saharan region as the first US president. President Bush showed sincere commitment when he established the Emergency Plan for Aids. In his memoirs he rightfully considered this, among other Africa- initiatives, as one of his major accomplishments. And president Obama, as the son of Africa, spoke during his 2009 one-day visit to Ghana of a new moment of promise.

He stated that good governance 'can unlock Africa's potential'. The United States would be 'a partner in building the capacity for transnational change.' He promised 'support for strong and sustainable democratic government'.

That is a remarkable statement for a pragmatic president who essentially criticised Bush for promoting a democratic agenda in Asian hotspots like Iraq. 'Stability' not 'democracy' is one of the key-words in Obama's foreign policy doctrine of engagement. So apparently there is a lot of good 'Obama-faith' concerning Africa. Did the president live up to these solemn words?

'Obama the talker'

With his democratic African approach the president puts a lot of hope in a continent where this year more than 30 elections are expected. It is true that Obama spent significant "diplomatic capital" on Sudan, mentioning the recent referendum even in top-level meetings with Russia and China. Another example: By calling incumbent president Laurent Ghabo of Ivory Coast several times Obama demonstrated active, personal diplomacy.

But still the dominating profile since Obama entered the White House exactly two years ago was the one of 'Obama the talker'. Africans and African-Americans are urging for more concrete deeds. It was President Bush who engineered a peace deal in Sudan that effectively brought an end to one of the region's oldest civil wars. Opinion polls show that African Americans are still in overwhelming numbers supporting Obama. But Obama needs these high numbers in his re-election campaign and the influential African-American caucus in Congress surely expects real positive results in Africa at the end of Obama's first term.

The United States and other regional actors must formulate more specific benchmarks for democratic progress like the set-up of transparent institutions and the rule of law, implement sanctions if they are not met and extradite African war-criminals for a fair and transparent trial to the tribunals like in my home-town The Hague.

US interests

In the first two years of his presidency his priorities were: ending the war in Iraq, stabilising Afghanistan, resetting relations with Russia and saving the US economy from a complete meltdown.

But many of these issues are now, although difficulties remain, on a more solid footing. In 2012 the president's agenda will be dominated by his re-election campaign. There are indications that in 2011 Obama will step up his outreach to Africa.

Apart from his special personal relationship with Africa there are geo-political reasons for this. Diminishing the influence of international terrorism and establishing more stability in especially east Africa is good for long-term US interests. Instead of the Asian 'Bush-axis of evil' Harvard historian Nigel Ferguson sees a longer Asian-African 'axis of despair' stretching from Afghanistan to Sudan and Darfur inflicted by poverty and des-integration. Fertile ground for Al Qaeda-organisations in Asia and Africa who joined forces, as was recently announced.

Renewed scramble

Like in colonial times there is a new scramble for Africa with China's growing presence. Washington was surprised when South Africa recently agreed to join the BRIC-coalition. The invitation came from China with a keen understanding of South Africa's strategic location and its vast natural resources. The economic interests of rising powers China, Brazil and India will be translated in political power, definitely also in Africa.

The Obama-administration is counting on millions of Africans preferring to live in democracies where they can live a decent, more prosperous life. For too long Africans were suppressed by colonial and their own authoritarian rulers. The challenges are enormous but Africa also has incredible opportunities. For Washington there is no alternative for active and deep engagement. It seems that Obama understands this. His advisers announced that he will definitely visit Africa again soon and stay longer. This time Obama will be really serious about Africa.