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USA/Africa: New Policy Prospects?

AfricaFocus Bulletin
Sep 13, 2008 (080913)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

"If the United States takes a narrow view of Africa, as a recipient of charity, a place to pump oil, and an arena for fighting terrorists, then African hopes being evoked by the Obama candidacy will almost certainly be disappointed. If, however, the United States takes a long view, understanding that its security depends on the human security of Africans, then there are real prospects for a new era of collaboration and good will." - Merle Bowen and William Minter, commentary in Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette

The candidacy of Barack Obama has attracted extraordinary worldwide attention, not least in Africa and particularly in Kenya, where his father was born. But, as is typical for U.S. presidential campaigns, neither candidate has paid much attention to the details of Africa policy. Expectations that exist are based largely on symbolism, as well as on the stark contrast Senator Obama offers to the narrow U.S. nationalism and rigidity of the Bush years and the expected continuity from Senator McCain. Obama's biography, notes Paul Tiyambe Zeleza in a commentary cited below, quoting Senator Obama himself, serves "as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views."

This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains an opinion piece ("Wanted: A New U.S. Africa Policy") being published in the Champaign-Urbana NewaGazette and several other U.S. newspapers, by Merle Bowen and William Minter. It also contains selections from two recent compilations of African commentary on the Obama phenomenon, in Pambazuka News and The Zeleza Post, evaluating the appeal, the historical significance, and the limitations of the Obama candidacy. Also included are the brief paragraphs allocated to Africa in the two party platforms, and links to other sources for the candidates' stated positions on Africa..

For additional commentaries, see (August 14, 2008) (March 20 2008)

For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on the US and Africa, visit

++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++++++++

Wanted: A New U. S. Africa Policy

by Merle Bowen and William Minter

[Merle Bowen directs the Center for African Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. William Minter, in Washington, DC, edits the on-line publication AfricaFocus Bulletin.

This opinion piece was written at the request of the University of Illinois communications department, and was first published in the Champaign-Urbana News Gazette on September 7, 2008. It is scheduled to appear in several other Illinois-area and U.S. newspapers.]

Almost 15 years after Nelson Mandela took office in South Africa, the United States still lacks a coherent Africa policy. There are pieces of such a policy - support for the war against AIDS is now a bipartisan consensus, and both presidential candidates have pledged to focus on Darfur. Neither candidate, however, has laid out a policy framework that can serve both African and American interests.

It is instructive that it was only this June that the U. S. government finally took Mandela and members of his party off the official list of terrorists, a legacy of past support for the apartheid regime. Still, the U. S. did aid the transition to democracy in South Africa in the 1990s. In recent years some other African issues have attracted attention, and activists have pressured Washington to act.

On AIDS the results have been significant, even if still inadequate. President Clinton, whose administration was missing in action on AIDS in Africa, became an effective campaigner on the issue after leaving office. President Bush, whose USAID administrator initially dismissed antiretroviral treatment for Africans as impractical because "Africans can't tell time," now finds that the presidential AIDS program is one of the few accomplishments he can claim for history.

On other issues - conflict, human rights, debt, trade, and development - the record is less inspiring. The Clinton administration shared the international failure to act against genocide in Rwanda. On Darfur, the Bush administration has offered heady rhetoric but little effective action. More generally, neither the Clinton nor Bush years provide a good model. Both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush raised the U.S. profile in Africa, but neither followed up the hopes they raised with consistent action.

This record looms large today given the absence of new proposals from the candidates and the projected makeup of their foreign policy teams. McCain's Africa policy may well resemble the disastrous Reagan years, noted for U.S. collaboration with the apartheid South African regime and African dictators. One of McCain's top strategists, Charles Black, was a lobbyist for Angola's Jonas Savimbi and other U.S.-backed African warlords. Obama's most prominent advisors, veterans of the Clinton administration, include Anthony Lake, who presided over the failure to respond to Rwanda, and Susan Rice, who has proposed direct U.S. troop intervention in Darfur a step which would almost certainly escalate the killing.

Neither candidate has criticized the disastrous Bush policy on Somalia, where it encouraged Ethiopian military intervention and worsened one of the world's worst humanitarian crises. Both have endorsed AFRICOM, a new military command that risks reinforcing an already over-militarized U.S. response to Africa. Opportunistic support for dictators continues, while crises and conflicts - some, such as in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, surpassing Darfur in casualties - are ignored.

With his openness to multilateral cooperation and his personal connections, Senator Obama has the potential for crafting a constructive Africa policy. But without an alternative framework, and active public pressure, the path of least resistance will likely follow narrow conceptions of U.S. national interests, as in the Cold War and post-Cold War periods. Anti-terrorism, Africa's oil, and competition with China are all real concerns. But pursuing those goals without attending to Africa's own needs would be self-defeating.

A new policy must encompass the diversity of African countries and of U.S. interests. There are no magic formulas. Nevertheless, there are principles that should apply:

  • Build on the example of the response to AIDS, both multilateral and bilateral, to address African needs in health, education, food, economic infrastructure, and the environment, with all countries paying their fair share.
  • Open a genuine dialogue about trade and development policy, instead of imposing rigid free-market policies that are systematically biased in favor of rich countries.
  • Minimize bilateral military involvement in Africa, which risks sucking the U.S. into local conflicts, in favor of multilateral diplomacy and peacekeeping, including paying U.S. peacekeeping arrears at the UN.
  • Stop aiding repressive regimes, and support democratic African solutions, as in the aftermath of the election in Kenya. This crisis, which threatened to turn into a civil war earlier this year, was peacefully resolved through African mediation led by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. The U.S. played a supportive rather than an ostentatious role.
  • Rely on skilled African diplomats, who include many distinguished former presidents, for dealing with other crises, as was done in Kenya. Despite the negative example of Thabo Mbeki's ineffective mediation in Zimbabwe, the fact remains that no initiative is likely to succeed unless African civil society and political leaders are in the forefront.
  • Support the large community of recent African immigrants to the U. S., many of whom are engaged in family and community projects to help their countries.

In short, if the United States takes a narrow view of Africa, as a recipient of "charity," a place to pump oil, and an arena for fighting terrorists, then African hopes being evoked by the Obama candidacy will almost certainly be disappointed. If, however, the United States takes a long view, understanding that its security depends on the human security of Africans, then there are real prospects for a new era of collaboration and good will.

The Meaning and Implications of the Obama Phenomenon
E-Symposium on The Zeleza Post

Introduction by Paul Tiyambe Zeleza

The euphoria over Senator Barack Obama's victory in the Democratic Party primaries in early June as the party's presumptive nominee in the presidential elections in November is now giving way to serious reflection on what his nomination and a possible Obama presidency might mean for the United States, the Pan-African world, and the world at large. There is little question that Senator Obama's campaign has been electrifying in its audacity and implications.

The historic appeal of Senator Obama's candidacy can be attributed to complex social forces in America's contemporary domestic and international political economies, not least the country's utter exhaustion following eight years of the Bush Administration, perhaps the worst in American history. The Bush presidency has bankrupted the country at home and diminished it abroad, left its economy in recessionary tatters and its international reputation terribly battered, thanks to the dangerous marriage between neo-liberalism and neo-conservatism, the lethal consummation of capitalist and imperialist hubris.

Driving the Obama phenomenon are other complicated dynamics, including generational, racial, gender, and class shifts in the ecology of American society and politics. Some of these forces are easily discernible, others barely perceptible, representing long-term and conjunctural trends including the possible collapse of the Republican coalition and supremacy over political and policy discourse in America's post-civil rights and post-Cold War realignments. The Bush presidency has severely devalued Republican currency as the custodians of national security, moral values, and economic management. Race is their last card.

Structural forces cannot of course be the sole explanations. There is also the organizational prowess of the Obama campaign, combining old-fashioned grassroots community organizing, hardball party politicking, and digital mobilization into an electoral juggernaut that vanquished the indomitable Clinton machine. In this equation, we must add Obama's own complex biography, which taps into four narratives of historic and contemporary American political discourses. In other words, Obama's biography, as he himself states in The Audacity of Hope, serves "as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views."

There is the son of a Kenyan father, the Obama of the migrant narrative, deeply etched in the myth of the American dream for non-black Americans. There is the self-declared black man married to a black woman, the Obama of the African American narrative of longstanding oppression and marginalization. There is the person born in Hawaii and partly raised in Indonesia with a multicultural family on several continents, the Obama of the transnational narrative that America's cosmopolitan classes aspire to for their despised country. Then there is the son of a white woman, the Obama of the biracial narrative for those who dream of a postracial America.

Each Obama appeals to different constituencies at home and abroad: Africans and African Americans seeking redress, biracials in search of recognition, whites desperate for redemption, and the rest of the world looking for respite from America's imperial arrogance and violence. "As such," Obama writes, "I am bound to disappoint some, if not all, of them." That has already started to happen as he is forced to spell out specific positions on the thorny issues facing America's domestic and foreign policy from the Iraq war to the price of gas.

The contributors to the eSymposium insightfully address many of these questions: Obama as the signified and signifier of black citizenship and globality, the symbolic and substantive implications of his candidacy, the power of hope and the limits of structural change his presidency would represent, the quintessential Americanness of this most gifted of politicians and the anxious Pan-African expectations pinned on him. While celebrating the historic achievement and possibilities that Obama's candidacy imply, all the contributors caution against investing a possible Obama presidency with the illusions of transformational power.

Continued on, with contributions by multiple authors.

Son of the Soil? Pan-Africanism & Third World Prospects in a Possible Obama Presidency

Steve Sharra

[Steve Sharra is a visiting assistant professor, Peace and Justice Studies, Dept. of Philosophy, Michigan State University.

Brief excerpts only. For full article, including links to other sources, see Sharra's blog at or

For other articles from the Pambazuka News special edition on Barack Obama: Prospects for Africa, see (August 14, 2008)]

The exclamatory commentary that has accompanied Barack Obama's ascendancy to the nomination of the Democratic Party's presidential candidate has excited, beneath it, the question of what the nomination itself, and a possible Obama presidency, might mean for the Pan-Africanist world as well as the Third World. While much of the commentary has been laudatory, there have also been cautionary tones, not to mention ambivalent ones. Beyond the excitement, caution and ambivalence of what a possible Obama presidency might entail for Pan-Africa and the Third World, what Obama himself has said in his writing, and has not said, might prove to be revelatory ... We take this exploration by examining some of the issues that have been raised by editorialists and columnists, bloggers and other commentators in Africa and beyond. We also delve into what Obama himself has said in his two best-belling books, as we ponder how the significance of a possible Obama presidency may be realized more in the symbolic transformation of perceptions of race, racism and racial identity in the US and in the world, than in what the office of the US presidency itself is capable or incapable of achieving.


In his autobiography Dreams From My Father, Barack Obama has demonstrated his awareness of both a Pan-Africanist and Third World consciousness, but for the nationalist demands of American politics today, he has not made that awareness a part of his campaign platform. But those who know Obama's autobiographical instincts in guiding his best judgments know that his upbringing and struggle to identify himself are a core part of who he is. And it is his autobiographical narrative that has appealed to people around the globe. Thus while heeding the call to be cautious in speculating what a possible Obama presidency might do for the Pan-African world, it is worth discussing the extent to which Obama's narrative in itself has the potential to influence new visions and energies in the study of the Pan-African world and its future prospects. ...

A June 5th editorial in The Daily Nation of Kenya (, where Obama's father, a Harvard Ph.D., hailed from, offered three reasons as to why Africans were celebrating Obama's victory. The first reason had to do with Obama being "the first African American ever to win nomination to vie for the presidency of the world's sole super-power." Second, Obama was considered "a son of Africa" who has excelled in the world. And thirdly, Obama was "a son of Kenya," since Obama traced "his roots" back to his fatherland, Kenya, in "the present-day Siaya District." The three reasons culminated into one huge hope: Africans were hopeful that "with this win, 'their son' will implement Africa-friendly policies that could uplift the continent from poverty"


By far the most authoritative statement of caution if not negation came from Dr. Makau Mutua, Dean and University Distinguished Professor of Law at State University of New York at Buffalo, and chair of the Kenyan Human Rights Commission. Writing in the>Daily Nation of June 5th, Dr. Mutua started out by quipping that the reaction to Obama's clinching of the Democratic nomination was as if Obama was "poised to become" the president of Kenya, or indeed Africa. ... Dr. Mutua then set out to demolish the expectations edifice by pointing out "the nature of the US as a state, and the character of the American presidency" as the reasons why he was urging caution to the hype of what Obama would do for the continent. Dr. Mutua [noted that] "the American presidency is a highly circumscribed office that is subject to larger national interests on which there is consensus about the purpose of government."

What would prevent a President Obama from being helpful to Africa then were the two core functions of the American presidency: to "develop and implement a foreign policy to enhance US interests and pursue a domestic policy that will bring economic prosperity to the nation." It was in the service of those two functions that America's role in the world had been historically shaped, and continued to be, limiting the scope of what an individual president could do ... "Why am I pessimistic about the prospects of an Obama presidency for Africa?" asked Dr. Mutua. The answer, he offered, lay in Africa's "structurally racist and exploitative relationship with Africa. In slavery - the brutal capture, transportation, sale and exploitation of Africans to build America - and the support by the United States of Cold War despots in Africa, lies the destructive relationship between black people and America."


[This points to the] important distinction that has to be made between the president as an individual and the president as an institution. As an individual, we only have to hark back to Obama's autobiography, Dreams From My Father. ... the personal importance of Africa to Barack Obama is not only evident in the book, it is profound to Obama's own identity. ... Obama takes 450 pages to offer an intimate look into his life, from early days in Hawaii, Indonesia, Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago, to an epochal homecoming in Kenya. The amount of detail Obama dedicates to his life in the United States and Indonesia, where he lived all his life hitherto, contrasts sharply with the one third of the book that he devotes to Kenya, where he only spent three months. ... ...

However the reasons for caution in imagining what an Obama presidency may do for Africa and the Third World are equally sobering. By the time we get to the US senate and to his next book, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream (2006), Africa has pretty much disappeared from Obama's narrative, replaced by distant references that characterize much of mainstream Western attitudes about Africa. Missing even from the Index, Africa is mentioned only perfunctorily, no longer as the place Obama spent a lifetime yearning for, but rather as the known poster child for the world's worst maladies and disorder. "There are times when considering the plight of Africa - the millions racked by AIDS, the constant droughts and famines, the dictatorships, the pervasive corruption, the brutality of twelve-year-old guerillas who know nothing but war wielding machetes or AK-47s -I find myself plunged into cynicism and despair" (p. 319). But Obama is also aware of the progress Africa has made, citing Uganda's success with the AIDS pandemic, and the end of civil war in countries like Mozambique. ,,,

Obama is also able to go beyond the average politician in his candidness about the ravages brought on Indonesia and other parts of the world by the ideological juggernaut of US foreign policy. ... Obama's candor continues throughout the chapter, noting that "our record is mixed - not just in Indonesia but across the world" (p. 280). He calls American foreign policy "a jumble of warring impulses," at times farsighted and serving the mutual interests of both the United States and other nations, and at other times making "for a more dangerous world" ...

In the final analysis, the significance of an Obama presidency for Pan-Africa and the Third World will lie less in what Barack Obama may or may not be able to do for people of African descent than in the symbolic message that his ascendancy to the most powerful office in the world will do in changing black people's perceptions of who they are in the world, and how others view them. That has been the underlying, implicit cause of the renewed hope in what has been said by the Kenyans, the Malawians, the South Africans, the Nigerians, Caribbean commentators, and in fact every one else around the world who has joined in the celebration. ....

Party Platforms

Both party platforms speak briefly and in general terms about Africa.

Republican Party Platform

Advancing Hope and Prosperity in Africa

The great promise of Africa has been dimmed by disease, hunger, and violence. Republicans have faced up to each of those challenges because, in addition to humanitarian concerns, the U.S. has important security interests in the stability and progress of African nations. The devastating toll of HIV/AIDS threatens to destabilize entire societies through large numbers of orphaned youths. In response, the U.S. has become the unrivaled leader in fighting the diseases that are the scourge of much of the continent. Republican-sponsored legislation has brought jobs and investment to sub-Saharan Africa. To continue that progress, we advocate continued expansion of trade with African nations.

Genocide must end. The horrendous suffering of the people in the Darfur region of Sudan, as well as less publicized human tragedies elsewhere, calls for a far more energetic and determined response from Africa's elected leaders. The United States stands ready to assist them with materiel, transportation, and humanitarian supplies. We will continue America's diplomatic efforts to secure a comprehensive and humane settlement for the people of the southern and western Sudan.

The promise of democracy and freedom in Africa is diminished by the government of Zimbabwe, which has seized lands without compensation, debased the currency, murdered and tortured its people, and so intimidated voters that free and fair elections are impossible. We support sanctions against this government, free elections, and the restoration of civil government in Zimbabwe.

See for these paragraphs in context.

Democratic Party Platform

Support Africa's Democratic Development

U.S. engagement with Africa should reflect its vital significance to the U.S. as well as its emerging role in the global economy. We recognize Africa's promise as a trade and investment partner and the importance of policies that can contribute to sustainable economic growth, job creation, and poverty alleviation. We are committed to bringing the full weight of American leadership to bear in unlocking the spirit of entrepreneurship and economic independence that is sweeping across markets of Africa.

We believe that sustainable economic growth and development will mitigate and even help to reverse such chronic and debilitating challenges as poverty, hunger, conflict, and HIV/AIDS. We are committed to bringing the full weight of American leadership to bear to work in partnership with Africa to confront these crises. We will work with the United Nations and Africa's regional organizations to prevent and resolve conflict and to build the capacity of Africa's weak and failing states. We must respond effectively when there is a humanitarian crisis particularly at this moment in Sudan where genocide persists in Darfur and the Comprehensive Peace Agreement is threatened.

Many African countries have embraced democratization and economic liberalization. We will help strengthen Africa's democratic development and respect for human rights, while encouraging political and economic reforms that result in improved transparency and accountability. We will defend democracy and stand up for rule of law when it is under assault, such as in Zimbabwe.

For this statement in context see

Additional Sources on Candidates' Positions on Africa

Council on Foreign Relations
The Candidates on U.S. Policy toward Africa
August 24, 2008

Democratic Candidates Responses to Questionnaire on Africa
Sullivan Foundation Town Hall Meeting
October 2007

AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

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