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USA/Africa: Reflections on the Transition
Nov 18, 2008 (081118)
(Reposted from sources cited below)
"The problem [with projections of President-elect Obama's foreign
policy priorities] is that for a new leader promising change, they
have tended to reflect the most traditional sorts of Washington
priorities, neglecting other parts of the world that are starving
for American moral and political leadership; places where Obama, by
virtue of his unique background, offers particularly compelling
potential for impact. ... The most obvious and important omission
...is Africa, a continent of nearly one billion people today that
according to United Nations projections will count an astounding
two billion people by mid-century." - Howard W. French
Reports of widespread jubilation by Africans and friends of Africa
around at the world at the election victory by Barack Obama are not
exaggerated. Ironically, however, Africa policy is one of the areas
in which most observers - including many of those who are rejoicing
- are well aware that change may be very slow in coming.
Preoccupation with domestic crises, reliance on the conventional
wisdom of Clinton re-treads within the foreign policy
establishment, and the overwhelming weight of unilateral and
conventional thinking among U.S. policy-makers will severely
constrain the more open vision of Obama's inspirational
multilateralism. Prospects for different outcomes will depend not
only on the incoming president himself, but on pro-Africa
initiatives from the continent itself and its advocates in the
This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains three post-election commentaries
focusing on different aspects of Africa and U.S. Africa policy in
the coming Obama years, by Patrick Bond in South Africa, Mia Couto
in Mozambique, and Howard French in New York.
For earlier AfricaFocus Bulletins with a focus on U.S./Africa
relations, see http://www.africafocus.org/country/usa-africa.php
++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++++++++
Obama's economic advisors: Will well-tested enemies of Africa
by Patrick Bond
Nov 11, 2008
[Patrick Bond directs the Centre for Civil Society in Durban, South
Africa: http://www.ukzn.ac.za/ccs; the article excerpted below was
distributed on http://lists.kabissa.org/mailman/listinfo/debate.]
One of Barack Obama's leading advisors has done more damage to
Africa, its economies and its people than anyone I can think of in
world history, including even Cecil John Rhodes. That charge may
surprise readers, but hear me out.
His name is Paul Volcker, and although he is relatively unknown
around the world, the 82 year old banker was recommended as 'a
legend!' to Obama by Austan Goolsbee, the president-elect's chief
economic advisor (and a professor at the University of Chicago).
Volcker was recently profiled by the Wall Street Journal: "The
cigar-chomping central banker from 1979 to 1987, he received blame
for driving up interest rates and tipping the US into the deepest
recession since the Great Depression."
We'll consider the impact of Volcker's rule on Africa in a moment.
But why dredge up crimes nearly thirty years old?
This kind of reckoning is important, as three current examples
- Reparations lawsuits are now being heard in New York by victims
of apartheid who are collectively requesting $400 billion in
damages from three dozen US corporations who profited from South
African operations during the same period. Supreme Court justices
had so many investments in these companies that in May they had to
bounce the case back to a lower New York court to decide,
effectively throwing out an earlier judgment against the
plaintiffs: the Jubilee anti-debt movement, the Khulumani Support
Group for apartheid victicms, and 17 000 other black South
- Last month a San Francisco court began considering a similar
reparations lawsuit - under the Alien Tort Claims Act - filed by
Larry Bowoto and the Ilaje people of the Niger Delta against
Chevron for 1998 murders similar to those that took the life of Ken
Saro-Wiwa on November 10, 1995.
- In Boston last month, Harvard University's Pride Chigwedere
released a study into preventable deaths - at least 330 000 -
caused by Thabo Mbeki's AIDS policies during the early 2000s. The
ex-president has 'blood on his hands,' according to Zackie Achmat
of the Treatment Action Campaign, requesting a judicial inquiry.
The same critical treatment is appropriate for Volcker, because of
the awesome financial destruction he imposed, within most Africans'
living memory. His policies stunted the continent's growth when it
most needed internal economic coherence.
Even the International Monetary Fund's official history cannot
avoid using the famous phrase most associated with the Fed chair's
name: "The origins of the debt crisis of the 1980s may be traced
back to and through the lurching efforts of the world's governments
to cope with the economic instabilities of the 1970s... [including
the] monetary contraction in the United States (the 'Volcker
Shock') that brought a sharp rise in world interest rates and a
sustained appreciation of the dollar."
Volcker's decision to raise rates so high to rid the US economy of
inflation and strengthen the fast-falling dollar had special
significance in Africa, write British academics Sarah Bracking and
Graham Harrison: "1979 marked a radical change in global economic
policy, inaugurated with the 'Volcker Shock' (so called after Paul
Volcker, then chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal
Reserve) when the United States suddenly and dramatically raised
interest rates, [which] increased the cost of African debt
precipitously, since a majority of debt stock was held in dollars.
The majority of the newly independent states had been effectively
delivered into at least twenty years of indentured labor. From that
point on access to finance became a key policing mechanism directed
at African populations."
Adds journalist Naomi Klein in her book The Shock Doctrine, "In
developing countries carrying heavy debt loads, the Volcker Shock
was like a giant Taser gun fired from Washington, sending the
developing world into convulsions. Soaring interest rates meant
higher interest payments on foreign debts, and often the higher
payments could only be met by taking on more loans... It was after
the Volcker Shock that Brazil's debt exploded, doubling from $50
billion to $100 billion in six years. Many African countries,
having borrowed heavily in the seventies, found themselves in
similar straits: Nigeria's debt in the same short time period went
from $9 billion to $29 billion."
Elmar Altvater of Berlin's Free University recalls how the world
"slid into the debt crisis of the 1980s after the US Federal
Reserve tripled interest rates (the so called 'Volcker Shock'),
leading to what later has been described as the 'lost decade' for
the developing world."
How 'lost'? The British Medical Journal complained in 1999 of
orthodox World Bank structural adjustment policies that immediately
followed: "According to Unicef, a drop of 10-25% in average incomes
in the 1980s-the decade noted for structural adjustment lending-in
Africa and Latin America, and a 25% reduction in spending per
capita on health and a 50% reduction per capita on education in the
poorest countries of the world, are mostly attributable to
structural adjustment policies. Unicef has estimated that such
adverse effects on progress in developing countries resulted in the
deaths of half a million young children - and in just a 12 month
A few honest mainstream economists also explain Africa's economic
crisis in these terms. "The external shock that might have
precipitated the developing country slowdown is the increase in
real interest rates after the Volcker Shock in 1979", wrote World
Bank senior researcher William Easterly in 2001. "The interest on
external debt as a ratio to GDP has a statistically significant and
negative effect on growth."
A few blocks away from the Federal Reserve, one of Volcker's
closest allies was World Bank president Tom Clausen, formerly Bank
of America chief executive officer. As the Volcker Shock wore on,
in 1983, Clausen offered his Board of Directors this frank
confession: "We must ask ourselves: How much pressure can these
nations be expected to bear? How far can the poorest peoples be
pushed into further reducing their meagre standards of living? How
resilient are the political systems and institutions in these
countries in the face of steadily worsening conditions? I don't
have the answers to these important questions. But if these
countries are pushed too far, and too much is demanded of them
without the provision of substantial assistance in their adjustment
efforts, we must face the consequences. And those will surely exact
a cost in terms of human suffering and political instability."
At that point, "Africa was not even on my radar screen", Volcker
told interviewers Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin.
[In 1979, Volcker] was chosen to chair the Federal Reserve, which
sets US (and by extension world) interest rates. As Jimmy Carter's
domestic policy advisor Stuart Eizenstat explained, "Volcker was
selected because he was the candidate of Wall Street. This was
their price, in effect." ... [he stayed] at the Fed until 1987,
when he went back to a high-paid Wall Street job.
Now he is back, and according to a recent profile by the Wall
Street Journal, "Obama is increasingly relying on Mr. Volcker. His
staff now routinely reviews policy proposals and speeches with Mr.
Conference calls and face-to-face meetings of the Obama economic
team are often reorganized to accommodate his schedule. When the
team discusses the financial crisis, 'The most important question
to Obama: What does Paul Volcker think?' says Jason Furman, the
campaign's economic-policy director... When Sen. Obama raised the
prospect of a package of spending and tax measures to 'stimulate'
the economy, Mr. Volcker disapproved. 'Americans are spending
beyond their means,' he told the group. A stimulus package would
delay the belt-tightening and savings needed, he added, proposing
instead better regulation and assistance to banks."
By November 8, the odds of Volcker being appointed Treasury
Secretary were 10%, according to the Journal's betting pool. The
race was between New York Federal Reserve Bank president Tim
Geithner and former Clinton Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers, at
40% odds each. Geithner served under Summers and Robert Rubin in
Bill Clinton's Treasury Department during the 1990s.
Summers is best known for the sexism controversy which cost him the
presidency of Harvard in 2006. But fifteen years earlier he gained
infamy as an advocate of African genocide and environmental racism,
thanks to a confidential World Bank memo he signed when he was the
institution's senior vice president and chief economist: "I think
the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the
lowest-wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that...
I've always thought that underpopulated countries in Africa are
vastly under-polluted, their air quality is vastly inefficiently
After all, Summers continued, inhabitants of low-income countries
typically die before the age at which they would begin suffering
prostate cancer associated with toxic dumping. And in any event,
using marginal productivity of labour as a measure, low-income
Africans are not worth very much anyhow. Nor are African's
aesthetic concerns with air pollution likely to be as substantive
as they are for wealthy northerners.
Such arguments were said by Summers to be made in an 'ironic' way
(and in his defense, he may have simply plagiarized the memo from
a colleague, Lant Pritchett). Yet their internal logic was pursued
with a vengeance by the World Bank and IMF long after Summers moved
over to the Clinton Treasury Department, where in 1999 he insisted
that Joseph Stiglitz be fired by Bank president James Wolfensohn,
for speaking out against the impeccable economic logic of the
Volcker, Summers and a whole crew of similar capitalist economists
are whispering in Obama's ear for a resurgent US based on brutal
national self-interest. ... Can TransAfrica, AfricaAction, the
Institute for Policy Studies, the American Friends Service
Committee, Jubilee USA, ActionAid and other genuine advocates for
the continent get a word in edgewise, between fits of cackling from
the corporate liberals who think they own Obama? Will the
president-elect ever get advice from economists James K. Galbraith
of the University of Texas or Center for Economic and Policy
Research codirectors Dean Baker and Mark Weisbrot, who correctly
read the various financial crises way ahead of time, and whose
records promoting social justice would serve Africa far better?
Probably not. So it is vital for Africans to wake up to the danger
that the likes of Volcker and Summers represent. Anyone paying
attention to the continent's economic decline since 1980 knows the
damage they did, but Obama apparently needs to hear more of their
sins against his father's people before he chooses his Treasury
Secretary next week. And while he's at it, how about a revision of
Obama's utterly neoliberal 'fundamental objective' for the
continent, which is "to accelerate Africa's integration into the
And if Obama were an African?
By Mia Couto
[Portuguese-language original distributed on H-Luso-Africa
listserv, November 15, 2008. Translation to English by AfricaFocus]
Africans rejoiced at the victory of Obama. I was one of them. After
a wide-awake night, in the unreality of dawn's light, my tears ran
as he gave his victory speech. At that point, I was also a winner.
The same happiness that ran through me when Nelson Mandela was
released and the new South African statesman consolidated the path
for the dignity of Africa.
On the night of November 5, the new North American president was
not only a man talking. He was the reborn voice of suppressed hope
rising, free, within us. My heart had voted, even without
permission: used to expecting little, I celebrated a victory
without dimensions. Going out on the street, I found that my city
had moved to Chicago, blacks and whites breathing and sharing the
same happy surprise. Because the victory of Obama was not one race
over another: without the mass participation of Americans of all
races (including the white majority) the United States of America
would not have given us reason to celebrate.
In the following days, I was taking in the euphoric reaction from
the nost diverse corners of our continent. Anonymous people,
ordinary people wanted to witness to their happiness. At the same
time I was taking notes, with some reservations, of the messages of
solidarity from African leaders. Almost all called Obama "our
brother". And I thought: are all these leaders being sincere?
Is Barack Obama actually related to so many people so politically
different? I have doubts. In the rush to see only the prejudices of
others, we are not able to see our own racism and xenophobia. In
haste to condemn the West, we forget to accept lessons arriving for
us from the other side of the world.
It was then that I saw a text by a Cameroonian writer, Patrice
Nganang, entitled: "And if Obama were Cameroonian?". The issues
that my colleague of Cameroon raised prompted several questions,
all tied to the following hypothesis: and if Obama were African and
running for the presidency in an African country? These are the
questions I would like to explore in this text.
And if Obama were an African and an candidate for the presidency of
an African country?
- If Obama were African, his opponent (any of Africa's George
Bushes) would find a way to change the constitution to prolong his
mandate beyond the expected term. And our Obama would have to wait
a couple more years to run again. The wait could be long, if we
take into account the permanence of a single president in power in
Africa. Some 41 years in Gabon, 39 in Libya, 28 in Zimbabwe, 28 in
Equatorial Guinea, 28 in Angola, 27 in Egypt, 26 in Cameroon. And
so on, running through as many as 15 presidents on the continent in
office for more than 20 consecutive years. Mugabe will celebrate
his 90th birthday when the latest mandate which he imposed in
defiance of the popular verdict runs out.
- If Obama were African, it is probable that, being a candidate of
the opposition party, he would have the opportunity to campaign.
They would threat him, for example, as in Zimbabwe or in Cameroon:
he would be physically attacked, arrested again and again, have his
passport withdrawn. The Bushs of Africa do not tolerate opponents,
do not tolerate democracy.
- If Obama were African, he wouldn't even be eligible in many
countries because the elites in power invented restrictive laws
that close the doors of the presidency to children of foreigners
and descendants of immigrants. The Zambian nationalist Kenneth
Kaunda is being questioned, in his own country, as a son of
Malawians. They conveniently "discovered" that the man who led
Zambia to independence and ruled for more than 25 years was, after
all, a Malawian, and therefore had governed "illegally" for all
this time. Arrested for alleged coup intentions, our Kenneth Kaunda
(who gave his name to one of the most prominent avenues of Maputo)
was banned from engaging in politics, thus freeing the regime of an
- Let us be clear: Obama is black in the United States. In Africa
he is mulatto. If Obama were African, he would see his race used
against him. Not that skin color is really important for people who
want to see leaders that are competent and and work seriously. But
the predatory elites would campaign against someone who they would
designate as "not an authentic African.". The same black brother
who is hailed today as the new American president would be
humiliated at home as being representative of "the others", those
of another race, another flag (or perhaps no flag at all)..
- If he were African, our "brother" would have to give an account
to moralists when he thought of including thanks in his speech for
support from gays. A mortal sin for advocates of the so-called
"pure African." For these moralists - so often in power, or with
the powerful - homosexuality is an unacceptable defect that is
external to Africa and to Africans.
- If he should win an election, Obama would probably have to sit
at the negotiation table and share power with the loser, in a
degrading negotiating process that in some African countries allows
the loser to renegotiate that which seems sacred - the will of the
people expressed in the votes. At this point, Barack Obama would be
sitting at a table with a Bush in endless rounds negotiating with
African mediators who would tell us to be content with crumbs from
those electoral processes that do not satisfy the dictators.
Make no mistake: there are exceptions to this general picture. We
all know the exceptions we are talking about, and we Mozambicans
ourselves, we were able to make one from such conditions.
And equally make no mistake: all these obstacles to an African
Obama would not be imposed by the people, but by the power holders,
by elites that unscrupulously make governing a source of
The truth is that Obama is not African. The truth is that Africans
- ordinary people and anonymous workers - celebrated with all their
heart the American victory of Obama. But I do not believe that
dictators and corrupt African leaders have the right to be invited
to this party.
Because the joy that millions of Africans felt on November 5 came
because they invested in Obama exactly the opposite of what the
know from their experience with their own leaders. As much as it
hurts us to admit it, only a minority of African states know or
knew leaders preoccupied with the public good.
On the same day that Obama was confirmed the winner, the
international media was filled with terrible news about Africa. On
the same day the victory of most Americans, Africa was still being
defeated by war, mismanagement, the excessive ambition of greedy
politicians. After they killed democracy, these politicians are
killing politics itself. What is left is war in some cases. Iun
others, withdrawal and cynicism.
There is only one real way of celebrating Obama in African
countries: it is to struggle so that more flags of hope may rise
here in our continent. It is to struggle so that the African Obamas
can also overcome. And for us, Africans of all races and
ethnicities, to claim victory with these Obamas and celebrate in
our own house that which we now celebrate for a house across the
Obama and Africa: The Change We Have Been Waiting For?
By Howard W French
Nov. 6, 2008
[Excerpts. Full text available on http://www.howardwfrench.com]
In the momentary lull that follows a presidential election, between
full-out campaigning and real decision-making, the media has a few
time-honored rituals that center on parlor games and policy
This election has been no different. While we wait for an Obama
administration to start taking shape, one of the favorite exercises
has been gazing into crystal balls about the foreign policy crises
the new president will face. Others, a bit more boldly, make
forthright statements about what the incoming government's foreign
policy priorities should be.
Fred Kaplan's take in Slate on Wednesday was a fairly typical
offering of this kind. Under the heading, "A Foreign-Policy Repair
Manual: Six priorities for President Obama," he went on to detail
a fairly typical laundry list of crises and opportunities, from
getting out of Iraq to "laying the initial groundwork for renewed
As priorities, the lists were fine as far as they went. The problem
is that for a new leader promising change, they have tended to
reflect the most traditional sorts of Washington priorities,
neglecting other parts of the world that are starving for American
moral and political leadership; places where Obama, by virtue of
his unique background, offers particularly compelling potential for
The most obvious and important omission by list keepers like Kaplan
is Africa, a continent of nearly one billion people today that
according to United Nations projections will count an astounding
two billion people by mid-century.
Today, for example, a new war looms in the Congo, a place where
unbeknown to most Americans the United States has played a critical
and mostly disastrous role since independence from Belgium in 1960.
According to respectable international estimates some four million
people have died in the Congo as a result of wars there since 1996,
the greatest toll anywhere since World War II.
There is a powerful argument to be made that this disaster, along
with the Rwandan genocide that preceded it, is Bill Clinton's most
important foreign policy legacy, and an Obama policy toward Africa
run by many of the same people and carrying forward Clinton era
thinking would be a sign of disdain for the continent and its
The Congo's apocalyptic dissolution began in earnest when
Washington gave Rwanda the green light to invade the country,
setting off a free for all that sucked in many of the Congo's
Washington has spent money on the crisis through the United
Nations, but in terms of showing political leadership it has run
from the problems of the Congo ever since, leaving a vast and
potentially rich country that is the effective crossroads of north,
south, east and west in Africa crippled and unattended.
Africa has never long retained the attention of our foreign policy
elite, journalists included, and yet today this fast-growing
continent, the homeland of our new president's father, teeters on
a fulcrum point, credibly capable of veering off in radically
different directions in ways that will profoundly affect Americans
and indeed mankind.
An Africa that can douse its conflicts, build functioning
institutions and continue to lay the foundations of democracy
stands to become an important player in the next phase of
globalization, as labor costs rise in much of Asia, and capital
begins to prospect for productive opportunities elsewhere.
An Africa pocked by neglected failing states will increasingly
become a nexus of catastrophe, and contrary to the wishes of our
foreign policy establishment, which always seeks to confine Africa
to the realm of our lowest priorities, the blowback from its
ever-larger disasters will inflict high costs and pain everywhere.
While much of the world has gone sour on the United States' claim
of being a beacon of hope, the 53 countries of Africa have by and
large remained profoundly attached to a vision of America as land
of justice, opportunity and freedom. Obama's election will only
make such feelings much more intense, a fact I can attest to from
correspondence from friends across the continent of prayer vigils
in every faith for his candidacy and for his success in office.
To waste this moment would be more than a lost opportunity. For the
United States, for Africa and for the world, it would be a tragedy.
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