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USA/Africa: Reflections on the Transition

AfricaFocus Bulletin
Nov 18, 2008 (081118)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

"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 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 United States.

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

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

Obama's economic advisors: Will well-tested enemies of Africa prevail?

by Patrick Bond

Nov 11, 2008

[Patrick Bond directs the Centre for Civil Society in Durban, South Africa:; the article excerpted below was distributed on]

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 suggest:

  • 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 Africans.
  • 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 period."

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. Volcker.

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 low..."

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 Washington Consensus.

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 global economy"?

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?

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 opponent.
  4. 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)..
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

Inconclusive findings

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 enrichment.

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 ocean.

Obama and Africa: The Change We Have Been Waiting For?

By Howard W French

Nov. 6, 2008

[Excerpts. Full text available on]

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 speculation.

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 Israeli-Palestinian talks."

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 impact.

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 problems.

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 neighbors.

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.

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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