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USA/Africa: After the Speech

AfricaFocus Bulletin
Jul 21, 2009 (090721)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

President Obama's speech met with mixed reviews. In Africa as well as in the United States, there was applause for the criticism of corrupt African rulers and the inspiring rhetoric calling for Africans to take responsibility for their future. But many commentators also called for a reality check.

"You have the power to hold your leaders accountable and to build institutions that serve the people," President Obama declared to African youth, and promised "America will be with you." An honest effort to keep that promise, however, would require much more change in Washington than the president seems to realize.

This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains a selection of post-speech commentaries stressing that making space for African initiatives also requires a more critical look at U.S. policy. AfricaFocus readers may have already seen several of these commentaries, and length precludes including the full text in the e-mail edition of this Bulletin. So I have opted to include excerpts from four that struck me as particularly incisive, with links to the full text of each in the web version of this bulletin at, as well as links to several additional shorter commentaries.

Another AfricaFocus Bulletin sent out today contains excerpts from the latest U.S. government report on U.S.-Africa trade, highlighting the prominence of oil exports from Africa to the U.S., an implicit reality check to the president's aspirational emphasis on the linkage between good governance and economic progress.

For the text of President Obama's speech, see

For earlier AfricaFocus Bulletins on U.S. Africa relations, visit

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

Obama in Africa: A Major Disappointment

by Gerald Caplan:

[Gerald Caplan, a Toronto-based researcher-writer and activist with a Ph.D. in African history, is the author of Rwanda: The Preventable Genocide and The Betrayal of Africa.]

As expected, President Obama used his twenty-four-hour trip to Ghana to send messages about his thinking and his priorities for Africa. This was a moment that progressives involved in Africa have been waiting for, hoping for some clear thinking about Africa's many challenges and the American role in addressing them. On the basis of his interviews and speeches, they will be sorely disappointed. Once we get beneath the eloquence and style, it's hard to point to anything in any of his remarks that couldn't have been said, however inarticulately, by George Bush.

Just because President Obama possesses African heritage doesn't mean he couldn't learn a thing or two about the continent's history.

In one interview, Obama, with no false humility, stated that "I'm probably as knowledgeable about African history as anybody who's occupied my office". No question that's true. Still, the bar in that particular competition was not exactly set very high. And as his various comments demonstrated, he's not nearly as knowledgeable as he thinks he is. Much of what he believes about Africa and how it can meet its many challenges is simply wrong.

At every opportunity, the President emphasized internal African causes for the continent's woes, highlighting especially the need for good governance and ending corruption. So he argued, for example, that "you're not going to get investment without good governance." That's just wrong. For decades most foreign investment in Africa has gone to South Africa first, even under apartheid, and then to such oil-rich nations as Angola and Nigeria. First and foremost, western companies, backed energetically by their embassies, are after Africa's resources--oil, gas and to a lesser extent minerals. These are the very sectors where we find vast corruption, environmental degradation, the vicious exploitation of African labor, and, often enough, Africa's wars. In no case does good governance play a role in investment decisions. Often enough venal leaders are precisely what investors look for.

Similarly, Obama insisted that business won't invest where "government officials are asking for 10, 15, 25 percent off the top." That's an illogical assertion. If foreign businessmen weren't only too eager to play the bribery game, those African officials couldn't get away with demanding a cut off the top. Nigeria, Angola, South Africa, Kenya, Cameroon, Congo--everyone knows how to get a contract in these and other countries. Which also should remind us that high-level corruption in Africa could not and does not happen without intimate western collaboration.

Obama's repeated insistence on this theme of good governance and corruption is somewhere between ironic and farcical, given the eight African leaders who were invited to last week's G-8 summit. Five were from sub-Saharan Africa, three from North Africa. Every one of them is ranked poorly or abysmally in Transparency International's 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index. Seven of the eight are considered only partly free or not free by Freedom House in 2009; only one (South Africa, led by the deeply corrupt Jacob Zuma) is deemed free. It was an important if inadvertent lesson: Corruption and poor governance are indeed widespread, if not quite ubiquitous, across Africa, and the west cheerfully plays footsies with all those governments.

Obama says there is "a direct correlation between governance and prosperity." That's why he chose democratic Ghana for his first official state visit, rather than his father's country, Kenya. Heaven knows that the ruling parties in Kenya are brazenly corrupt and dedicated to little beyond enriching themselves and their supporters. Ghana, on the other hand, after years of bad governments following the CIA-backed coup that overthrew its first president, Kwame Nkrumah, can now be said to be fairly stable and democratic (though hardly free of corruption). Obama knows lots of interesting things. When his father left Kenya in the early 1960s to study in the USA, he noted, the GDP of Kenya was higher than that of South Korea; today, Korea is one of the world's great economic success stories, while Kenya languishes.

The UN's Human Development Index backs this up. In 2008, of 179 countries listed, Korea was ranked an impressive twenty-fifth while Kenya was 144. But the President should look at these ratings more closely. Despite good governance, and though some real progress is being made, Ghana was ranked 142, virtually tied with Kenya among the bottom 20 percent of the world's nations. Something else must be going on here that accounts for this depressing situation because Obama's analysis can't.

Here's the heart of his diagnosis,: While the international community "has not always been as strategic as it should have been [regarding Africa]...ultimately I'm a big believer that Africans are responsible for Africa...for many years we've made excuses about corruption or poor governance, that this was somehow the consequence of neocolonialism, or the West has been oppressive, or racist. I'm not a believer in excuses."

This is really a startling argument for the head of a country whose great political battles still rage around the meaning of its Constitution, adopted in 1787 while the slave trade still raged, and whose personal inspiration comes from a predecessor who was murdered in 1865, twenty years before formal colonialism began in Africa. To dismiss the slave trade and a century or more of colonial rule, to minimize the impact of neocolonialism by France and the US, to ignore the incalculable decades-long damage done to Africa as a pawn in the cold war--all of this seems to requite willful blindness in order to peddle a particular agenda.

Of course Obama's obsession about appalling governance is not wrong; I share it completely. Africans have for decades been betrayed by a veritable pageant of monstrous leaders, one more egregious than the other. But another truth is that the United States actively backed almost all of them, and if the US didn't, France did; that's part of the neocolonial record. The west also supplied many of the arms that were used in the appalling internal conflicts that have roiled Africa for so long. Even today, the US, Britain and France continue to remain close to many African leaders whose democratic credentials leave much to be desired, as the G-8 meeting underlined.

The President raised Zimbabwe to make his case. The West, he is not responsible for the destruction caused by Robert Mugabe and his government. The destruction is only too true. The West's innocence is not.

Had Britain fulfilled its clear obligations and ended white minority rule in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe in a timely fashion, fifteen years of vicious civil war would have been avoided. Instead, the final African victory left the country in the hands of an embittered, vengeful Mugabe. America and Britain were collaborating with the apartheid regime in South Africa at the very moment it was actively working worked to sabotage Mugabe's new government. The IMF forced structural adjustment programs on an unwilling Zimbabwean government, helping to undermine its economy. All this is well known. So is the fact that for the first twenty years of his reign, "Good old Bob" Mugabe was one of the west's favorite "Big Men", blithely ignoring his ferocious oppression of his opponents. Not until he began expropriating the vast holdings of white farmers ten years ago--all of whose land was stolen from Africans during the twentieth century (though not necessarily by the current owners)--did western media and western governments decide he was Enemy Number One. Can Obama know nothing of this record?

"Development depends on good governance," Obama lectured Ghana's Parliament. "That is the change that can unlock Africa's potential." With all due respect to the President, this is malarkey. The reality, which surely Obama grasps, is that for centuries, year in and year out, far more of Africa's wealth and resources pour out of the continent to the rich world than the west provides Africa through all sources, from aid to investment to trade. Good governance will not end this perverse truth.

Beyond that, even if every African country was led by a saint, they could do nothing about the severe environmental and economic damage that global warming--for which Africa has no responsibility whatever--is inflicting across the continent. Obama actually mentioned this in his speech, yet ignores it with his obsessive fixation on Africa's sole responsibility for its problems.

Even the most exemplary African leaders could do nothing about the destructive impact on African development of the present worldwide economic crisis, for which Africa has no responsibility whatever.

No African leader has the slightest influence on the drastic increase in food prices that is causing such suffering, including outright starvation, to millions of Africans.

Even a continent of Mandelas couldn't change the massive subsidies that western governments provide to their agribusinesses. When they're in Ghana, the Obamas should do some comparison shopping. They may be taken aback to find that it costs more to buy a locally-bred chicken than a subsidized one that's been shipped frozen all the way from Europe. To this, Obama reassured his Ghanaian hosts, "America can do more to promote trade and investment."

And nothing can be done about the enormous damage already done to Africa by the destructive neoliberal policies that were imposed on African governments by the World Bank and IMF over the past thirty years. Even today, while their rhetoric has changed, these institutions, deeply American-influenced, continue to insist on discredited policies that have failed to promote growth while vastly increasing inequality.

None of this was tackled by Obama. For him, the relationship between Africa and the rich world is a one-way street. Africans are screwing up, and if they want more American aid, they've got to get their act together. This is the Obama analysis--simplistic, myopic, patronizing, implicitly threatening, just what we expected and got from George Bush. Like Bush, evidence based-reality takes a back seat to whatever reality a president chooses to concoct.

For the past decade, it's been widely agreed that the US has three overriding interests in Africa: exploiting natural resources, above all oil and gas; fighting Islamists; and competing with China. In all cases, Africa is merely a pawn, something to be used to pursue America's interests, not Africa's. African development and everything related to it are secondary matters. Substantively, nothing Obama has committed himself to alters these priorities, especially his strong endorsement of the suspiciously vague new US military command structure for Africa, called AFRICOM. But the Americans have been unable to persuade a single African country except ever-cooperative Liberia to host the base for this structure, all fearing the increasing militarization of US-African relations. Given that they're a gang of corrupt leaders who govern poorly, this should surely send Obama a pretty clear message.

I documented the case against the Obama analysis of Africa in a book published last year, The Betrayal of Africa. It demonstrates the twin burdens that actually account for Africa's condition--their own wretched leaders combined with destructive western policies and practices. I know the President is a pretty busy guy, but it's a short book and he clearly enjoys reading and learning. Unless he learns what's really going on in Africa, his administration will become yet another in an endless line that has caused Africa more grief than good. Hard to credit, but yes it can.

Obama in Ghana: The speech he might have made

Firoze Manji

2009-07-16, Issue 442

Good morning. It is an honor for me to be in Accra, and to speak to the representatives of the people of Ghana. I am deeply grateful for the welcome that I've received, as are Michelle, Malia, and Sasha Obama. Ghana's history is rich, the ties between our two countries are strong, and I am proud that this is my second visit to Africa as President of the United States.

Let me begin my admitting that the history of my country's relationship with Africa has not always been positive. The United States government and its agencies have on a number of occasions undermined the legitimate democratic aspirations of African people, either by sponsoring opposition, destablising governments, assisting coups d'etat, and, God forgive us, assassinating your elected leaders. During my visit to Egypt, I offered my apologies for the role played by the CIA in the overthrow of a legitimate and democratically elected government in Iran. The litany of such actions taken by successive US governments, either directly or indirectly, would be too long to recount here. Suffice, for the moment, to mention Kwame Nkrumah, Patrice Lumumba, Thomas Sankara, and the events in countries such as Mozambique, Angola and others where we have supported the use of terror against the liberation movements and the people, just as our government has done in many countries in Latin America. I could not legitimately place my feet on this beautiful continent, this land of my father, without my apologies.

I say this knowing full well the tragic past that has sometimes haunted this part of the world. I have the blood of Africa within me, and my family's own story encompasses both the tragedies and triumphs of the larger African story.

My grandfather was a cook for the British in Kenya, and though he was a respected elder in his village, his employers called him "boy" for much of his life. He was on the periphery of Kenya's liberation struggles, but he was still imprisoned briefly during repressive times. In his life, colonialism wasn't simply the creation of unnatural borders or unfair terms of trade - it was something experienced personally, day after day, year after year.

My father grew up herding goats in a tiny village, an impossible distance away from the American universities where he would come to get an education. He came of age at an extraordinary moment of promise for Africa. The struggles of his own father's generation were giving birth to new nations, beginning right here in Ghana. Africans were educating and asserting themselves in new ways. History was on the move.

I do not see the countries and peoples of Africa as a world apart; I see Africa as a fundamental part of our interconnected world - as partners with America on behalf of the future that we want for all our children. That partnership must be grounded in mutual responsibility, and that is what I want to speak with you about today.

We must start from the simple premise that Africa's future is up to Africans. This is the simple truth of a time when the boundaries between people are overwhelmed by our connections. Your prosperity has expanded America's. True, the western world has contributed more than $2 trillion in aid to developing countries over the last five decades. But at the same time, the West's wealth has grown exponentially as a result of aid being used as fuel for the engine of wealth creation, taking many trillions of dollars out of Africa for the benefit of a few. If the West is able to find $18 trillion to bail out the banks from the result of a financial crisis that has been largely of their own making, it should not be difficult for us to raise much more to bail out Africans from impoverishment that has largely not been of their own making.

The greatest burden faced by African people is the burden of debt accumulated often as a result of the irresponsible lending surprisingly similar to those that led to the crisis in the housing market in the United States of America recently. I commit my government to calling on the G8 countries to cancel all debt - not just for the poorest countries. To be making money out of impoverishment should be unacceptable.

And if trade partnerships are to work, then there has to be an equality of opportunity in the market. I don't believe that we will be able to stop subsidies to farmers in the USA in the immediate future. But I believe that one way forward is to ensure that African farmers receive a subsidy that is equivalent. Only then will the market work for the many, not just the few.

I am deeply aware of the increase in suffering through starvation that has affected the continent. By the end of 2008, the UN has reported, "the annual food import basket in LDCs cost more than three times that of 2000, not because of the increased volume of food imports, but as a result of rising food prices." These developments added 75 million people to the ranks of the hungry and drove an estimated 125 million people in developing countries into extreme poverty. With record grain harvests in 2007, there was more than enough food to feed everyone at least 1.5 times current demand. Globally, population is not outstripping food supply. We are seeing more people hungry and at greater numbers than before. There is food on the shelves but people are priced out of the market. So the problem is not that there is not enough food, but how it is produced and for whom. Rather than chaining African farmers to the agro-industrial complex of fertilisers, pesticides, and genetically modified crops, my government will seek to learn from, and promote, African family farming systems that have thousands of years of experience of ensuring the production of nutritious and environmentally sustainable agriculture.

I believe that this moment is as promising for Ghana - and for Africa - as the moment when my father came of age and new nations were being born. This is a new moment of promise. Only this time, it will be the young people - brimming with talent and energy and hope - who can claim the future that so many in my father's generation never found.

To realize that promise, we must first recognize a fundamental truth that you have given life to in Ghana: development depends upon good governance. That is the ingredient which has been missing in far too many places, for far too long. That is the change that can unlock Africa's potential. And that is a responsibility that can only be met by Africans.

By good governance, I mean not only how citizens hold their elected governments to account, but also how citizens hold other institutions, including in the private sector, to account. Many American corporations have offered to help in Africa's development by investing in oil, mining, and other industrial ventures. But their capacity to ensure that the investment benefits the countries and the people requires active engagement of citizens in monitoring their behavior. Just as having a written constitution ensures that there is a code of ethical behavior that you expect your representatives to abide by, so you need to have a written code of conduct for the operations of foreign companies - whether they be from China, Europe or the United States of America. My Administration has limited powers to enforce an appropriate code of conduct overseas. It is up to citizens in Africa to ensure that their governments enact legislation that ensures that foreign corporations prioritise benefits for the majority and ensure that we do not see the kind of environmental destruction that some corporations have been involved in in neighbouring countries. That is the heart of good governance. The US administration cannot do it from Washington. But together we can.

The actions and views of citizens are central to any effective democracy. In the United States, our citizens would not accept - under any conditions or for any reason - the presence of foreign troops on our soil. Yet it is a sad fact that current negotiations between a number of African governments and AFRICOM may indeed lead to the presence of such troops on your soils. How does that reflect on good governance, governance that is based on the will of the people? My father lived through the tragic times of foreign military occupation of much of the continent. It would be a tribute to his memory if I were to ensure that the future of Africa brings an end to such a situation.

The world's attention has often been focused on the scale of corruption in Africa. Good governance requires citizens to hold to account those who take corrupt money for favour. But corruption is a two-way street, it is not just the taker but also the giver who has to be held to account. Where there is evidence of any US government or corporation that engages in this practice, my Administration needs to know about it. But we depend on the citizens of Africa to police the behaviour of all those in positions of power.

I am aware that my election, as a son of Africa, to the office of the President of the United States of America has unleashed great hopes and expectations - most of which it is impossible for me to fulfil on my own. I am President of all citizens of the United States of America. But I also recognize that not all American citizens voted for me. My administration has to work within the constraints of building consensus for policies amongst people who have widely different aspirations. Policies that my administration adopts are frequently a reflection of the balance of forces of different constituencies. Until and unless there are strong voices expressed from American citizens in combination with the voices of the citizens of Africa, the policies of my Administration will inevitably have shortcomings from the perspectives of Africa's people. The same goes for claims for reparations that are demanded of the former colonial powers. Until and unless there is clear evidence of popular demand for reparations, and governments in the North recognize that there is no alternative but to concede, then individuals, no matter what position they hold, can do little to change the prevailing consensus. Let me repeat. Together we can.

So I do not see the countries and peoples of Africa as a world apart; I see Africa as a fundamental part of our interconnected world - as partners with America on behalf of the future that we want for all our children. That partnership must be grounded in mutual responsibility.

As I have repeatedly said during my election campaign and since, we can change the world, together we can. My visit to the continent is about listening and working with you all to bring about that change, a change that benefits all, irrespective of our color, class, creed or nationality. Above all, it will be the young people - brimming with talent and energy and hope - who can claim the future that so many in my father's generation never found. As for America and the West, our commitment must be measured by more than just the dollars we spend. I have pledged substantial increases in our foreign assistance, which is in Africa's interest and America's. But the true sign of success is not whether we are a source of aid that helps people scrape by - it is whether we are partners in building the capacity for transformational change.

Visiting Ghana gives me great pleasure especially as Africa is not only the birthplace of my father, but also of humanity and some of the oldest civilisations of the world. That a continent with such a rich heritage should have been reduced to its current impoverished state in so short at period of time is unacceptable. I commit myself and my administration to building with you a world that respects that heritage and where the people of Africa will benefit directly from the wealth and richness of this continent.

Across Africa, we have seen countless examples of people taking control of their destiny, and making change from the bottom up. Young people, especially women, across the continent have risen up in the shack settlements, farms, cities and countryside to clamour for their rights, to claim their share of the fruits of independence. We all need to listen to their views, their vision of the future.

One area that holds out both undeniable peril and extraordinary promise is energy. Africa gives off less greenhouse gas than any other part of the world, but it is the most threatened by climate change. A warming planet will spread disease, shrink water resources, and deplete crops, creating conditions that produce more famine and conflict. All of us - particularly the developed world - have a responsibility to slow these trends - through mitigation, and by changing the way that we use energy. But we can also work with Africans to turn this crisis into opportunity.

Together, we can partner on behalf of our planet and prosperity, and help countries increase access to power while skipping the dirtier phase of development. Across Africa, there is bountiful wind and solar power; and geothermal energy. These need to be harnessed primarily to bring benefits to the majority of Africans, rather than yet another resource that is sold to the developed world for a string of beads and benefits for a few. From the Rift Valley to the North African deserts; from the Western coast to South Africa's crops - Africa's boundless natural gifts can generate its own power, while exporting profitable, clean energy abroad. There has been much talk of the putative benefits of biofuels: but linking the price of food (already excessive) to the price of fuel would have disastrous consequences and result in escalating starvation. My Administration is deeply concerned by the threat to the livelihoods of ordinary people by the large scale land-grabbing taking place supposedly for economic development.

We are today living in times of economic crisis. The policies of leaving everything to the market place, and expecting benefits to trickle down to the poor is now a discredited idea - it has failed to lift people out of poverty in Africa and even in the United States of America. We must seek an alternative way forward, one where the governments elected by the people take responsibility for ensuring that the economy is run to satisfy need, not greed. Together we can.

I remain ultimately hopeful of the capacity of Africa to show the way forward, to transform the landscape into what it once was - a land of plenty, a land that produced some of the world's finest art, literature, science and philosophy. It is to be part of that ambitious project that I am here today setting foot for the second time this year in this continent of hope, this continent of my ancestors.

Thank you.

Obama, Africa and food insecurity

Global Trends with Martin Khor

Star (Malaysia) July 13, 2009

US President Barak Obama visited Ghana last week, after the G8 Summit pledged funds to boost Africa's food security. But Africans will continue to be food dependent unless the West changes its own policies towards African agriculture.

Last week, Barrack Obama visited Ghana on his first trip to Africa as President of the United States. In his speech in Ghana's Parliament, he stressed the role of good governance and the need for democratic practices and correct policies if the continent is to develop out of poverty.

Just before that, the G8 Summit in Italy agreed on a US$20bil (RM71.6bil) programme to promote food security in Africa, to help the countries produce their own food instead of relying on food aid or imports.

At a press conference, President Obama compared Kenya to South Korea, saying that both countries once had the same per capita income but Kenya remains poor while South Korea had become an economic powerhouse.

The implication of all this is that East Asian countries like South Korea did well because they had good governance and democracy while African countries have lagged behind because of undemocratic practices and bad policies.

The assumption of the G8 Summit, and of President Obama, are correct only to a limited degree - South Korea's development, for example, took off while the country was under dictatorship.

It misses the main reasons why Africa has become food dependent and as a result, the large funds pledged may miss the opportunity of helping Africa become food secure.

Of course governance and good policies are crucial elements. But any comparison between the developments in Africa and East Asia must take into account that most African countries were unfortunate enough to come under the influence of World Bank and IMF conditionalities, whereas most East Asian countries did not and were free to adopt their own policies.

The decline in agriculture in many African countries was due to the structural adjustment policies of the IMF and World Bank. These countries were asked or advised to dismantle marketing boards and guaranteed prices for farmers' products; phase out or eliminate subsidies and support such as fertiliser, machines, agricultural infrastructure, and reduce tariffs of food products to very low levels.

Many countries that were net exporters or self-sufficient in many food crops experienced a decline in local production and a rise in imports which had become cheaper because of the tariff reduction. Some of the imports are from developed countries which heavily subsidise their food products.

The local farmers' produce were subjected to unfair competition, and in many cases could not survive. The effects on farm incomes, on human welfare, on national food production and food security were severe. The case of Ghana itself, which President Obama chose for his first African visit, illustrates this.

The policies of food self-sufficiency and government encouragement of the agriculture sector (through marketing, credit and subsidies for inputs) had assisted in an expansion of food production.

But the policies were reversed from the mid-1980s.and especially in the 1990s, when Ghana relied on loans from the World Bank and IMF and these two bodies conditioned their loans on new agriculture policies. The fertiliser subsidy was eliminated, and its price rose very significantly. The marketing role of the state was phased out.

The minimum guaranteed prices for rice and wheat was abolished, as were many state agricultural trading enterprises and the seed agency responsible for producing and distributing seeds to farmers, and subsidised credit was also ended.

Applied tariffs for most agricultural imports were reduced significantly to the present 20%, even though the WTO bound rate is around 99%. This, together with the dismantling of state support, led to local farmers being unable to compete with imports that are artificially cheapened by high subsidies, especially in rice, tomato and poultry.

Rice output in Ghana in the 1970s could meet all the local needs, but by 2002 imports made up 64% of domestic supply. In 2003, the US exported 111,000 tonnes of rice to Ghana. In the same year, the US government gave US$1.3bil (RM4.6bil) subsidies for rice.

A government study found that 57% of US rice farms would not have covered their cost if they did not receive subsidies. In 2000-2003 the average cost of production and milling of US white rice was US$415 (RM1,486) per tonne, but it was exported for just US$274 (RM981) per tonne, a price 34% below its costs. No wonder farmers in Ghana could not compete with imported American rice.

Another major problem facing Ghana and other African countries is the free trade agreements (known as the Economic Partnership Agreements) they are scheduled to sign with the European Union this year. Under the EPA, African countries are asked to lower their tariffs to zero on 80% of their products. Agricultural products are among those affected.

This will lock them into a trade policy that will perpetuate what the IMF and World Bank started, with artificially cheapened imports continuing to overwhelm the domestic food market.

Thus, if the G8 countries really want to assist Africa to boost its domestic food production, their US$20bil in funds has to be accompanied by a change in policies. Unless this is done, the programme will not succeed. And Africa will most likely continue to be blamed for its lack of good governance.

Straight Talk: Revealing the Real U.S.-Africa Policy

Gerald LeMelle | July 6, 2009

Gerald LeMelle is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus and executive director of Africa Action.

It's time for some straight talk on U.S. foreign policy as it relates to Africa. While Obama administration officials and the U.S. African Command (AFRICOM) representatives insist that U.S. foreign policy towards Africa isn't being militarized, the evidence seems to suggest otherwise. While Africans condemned U.S. military policy in Africa under the Bush administration, the Obama administration has not only mirrored Bush's approach, but has in fact enhanced it. President George W. Bush established Africa as a foreign policy priority in 2003, when he announced that 25% of oil imported to the United States should come from Africa. Like the Cold War, the Global War on Terror establishes a rationale for bolstering U.S. military presence and support in Africa. Yet official pronouncement of U.S. policy is routinely presented as if neither of these two developments occurred. Unfortunately, the more evasive we are about our intentions on the continent, the more we invite not only skepticism, but even resistance.

A policy is militarized when military might is deemed the only effective way to accomplish its agenda. In a June statement on U.S. policy in Africa, U.S. Assistant Secretary for African Affairs Johnny Carson said the agenda of the Obama administration is as follows: promoting and strengthening democracy and the rule of law, preventing and mitigating conflicts, encouraging sustained economic development and long-term growth, and working with African countries to face both old and new global challenges. The agenda makes no reference to the recent FY2010 budget that doubles the size of AFRICOM's funds. Nor does it mention the doubling of financial support for counterterrorism projects throughout the continent - including increasing funds for weapons, military training, and education at a time when U.S. foreign aid money is stagnating.

AFRICOM has been controversial on the continent since President Bush first announced it in February 2007. The Bush administration discussed several sites for its headquarters, but their failure to include African civil society in the discussion is widely regarded as a major mistake. Though the Western press barely reported it, the reaction on the continent was vociferous. Every country with the exception of Liberia rejected AFRICOM, and African civil society, where allowed to speak, has overwhelmingly characterized AFRICOM as a means to secure oil and nothing more.

Officials in both the Bush and Obama administrations argue that a major objective of AFRICOM is to "professionalize" security forces in key countries across the continent. However, they don't attempt to address the impact of this on minority parties or whether the U.S. is effectively propping up "friendly" dictators. These are key questions that need answering if our agenda includes democracy and rule of law.

Training and weapons programs and arms transfers for Equatorial Guinea, Chad, Ethiopia and even the beleaguered Transitional Federal Government in Somalia, clearly indicate that using the military to maintain influence in government in Africa remains the priority the foreign policy goal. Indeed, one of the counterterrorism projects that the Obama administration boosted considerably is the Counterterrorism Engagement Program, designed to "build political will at senior levels in partner nations for shared counterterrorism challenges."

The U.S. fascination with oil, the war on terrorism, and the military is further exemplified through the announcement that on July 12, Obama will visit sub-Saharan Africa for the first time. The president has chosen Ghana as his only African destination this trip. The U.S. government itself states the purpose of the visit is "strengthening the U.S. relationship with one of our most trusted partners in sub-Saharan Africa, and to highlight the critical role that sound governance and civil society play in promoting lasting development." Indeed, Ghana's extraordinarily consistent economic growth pattern for the past seven years (registering a GDP expansion of 7.3% in 2008) offers the best evidence of the relationship between government accountability and economic development.

On top of that, on January 3rd 2009, John Atta Mills defeated Nana Akufo-Addo by less than 1% in the Ghanaian presidential election. Most believe that the election was by and large free and fair, and the transition was for the most part peaceful. There is much to be proud of in Ghana, and the burgeoning success story there is most welcome. However, there are rumblings that the real reason the administration chose Ghana is two-fold: Ghana's discovery of oil in 2008, and perhaps more importantly, the geographically, economically, and politically strategic advantage of establishing AFRICOM's headquarters there.

Could this be a litmus test for future democracy in Ghana? Could we begin providing substantial AFRICOM counterterrorism resources to build political will and promote U.S. interests instead of Ghanaian interests? It been done before. In fact, it was done in Ghana in 1966, when the CIA helped overthrow then-President Kwame Nkrumah.

These questions arise because it would be hard for Africans not to conclude that security and energy concerns under the protection and guidance of AFRICOM are driving our foreign policy, as opposed to those articulated by Carson. If this isn't the case, then the United States is failing to make clear how dramatic increases in U.S. investment in weapons financing and military training for countries, regardless of their records on human rights or democracy, are ultimately going to help us achieve the agenda.

A few other diverse reactions to the speech

"How Different is His Policy?" The Economist, July 16th, 2009
"The deeper truth is that Africa is not high on the American president's agenda. His Ghana speech was sensible and stirring. But in the end his message was that African-American relations would see no grand change.":

"Fine Words, but will Africa listen?" The Independent, July 13, 2009
"There are, on reflection, things that Obama might also have mentioned, for example America's $31bn in subsidies for US farmers which squeeze some African farmers out of the market. And Obama, always careful to say he is American but of African parentage, leapt from colonial times to the present without mention of the US role in supporting dictators during the Cold War, an apology many Africans would like to hear."

"What Obama Failed to Admit", Public Agenda (Accra), July 17, 2009
"Much as this newspaper agrees with President Obama on the need for Ghana and to a large extent African countries to diversify their exports, he failed to tell the whole story. The other side of the story is that unfair trade practices pushed down the throats of poor countries is partly to blame for the non-diversification of our exports. ... According to a study by some UK charities, the chocolate industry in the UK in any given year is more than one billion pounds. The figures could be ten times more in the US market. Yet, hardly does one find any made-in-Ghana chocolate on the shelves of any western super markets."

"Did Obama Say the Same Old Thing, or Was He Different", The East African, July 20, 2009
Kevin Kelley provides a roundup of views from African and U.S. analysts.

"Africa's Surreal Future: If Obama and the G8 truly want to help Africa's poor, they must stop supporting the continent's corrupt rulers." The Guardian July 14, 2009
"Obama is being applauded for finally tasking Africans with changing Africa. Well, Africans have been doing it since the days of colonialism. They are only happy to take on the corrupt politicians, dictators in all their hues and shades, coup mongers and opaque institutions. But first, the west has to stop arming them and giving them money, which in turn is used to subdue popular energies."

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