John Campbell

Africa in Transition

Campbell tracks political and security developments across sub-Saharan Africa.

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President Obama and Sub-Saharan Africa: What’s Missing

by Guest Blogger for John Campbell
December 12, 2012

A man with a flag stuck to his forehead waits to catch a glimpse of U.S. President Barack Obama in Accra 11/07/2009. (Finbarr O'Reilly/Courtesy Reuters)


Richard Joseph is the John Evans Professor of International History and Politics at Northwestern University and a Senior Fellow with the Program on Global Economy and  Development of The Brookings Institution.  He has been deeply engaged with American policy toward Africa for a generation.  In his guest post below, Dr. Joseph analyzes the Obama administration’s June 2012 policy paper on Africa and he provides specific policy recommendations for the President’s second term.

On June 14, 2012, President Obama affixed his signature to the “U.S. Strategy Toward Sub-Saharan Africa.” It identified four focus areas: democratic institutions; growth, trade and investment; peace and security; and opportunity and development. The response from the policy community was a shrug. Mwangi Kimenyi of the Brookings Institution claimed that the policy document was neither “new” nor “strategic,” and did not establish a “foundation for creative engagement with an emerging Africa.”

The Obama administration must confront two challenges. First, it must convey more effectively the important contributions the U.S. has already made toward these priorities. Second, Mr. Obama has to put his personal stamp on specific initiatives he considers central to his legacy.

The president’s talk in Ghana in July 2009 electrified the audience by declaring that America was ready to help the continent build a broader base for prosperity. The gateway to that transformation was eliminating bad governance. While this message was repeated in the June 2012 policy document, it is lost in the long list of program initiatives.

The president’s critics suggest that the U.S. should focus on the great opportunities in an economically resurgent Africa. Look at the dizzy expansion, they say, of China in Africa and how its engagement in mineral extraction, trade, construction, and infrastructure has been supported by frequent visits from China’s top leaders.

Often overlooked in these critiques is that the American predominant role in advancing global peace and security includes Africa. This is an argument Mr. Obama himself needs to make. Africa is not only a continent of “frontier economies,” it remains one of “frontier states.” The U.S. plays a unique role in conflict resolution, peacebuilding, and increasing good governance within African states.

Mr. Kimenyi suggests that Mr. Obama should “shelve” his June 12 strategy and “start afresh.” I won’t go that far. But Mr. Obama needs to step up to the plate. He should plan a visit to Africa in 2013 that includes stops in several countries, convene a roundtable on Africa to garner policy ideas from academic experts and analysts, and lay out his “Agenda for Africa” in a major address to the American public. Moreover, he should lead a comprehensive international effort to end the relentless wars and economic predation in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The consequences have been genocidal for the Congolese people.

Despite the economic upswing, and China’s growing presence in African infrastructure, manufacturing accounts for a paltry share of Africa’s output. Mr. Obama should highlight the contributions American corporations can make to industrialization and job creation in the continent. He should put forward incentives for American institutions to pursue deeper engagement with their African counterparts, especially in higher education and health care. Mr. Obama’s name is on a dozen program initiatives in Africa, but who knows it? That must change, and soon.

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  • Posted by Chike Chukudebelu

    “Despite the economic upswing, and China’s growing presence in African infrastructure, manufacturing accounts for a paltry share of Africa’s output.”

    You are missing the point – its the trend that counts. A generation ago, the Chinese weren’t even considered in discussions about Africa. Today, China’s EXIM bank lends more to African nations than the US.

    Any perceptive African will understand immediately that while the US is geared for less meaningful engagement with Africa, the Chinese are headed in the opposite direction.

    What exactly is America’s strategic thrust for the African continent? No one in the US foreign policy establishment can answer that question because the US lacks a clear idea of what it wants to do with Sub-Saharan Africa.

    And Obama needs to make up his mind on what the US should be doing here before he steps foot on Africa again.

    US policy has oscillated between treating Africa as a humanitarian theme park, massive investments in healthcare (which had the unintended consequence of weakening internal capacity to deal with public health crises), propping up dictators, countering “terrorism” and AFRICOM.

    What is an African supposed to make of this mish-mash of mutually contradictory initiatives?

    With the Chinese, it is simple, they want BUSINESS – and we have enough business and business people to keep them busy. US policy should be straightforward.

  • Posted by Lawrence Freeman

    Mwangi Kimenyi is right about President Obama’s so called strategy for sub-Sahran Africa. I ‘d go further and say Obama has done nothing to help Africa. The regime change of Libya-advocated by Susan Rice- following Tony Blair’s R2P policy, helped create the problem in Northern Mali, which is now out of copntrol. A truly functioning real American policy would be (and would have been) assisting African nations in building regional and continental infrastructure projects in energy, rail, and water, across the continent. We need a new paradigm for Africa and for the West: “Economic Development is the New Name for Peace.” Lawrence Freeman, DIr Africa Desk, EIR journal

  • Posted by Matt

    Al-Qaida was always going to end up in North Africa, what Libya did was give it a larger force structure more kinetic resources. But where ever al-Qaida end up there is instability. The name says it all ‘The Base’ these guys are stateless and need to find a host country. They can’t go home, the are guerrillas, that use a proxy force to fight insurgency.

    When pressure is applied they decamp. and relocate. That takes two forms getting out of Dodge and then ‘The Base’, they move to a transit country for safety, then they seek to establish a base. Whether that is because they believe you will be forced to retreat from Afghanistan before you can achieve your objectives and they can move back or another location.Ayman would not have sent the al-Qaida core (Afghans, Pakistani’s, Arabs) to find a new base, if he thought they would be back in the Stan anytime soon.

    So they know there is an Afghan 2035 denial plan. So they have been forced to move to find ‘The Base’. So you deny them certain access in various AO’s.That means no terror operations like 9/11. The reason there has not been another 9/11 is they cannot establish a base. It has to have a Taliban style government and indigenous force structure for an insurgency. No legitimate government will allow them to conduct such operations, they need a safe haven.

    You look at where they ended up another landlocked country in the Sahara. Now if you had to choose a place to confront them, they choose Afghanistan or Iraq, I would prefer the desert. They want you to use a large force structure to occupy and then get stuck in an insurgency against an indigenous enemy. I prefer a small force structure, it is fiscal. When they control the momentum they can force you to do that, like in Afghanistan or Iraq. But you cannot operate at that level forever and they know it. So you keep them on the back foot. Don’t let them shape the environment, like they did in Afghanistan. And as in Afghanistan and Iraq it takes 5 years to build up an indigenous security force to control the insurgency and deny them ‘The Base’.

    So it takes a contradiction of urgency and patience. To move swiftly and yet take your time. The Sahara is it for them they have no where else to go.

    Then there is the ideology, that is US FP, that is their main argument and recruitment tool. Where the Muslim population felted dis-empowered, due to the US FP, now they fell empowered they elect their own governments. And al-Qaida becomes irrelevant. You get rid of state sponsors of terrorism and you don’t need to fight wars in Muslim lands and another key argument.

    I see the irony in all of this early on before 9/11 and sidetracked on a global war on terror Dr Rice and Bush were talking about Africa FP, then 9/11. It ends where they wanted their FP in the first place. Now if that did not show Ayman he was wasting his time, then what does.

  • Posted by Chike Chukudebelu

    “But where ever al-Qaida end up there is instability. ”

    That is where the analysis goes wrong. Al Qaeda takes advantage of already existing conditions: massive youth unemployment, lack of government capacity, human rights abuses etc.

    The US rushes in and supports the “bad guys” (i.e. governments that have spend decades neglecting and oppressing entire segments of the nation). The consequence is that the US fights at a disadvantage.

    Let’s consider Iraq and Afghanistan, what exactly has the US gained strategically from both adventures – and with the US in competition with the Chinese for the next generation of Africans, how, exactly is the US going to convince young Africans that “the US is better than the Chinese” when the only US presence they see are unmanned drones whizzing over their roof tops?

    The US and Obama are not thinking through this “War on Terror” thing – you will pay in the future.

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