Questions about the Obama Administration’s Sub-Saharan Africa Policy

On July 30, 2012, a team of AFJN staff; Executive Director, Fr. Aniedi Okure, Policy Analyst Jacques Bahati and interns Rubea Stouppe and Ashagrie Abdi were among those invited to the White House to discuss President Obama Administration’s “Strategy Towards sub-Saharan Africa.”

On the panel were Grant Harris, Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for African Affairs, Ambassador Johnnie Carson, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs at the U.S. State Department, Earl Gast, Assistant Administrator for Africa at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Joseph McMillan, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, and Florizelle B. Liser, Assistant U.S. Trade Representative for Africa at Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.

The briefing highlighted the four pillars of the administration’s policy which is to (1) strengthen democratic institutions; (2) spur economic growth, trade, and investment; (3) advance peace and security and (4) promote opportunity and development. Of the four pillars, the first two are described in the policy as “critical to the future of Africa.”

This policy concept addresses most of the urgent challenges facing Africa today and ways to tackle them, but current implementation seems to deviate from this well crafted policy. For example, the policy states that “the United States will not stand idly by when actors threaten legitimately elected governments or manipulate the fairness and integrity of democratic processes, and we will stand in steady partnership with those who are committed to the principles of equality, justice, and the rule of law.” However, the administration endorsed the November 2011 presidential and parliamentary elections in the Democratic Republic of the Congo which independent observers said were rigged.

One wonders whether there are significant differences between the Obama administration’s Africa policy and that of previous administrations. History shows that the US has been working closely with some African dictators, using them and abandoning them when they are no longer useful. This is the case of former Egyptian President Muhammad Hosni El Sayed Mubarak (1981–2011) who was ousted through a popular revolt and Congolese President Mobutu Sese Seko who was violently overthrown by US allies Rwanda and Uganda in 1997. One is yet to see actions that back up the words of policy.

During the briefing Assistant U.S. Trade Representative for Africa at the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, Ms. Florizelle B. Liser, elaborated on the importance of trade and American investments in Africa. However, the panel refused to answer AFJN’s concerns about the dumping of toxic waste in Africa by industrialized countries and business corporations who exploit Africa. The panel did not acknowledge the issues of US companies such as Herakles Farms, an affiliate of Herakles Capital, one of the many companies involved in land grab in Africa causing the displacement of many families. The Obama administration Africa Policy, like previous administrations’ and the business elite seem to shield these kinds of companies that are plundering African resources.

What is often touted as US investments in Africa are companies taking advantage of corruption and lawlessness in these nations to sign contracts with irresponsible leaders that facilitate the cheap acquisition of land and mining concessions and mortgaging the heritage of future generations for centuries to come. This is the case of SG Sustainable Oils Cameroon (SGSOC), an affiliate of US based company Herakles Farms which signed a 99-year lease in 2009 with the Cameroonian Government for a paltry $7.10 per hectare (2.47 acres); a deal that forcefully displaced families from their lands and homes. Currently the affected people are fighting the government and the companies involved. With no money and power, advocacy groups like AFJN help to get their voices heard.

The briefing provoked many questions, most of which were left unanswered. For example, AFJN’s Executive Director, Fr. Aniedi Okure wanted an answer to the following question: “How are we going to ensure African governments’ accountability without building up African civil societies at the grass roots level?”

The panel categorically denied the increase in US military intervention in Africa instead of promoting diplomacy, peaceful conflict resolution and development. However, recent activities in Horn of Africa, in central Africa, in Sahel region of West Africa, and the promotion of AFRICOM suggest the contrary. We need to understand that the military in Africa is rooted in colonial culture, Aniedi Okure remarked. He argues that in fact, African militaries were not trained to protect the people; rather, they were trained to subjugate them for easy colonization. How are we going to ensure that our engagement with the military does not end up training experts at subjugation of the people or protecting “strong men”? How are we going to guarantee that the President’s policy is not hijacked by a focus on military engagements, counter terrorism and security issues? Finally, if the Obama Africa policy seeks to strengthen Africa’s financial institutions, what mechanisms are we going to put in place to stem the tide of illicit financial flows out of Africa and hold foreign collaborators who aid and abet the process accountable?

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