The President of the United States, Barack Obama, will travel to Ghana July 10-11th, 2009. Although his trip will be brief, it is an excellent opportunity to raise the issues that are of concern to us as advocates for peace and justice in Africa.
Seeking Muslim nations’ support to write a new page in history with the United States of America – one based on mutual respect – President Barack Obama traveled to Egypt on June 4, 2009. In Cairo, he delivered a speech titled “New Beginning, ” in which he articulated his Middle East policy perspectives. President Obama underscored the fact that the U.S is not at war with Islam, but is willing to cooperate with Muslim majority nations on political, social and economic issues, particularly the enduring problem between Palestine and Israel. Obama knows well that for a successful U.S. national security policy, he cannot afford to ignore the contribution of Africa and particularly North Africa.

What is in it for Africa? Our hope is that President Obama has chosen to travel to sub-Saharan Africa to deliver a more specific U.S.-Africa policy. It is obvious that President Obama inherited a great deal of bad Africa policies from former presidents, most of which are based on exploitation rather than partnership. Is he going to modify the current course and be authentic to his rhetoric of change? Before Obama was elected president, many expected him to be the man who will positively change U.S.-Africa relations; one can only hope.
Can Africa change without committed investments by Africans? President Obama is the president of the United States of America with the mandate to protect American interests before anything else. Furthermore, as far as foreign policy is concerned, in his inaugural address, President Obama cautioned those who blame their miseries on the West. He said, “[T]o those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict or blame their society’s ills on the West, know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”President Obama deserves a chance to show the world, and Africa in particular, what he is able to do for justice and equality. Meanwhile, African people should not wait for help only, but work even harder for their own true independence. To partner with President Obama for change, Africans have to know and name their most urgent needs and therefore actively participate in setting up the agenda for dialogue and cooperation.President Obama chose Ghana both for its strategic military and energy potential and for its advancement in the democratic process compared to other African nations. In my previous work, Interpreting Ghana’s 2008 Elections, I noted that “Ghana’s success stands out as an example for many African nations. It contradicts the post-colonial trend of manipulating and imposing constitutional referendums by African heads of states to accommodate their ambitions for re-election beyond constitutional mandates. …Ghana’s successful elections are contrary to the ritual of military coups that have dominated African politics for a long time.” On a purely political level, President Obama’s visit is an encouragement for Ghana. Capitalizing on that, it is predicted that President Obama will suggest that African states invest in advancing democracy based on these core values: rule of law, freedom of speech, and human rights – upon which security, development, and stability depend.President Obama’s visit is an opportunity for a specific and honest exchange on serious concerns.U.S Africa Command (AFRICOM)Just as he is concerned about the nuclear arms race around the world, African people are equally concerned about the ongoing militarization of their beloved continent by the U.S. and others. In December 2008, AFRICOM helped plan Operation “Lightning Thunder” against the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in collaboration with the Ugandan army, but it failed miserably. As a result, the LRA retaliated against the people of northeastern Congo.
It is not the first military operation in Africa that the U.S. has been involved in in recent years. Ethiopia’s attack on Somalia in 2006 and the ensuing occupation were directly supported by the U.S. military. In May 2001, Congresswoman Cynthia Mc Kinney from Georgia, remarked on the situation in D.R. Congo. She called attention to the fact that “…the principal aid sent by the U.S. to the region has been in form of military aid to warring parties… the U.S. Special Forces and U.S.-funded private military companies have been arming and training Rwandan and Ugandan troops to deadly effect.” Today, Rwanda and Congo still are not on good terms and the U.S. continues to train and equip both armies. The U.S. military funds and supports many irresponsible African governments.
One of President Obama’s challenges is to stop and pull back American expansionist tendencies. Currently, AFRICOM is seen as the face of U.S. policy on the continent – an unfortunate example to governments that already overuse the military in their own countries. How can the U.S. teach peace when its actions point to war? What is happening to diplomacy and dialogue? Why not invest in restorative justice? Strengthening the African Union to enable it to respond to African security needs should take precedence over U.S. military engagement.
Small Arms Proliferation
African people, some of the continent’s best leaders, and the United Nations believe that the proliferation of small arms threatens Africa’s stability. The U.S, a permanent member of the UN Security Council and one of the top suppliers of arms in Africa, continues to look away when it comes to a commitment against small arms proliferation. Rather than signing the “Protocol against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, Their Parts and Components and Ammunition,” the U.S. favors businesses that make a profit from both the legal and illegal sectors of the weapons market. This could also mean a loss of jobs for some American families – a hard issue which the U.S. has refused to deal with even if it translates into deaths of people in Africa.
The International Action Network on Small Arms, Saferworld, and Oxfam International reported that from 1990-2005, 23 African nations experienced war, costing Africa $18 billion each year – amounting to $300 billion in this period. Today, many of these nations remain unstable and some, such as Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Somalia, Ethiopia, and Sudan, are still at war. President Obama’s challenge is to review and implement stronger laws in the U.S. to prevent small arms proliferation worldwide and in Africa in particular. In addition, the U.S should not ignore the fact that by reaching an agreement and signing the Arms Trade Treaty now being debated at the United Nations, many lives in Africa could be saved and the number of armed rebel groups reduced. It would promote the power of ballots over the power of guns, making it clear that the U.S. commits itself to peace and diplomacy before violence and war.

On Justice and Strengthening Civil Society

For African nations to prosper and advance their democratic aspirations, justice has to be served and the rights of the people respected. We know from the African experience that in most nations, the law protects the powerful and the wealthy, but persecutes the weak and the poor, causing countless human rights violations. Among those who deny people their rights to justice are partners of the U.S. and benefit from U.S. foreign aid.
The U.S. has been a model of democracy for many African countries. However, out of self-interest, the U.S. has often compromised its belief in the rule of law, freedom, and accountability by working hand in hand with undemocratic regimes. We are left to wonder why the U.S. is supporting African leaders such as Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni who has been in power since 1986, Chadian President Idriss Deby who has been in power since 1990, and others who violate international law and human rights standards. Africans would like to hear President Obama outline a comprehensive strategy to encourage and help African nations follow the path of democracy, justice, and empowerment of civil society.
On U.S. Demand for Natural Resources
While Obama calls for and promotes a global green economy, he has to face the fact that for the time being, the U.S still needs foreign oil to run its economy. It is estimated that Africa now supplies 24% of oil consumed in the United States and it is expected to rise in the coming years. As Africa becomes, among other things, more and more of a source of natural resources, what do African people get in return?
Defenders of AFRICOM say that it will provide security to Africa, but in fact, AFRICOM is more likely to provide security for oil pipelines, companies, and regimes that supply the world with oil regardless of their democratic record. Also, U.S.-based corporations involved in natural resource extraction often put profit ahead of human rights and environmental stewardship. American oil companies such as Shell Oil Company and Chevron are known to be complicit in human rights abuses in the Niger Delta. American-owned mining companies in eastern D.R. Congo such as Eagle Wings and Cabot Corporation have fueled armed conflict in the Great Lakes Region.
It is important that the Obama administration, through strong government regulations, protect African people from abuses by U.S. companies operating on the continent. The same standards required in the U.S. should be required of U.S. companies abroad regarding natural resource extraction to protect African ecosystems and African lives.
Agriculture and Food Security
Every five years, the United States Congress approves a “Farm Bill” that provides massive subsidies to large agribusinesses, many of them headquartered in places like New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Such subsidies undermine crop prices for farmers in Africa, making it difficult for them to compete on the world stage and even within their own countries. Many of these farmers began growing export crops and ceased growing food for themselves under demands from the International Monetary Fund in the 1980’s. Now, with food prices low, they are both unable to sell the products of their labor and unable to feed their own communities.
The solution to food security in Africa lies within local communities, not with genetically modified (GM) seeds or fertilizers from American companies such as Monsanto. African farmers constantly face the Agro-industrialized nation’s attempt to monopolize seeds by pressuring them to adopt GM seeds, despite the fact that such seeds have not proven to increase crop yields and have driven farmers around the world into severe debt. Obama’s change in U.S.-Africa policy should include subsidizing only small farmers in the U.S, as well as a proposal to repeal patent laws on living organisms.
All of these issues are critical, and although he cannot be expected to address all of them while in Ghana, we do expect him to consider each of these policy areas as priorities during his Administration. It is with great expectations that the continent of Africa will welcome President Obama in July. African people would like to believe in the words spoken at his inauguration: “…from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and we are ready to lead once more.” We can only hope he gives them a reason to believe.

Written by Ntama Bahati Jacques, Policy Analyst, and Beth Tuckey, Associate Director of Program Development and Policy