Within the African community, both in the US and on the continent, many have speculated about what an Obama presidency will mean for Africa. As the son of a Kenyan man with family still in Kenya, expectations tend to run high. Still, some have cautioned against such optimism, reminding us that Barack Obama will be subject to the same political difficulties as any other president and that changing US policy toward Africa simply will not be a top priority.
The truth is probably somewhere in between. As he has said himself so many times, Obama will not be a perfect president; he will rely on advisors who do not see the same vision for Africa that we do, he will maintain a military presence in Africa through AFRICOM, and he will often relegate the African agenda to the end of his list of concerns. But that does not mean he lacks the will or desire to chart a new direction in America’s relationship with Africa. His deep concern for ‘the people’ and for seeing a world free of the tyranny of injustice means we may finally have a president who is willing to make policies that treat Africans with dignity and respect, as long as we pressure him to do it.
As concerned American citizens or as those on the continent who are directly affected by Obama’s Africa policies, we have a right to hold him to a higher standard.Those of us fighting for social justice in Africa must make it clear to President Obama that an initiative like AFRICOM works against his laudable goals of ending foreign wars and protecting our environment. He needs to know that AFRICOM discounts his own endorsement of diplomacy as the first tool in the US foreign policy toolkit and that it jeopardizes the stability of African societies.
As part of the liberal movement, we must remind Obama that AFRICOM is completely antithetical to his broader progressive agenda. It puts military might ahead of diplomatic talk, it reinforces an ideological war against terrorism that can never be won by the Pentagon, and it proves that the US cares more about maintaining an open oil pipeline that it does about African peace and prosperity. Obama must know that it is not a policy that Africans endorse and that for a president who ran his campaign on ‘change,’ supporting AFRICOM is the absolute wrong way to go.
Obama must be reminded throughout his presidency that a global system that delivers profits to some and robs others of their prosperity will not create the change he seeks. It is our job to ensure that when he says he wants to ‘strengthen the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), that it does not mean he will put more money in the coffers of the oil companies who have benefited from President Clinton’s unsuccessful attempt at African development. Perhaps most importantly, Obama must know that as long as Africa has vast, untapped reserves of oil and minerals and as long as the US economy depends so heavily on fossil fuel and electronics manufacturing for its mere survival Africa will remain unstable. The exploitation of oil, natural gas, uranium, coltan, and other precious minerals by large US corporations has spurred violence in places like the Niger Delta, Somalia, and the DR Congo. Laws must be tightened to curb the power of those corporations and to hold them accountable for the crimes they have committed. (To add insult to injury, it is likely that many such corporations view AFRICOM as insurance on their investments, thereby contributing to the injustice of a military-led strategy for Africa.) Thus, as part of his Africa policy, President Obama must put forth green legislation that will reduce American dependence on African oil. Like oil, Africa’s farmland is also precious resource, one that has the capacity to feed millions more but is compromised by violence, climate change, and unfair global trade laws, none of which are the fault of Africans alone. Obama’s ‘Add Value to Agriculture Initiative’ is a good-hearted attempt to boost Africa’s food production, but it will fall flat if it is not accompanied by a fair trade system, climate change legislation, and an insistence on good governance in Africa. America’s grossly inflated farm subsidies to agribusinesses may in fact negate some of the benefits of an agriculture initiative. President Obama should also be aware of the influence of genetically modified seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides in maintaining a global system that is skewed toward large Western companies. Here again, the impact of oil dependence comes into play. Chemical fertilizers and pesticides are created and shipped using fossil fuels and upheld by a system that merits not local ingenuity but increased global consumption. If individual food sovereignty is the goal, that is hardly the way to achieve it.
There are many issues both in Africa and around the world that will demand Obama’s attention when he takes office in January. And while we cannot expect an immediate sea change in US-Africa policy, we can hold him to the promises he has made and should anticipate a positive shift. Obviously, on issues like AFRICOM, we have a long way to go, but Obama’s building blocks of diplomacy and green energy offer a good starting point. No, an Obama presidency will not correct all of America’s wrongs in Africa, but it will get us moving in the right direction – provided we, as civil society, make our voices heard.
Written by Beth Tuckey. A version of this article originally appeared in Pambazuka News on November 6th, 2008.