In the twilight of his presidency, George W. Bush sought refuge in one of his foreign policy victories: Africa. Dogged by his global missteps and failures, Mr. Bush traveled abroad in Feb. 2008 to trumpet his legacy-building AIDS program. When President Barack Obama heads to Africa later this week, the focus won’t be on a signature success story. Instead, the trip will highlight his lack of attention to the continent.
I was working for the United States Agency for International Development when Mr. Bush arrived in Rwanda to much fanfare. He deserved the warm welcome and praise for his administration’s AIDS program: more than $15 billion dedicated to preventing and treating the disease. Mr. Bush’s effort helped change the conversation from if the epidemic could be contained to how. The number of people in sub-Saharan Africa receiving antiretroviral drugs went from under 100,000 to 2 million.
Such a defining accomplishment has proved elusive for Mr. Obama and is unlikely before his term is up. This is a major disappointment for many Africa watchers, but it doesn’t mean the president shouldn’t become more active across the continent in the time he has left.
Mr. Obama has initiated some laudable policies. The administration did a good job of anticipating and preparing for turmoil in Burundi following President Pierre Nkurunziza’s decision to run for a third term despite a two-term limit. The situation there continues to unfold and the country stands on the brink of chaos, but the Obama administration’s allocation of resources for preventing violence there have been significant.
The United States also played an active role in helping the parties avert the worst in the Central African Republic’s deadly sectarian civil war. And the American military’s intervention in West Africa to provide order and logistical support to the Ebola response did more to help curb the crisis than is often acknowledged. Mr. Obama’s Power Africa initiative to increase access to electricity is the type of program that could pay big dividends in the future.
But none of these initiatives scratches the surface of what’s possible for the United States. Mr. Obama has been mostly missing in Africa.
The opportunity to look past the horizon has been missed. Washington’s thinking on Africa is outdated, feckless and held back by the quest to stop terrorism today instead of reducing its likelihood tomorrow and for a long time to come.
It’s easy to make the case that the geopolitical importance of Africa paled in comparison to other concerns on Mr. Obama’s watch. How could the president devote time and political capital to the area when he hasn’t even been able to effectively extract America from the Middle East and pivot to Asia? This may be a good argument, but it’s also shortsighted.
The future of American policy toward Africa needs to be less about aid and more about trade; less about unholy security partnerships and more about relationships with regular people; and less about turning a blind eye to the transgressions of allies and more about getting tough on democratic failings.
Mr. Obama has little time left, but he can kick-start the changes that are necessary. Two areas stand out.
First, the president can bring more attention to major conflicts and increase pressure on human rights violators.
The civil war in South Sudan — where a power struggle, massive displacement of people and risk of famine threaten to tear the world’s newest nation apart — is a good place to start. The Obama administration hasn’t ignored the issue, but it could be more active in regional diplomacy and push harder with targeted sanctions to compel compromise by both sides.
Second, and closely related, Mr. Obama should turn away from corrupt, ineffectual leaders and build ties directly with their embattled constituents. He should choose his friends wisely. Cozying up to nasty regimes or staying silent in the face of abuses hasn’t worked in the past; it just kicks the problems down the road and often creates new ones. The next generation of citizens, and leaders who defend democracy and protect rights, are the ones to establish connections with.
Ethiopia, the second stop on Mr. Obama’s trip after Kenya, is an example of a country with repressive leaders who are being rewarded for their counterterrorism support. Instead of backslapping security partners in Addis Ababa, Mr. Obama should publicly criticize their efforts to quash internal debate and dissent. He should stand with the people — not the leaders — by speaking in support of human rights and opposition leaders.
Nigeria, despite its imperfections, would have been a better country to visit, following its democratic transfer of power this year. It was a surprisingly fair and peaceful election and the first time an opposition candidate won the vote over the incumbent. If there was ever a time to visit, it is now.
Countries across the continent are developing and changing quickly — and in unique ways. With growing populations and expanding markets, there are huge opportunities for trade and investment. But, for better or worse, United States policy in the region has often been characterized by aid; development funds and projects have shaped relations. This should also change as economics and business opportunities overtake aid in importance.
Unlike his predecessor, Mr. Obama will not be on a victory lap in Africa. His administration hasn’t done enough to drive American policy in the region forward. But if he lays out a strategic vision and starts with these modest steps, the United States will finally be on the right track.
David Kampf is a writer and a former communications officer for the U.S. Agency for International Development and the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief in Rwanda.