Despite the constraints he faced in fulfilling pledges he made as a candidate, Barack Obama has succeeded in offering avenues for co-operation to Cuba, Iran, the Muslim world in general, and now Russia. This weekend, Obama will be in Ghana, and there is intense speculation about what this son of Africa, who electrified the world by so improbably taking the helm in America, will say about what he expects from, and will offer, the continent.
The president’s personal knowledge of and interest in Africa, his charisma and his grassroots support mean that he could be a major player here. This is particularly true since Africa’s low profile among the American political elite allows US leaders a lot of leeway in formulating policy towards it.
But as Obama devises US approaches to African challenges, he will face difficulties from an unexpected quarter – the US military. George Bush and his war on terror, and his reliance on force as a first resort, gave the military extraordinary power in shaping African policy – symbolised by Bush’s creation of the United States Africa Command (Africom), in the misguided notion that the military approach was the best way to tackle terrorism. Thankfully, African governments overwhelmingly resisted the siting of Africom bases.
But Africom is a reality, so it is vital that Obama move to curtail one of its most dangerous mandates: its involvement in economic development and humanitarian actions. This risks the militarisation of Africa’s political and social life – areas that remain the best hope for a better Africa.
Africom apart, a number of Obama’s political appointments are also hawkish, among them the Africa specialist who is now a member of his cabinet as the US ambassador to the United Nations – Susan Rice. She is inclined to the use of force, as evidenced by the threatening language she used about Sudan and Eritrea before joining the cabinet. It is this influence that would explain Obama’s risky decision two weeks ago to escalate US involvement in Somalia and ship arms to the isolated government – by obtaining a waiver from the longstanding UN embargo. Somalia’s tottering government has no public support, and runs just a few blocks of Mogadishu, despite the support of 4,300 Ugandan troops.
This new intervention is a continuation of the ruinous Bush policy in Somalia, which resulted in the militant al-Shabab Islamists – a previously negligible group – emerging as the country’s dominant force after large numbers of Somalis were radicalised by US air strikes and the 2007 invasion by Ethiopia, Somalia’s arch enemy, to topple the popular and moderate Union of Islamic Courts.
While attention will be heavily focused in Accra this weekend on what Obama says about Africa, what is even more important is for the US president to begin hearing from Africans. He must confer with civil society leaderships that have finally come of age across the continent.
One thing he would consistently hear from our civil society leaders would be that good governance – democracy, inclusion, respect for human rights and the rule of law – is non-negotiable. He would also hear that some of the significant gains made in expanding freedoms in multi-party Africa are being rolled back. This is not surprising, as the strategy of the US war on terror reverted to the cold war model of supporting dictatorial allies, which in east Africa included the Ethiopian and Ugandan leaderships.
Obama would also hear that there can be no compromise on free and fair elections. In too many countries recently – including America’s close allies Ethiopia, Uganda and Kenya, as well as Zimbabwe – elections have been seriously tainted, and have been followed by violence, the loss of liberties and the strengthening of state security organs.
Algeria and Ivory Coast also saw flawed elections take them down the bloody road to national chaos in the 1990s. The US must work with countries to ensure that elections will be honestly conducted. Without that, democracy is meaningless and instability inevitable.
One of President Obama’s most important priorities for Africa must be to work with and encourage the emergence of a progressive group of African leaders who can become indigenous models for democratic, accountable and inclusive governance – which alone will ensure African, as well as global and American, security.
Salim Lone, a former spokesman for the UN mission in Iraq.