Jim Watson / AFP / Getty Images Dressed to impress: an arrival ceremony for Obama in Dar es Salaam, July 2013.

Obama and Africa

Lots of Hope, Not Much Change

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When Barack Obama was elected U.S. president in 2008, the news was greeted with enormous hope in sub-Saharan Africa, as well as among the small coterie of Americans who follow the region closely. This son of a Kenyan father would not only understand the continent better than his predecessors in the White House, the thinking went, but he would also treat it as a strategic priority and direct more resources its way. At the time, it didn’t seem far-fetched to predict that Obama would usher in a new era of improved U.S.-African relations. Even though President George W. Bush had substantially increased aid to Africa, anti-Americanism there had grown under his watch, the result of opposition to his unilateralist foreign policy.

This optimism was always misplaced. Between the costs of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the Great Recession, the last six years have not been favorable to ambitious new foreign policy initiatives, particularly in regions of the world viewed as secondary to U.S. interests. What’s more, Obama’s personal biography actually made him less likely to focus on Africa, not more so, since he and his advisers viewed it as a liability. Other than a brief stopover in Ghana in the summer of 2009, Obama did not make an official visit to the region until the summer of 2013—after his reelection—and even then, he skipped Kenya, touching down in neighboring Tanzania instead.

If the medical injunction of “do no harm” is the measuring stick, Obama’s record in Africa can be characterized as a success. His administration has not done anything as misguided as the actions taken by the Reagan administration, which, by backing guerilla forces opposed to Soviet-supported regimes, expanded the civil wars in Angola, Ethiopia, and Mozambique. Nor has Obama repeated anything like the Clinton administration’s failure in Rwanda in 1994, when Washington turned a blind eye to an unfolding genocide. But if judged by a more ambitious standard, Obama’s policy toward Africa has been something of 
a disappointment.

SAME AS IT EVER WAS

That hardly makes Obama unique, however. To be sure, Bush has gotten high marks for his Africa policy, but the praise focuses almost entirely on his decision to expand foreign aid to Africa by over 600 percent and create new aid agencies—such as the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and the Millennium Challenge Corporation—to disburse much of the money. By contrast, Obama, no doubt in response to the budgetary pressures imposed by the recession, has cut funding by several hundred million dollars for PEPFAR and the Millennium Challenge Corporation. Foreign aid aside, the records of the two administrations are depressingly similar, because both faced the same persistent constraints that have long limited the United States’ role in the region.

The biggest is the asymmetry between the numerous desirable goals for Africa and the limited U.S. interests there. Although the world’s sole superpower could accomplish much in the region, it lacks the motivation to do so. With budgets necessarily capped, the U.S. government focuses on incremental improvements and less on ambitious long-term goals. Rather than intervening itself, it prefers to work through allies and local proxies—a long-standing tendency that was reinforced after the “Black Hawk down” episode in Somalia in 1993 pointed to the dangers of direct intervention. And in all administrations, the president and his top advisers are simply disinclined to focus on African issues, which get pushed off the agenda by more pressing crises elsewhere.

Another perennial constraint on policy is the U.S. government’s weak presence on the ground in Africa. The share of the federal budget devoted to nonmilitary international expenditures has shrunk, from five percent in 1960 to one percent today, and the resulting decline in diplomatic resources for the State Department has been particularly hard felt in Africa. Even as the U.S. military has expanded its footprint there, Washington’s diplomatic and intelligence presence has remained extremely thin, with not enough ears and eyes on the ground. The typical U.S. embassy in a small African country is understaffed; what is worse, at any given time, over one-quarter of the positions in the United States’ embassies in Africa remain unfilled or filled by people who would normally be considered too junior, and even more positions remain this way in riskier posts. Largely for security reasons, the United States lacks a diplomatic presence in the northern half of Nigeria, a region of over 70 million people. The U.S. embassy in the collapsing Central African Republic has been shuttered since 2012. And Niger had no U.S. ambassador in residence for much of 2013 and 2014.

The U.S. military has expanded its footprint in Africa, but Washington’s diplomatic and intelligence presence there has remained extremely thin. In the best of circumstances, it would be difficult to manage a coherent Africa policy; with 49 countries and around one billion people in sub-Saharan Africa, there is too much economic and political diversity to fit into a single policy framework. At the very least, it is useful to divide U.S. policy spatially across three distinct subregions: the Sahel, the Great Lakes region, and the rest of the continent. In each, a very different frame shapes the making of U.S. foreign policy.

SECURING THE SAHEL

The Sahel region—the large swath of territory extending from Senegal to the Horn of Africa that constitutes the southern edge of the Sahara desert—is home to Africa’s weakest states, poorest economies, and largest ungoverned spaces, as well as most of its Muslims. Since 9/11, it has also been the focus of the United States’ security policy in Africa. In 2007, the U.S. military created the Africa Command, or AFRICOM, in large part to coordinate the fight against growing Islamic fundamentalism in the Sahel, particularly in the Horn of Africa. The militarization of U.S. policy in the Sahel has accelerated under Obama, with the Pentagon expanding drone bases in Djibouti and Ethiopia for operations in the Arabian Peninsula and Somalia and, in 2013, building a new base in Niger for operations in Mali and Nigeria. The Obama administration has treated the Sahel primarily as a source of security threats; promoting economic growth, free markets, and democratic governance has been an afterthought.

It is hard to declare this policy a resounding success. In Somalia, Obama is the fourth U.S. president to try to address the consequences of the central government’s collapse in the late 1980s, and the fourth to get little in return. Al Shabab, an Islamist militant group that controlled nearly all of southern Somalia when Obama took office, has grown weaker after losing a number of its key leaders in U.S. drone attacks. Far less clear, however, is whether these strikes have weakened radical Islam in Somalia and whether they have advanced the arduous political objective of convincing the country’s ever-fractious clans to share power.

The Obama administration has treated the Sahel primarily as a source of security threats. Economic growth and democratic governance have been afterthoughts. The Obama administration has expanded its military cooperation with Sahelian governments while keeping the number of U.S. boots on the ground to a minimum. But Washington’s partners have proved frustratingly weak. As Boko Haram gained a foothold in northern Nigeria, the United States increased its limited military assistance to and cooperation with the Nigerian government. But it held back on account of concerns over corruption and human rights abuses within the Nigerian military. After 276 schoolgirls were kidnapped in the town of Chibok in April 2014, the Obama administration fielded an interagency task force to help the Nigerian government find them. Washington provided intelligence from drone and satellite imagery, but U.S. officials complained that the Nigerians failed to act on the information. In December 2014, tensions between the two countries came to a head when Nigeria canceled the last phase of a U.S. mission to train a Nigerian battalion.

In Mali, similarly, a decade of U.S. assistance did not prevent some senior officers in the country’s army from aiding cross-border smuggling networks that sustain various jihadists and criminal groups. Nor did it prevent the army’s rapid collapse in 2012, when Tuareg militias and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) took over the northern half of Mali. The next year, the democratic government of Amadou Touré was toppled in a military coup—led by an officer who had received military training in the United States.

Helmets belonging to soldiers of the Nigerian army are seen as part of preparations for deployment to Mali, in Jaji, near Kaduna, January 2013.

With so few diplomats, spies, and soldiers on the ground in the Sahel, the United States has long been forced to work through local partners. The problem is that there are no obvious candidates for this role, aside from Nigeria, a problematic partner at best in recent years. In Mali, in the end, Chadian troops had to be called in to beat back the Islamists. By all accounts, these hardened soldiers, experienced in desert fighting, acquitted themselves well. Working with French forces, they managed to restore a measure of governmental control of northern Mali. But it seems unlikely that Chad, an unstable military dictatorship, will become a regular U.S. partner.

In this regard, the United States should welcome the reemergence of France as a military force in the Sahel after a decade of progressive withdrawal. Both in Mali, where it proved crucial to defeating AQIM, and in the Central African Republic, where it has helped restore some tenuous order, France has been a useful partner to the United States, with great operational knowledge about the region and more important interests in it. Wisely, the Obama administration has improved U.S. cooperation with France in the Sahel.

On the other hand, the United States set back security in the Sahel with its intervention in Libya in 2011. The U.S.-led mission succeeded in overthrowing the Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi, but officials never articulated a clear strategy for managing the aftermath of his disastrous 42-year rule. Not only had Qaddafi’s personal dictatorship emasculated all political institutions in Libya; his many reckless military adventures had also consistently destabilized the surrounding region. Nonetheless, Libya’s descent into warlordism post-Qaddafi may well prove far worse for regional stability in the coming years. The diffusion of arms and soldiers from Libya played a key role in destabilizing Mali, and for the foreseeable future, Libya itself will serve as yet another new safe haven for radical Islam.

The Obama administration did face extenuating circumstances in Libya. Once the Libyan army had fractured and the civil war started, the United States, already overstretched in Afghanistan and Iraq, had few good options, and its emphasis on multilateralism was laudable. Still, the chaos of a post-Qaddafi Libya could have been predicted (and in fact was, although mainly by those on the political fringes). The partisan blather about the 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi has obscured the real scandal: a poorly conceived intervention that the United States and Africa will likely pay the price for well into the future.

THE HEART OF AFRICA

In the Great Lakes region of central Africa, Washington has framed its policy in humanitarian terms. In the Darfur region of Sudan, South Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, successive U.S. administrations have sought to manage the humanitarian consequences of seemingly intractable long-term civil wars that have together killed millions. (Obama’s expanded hunt in Uganda for Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, has a similar humanitarian logic, although the militia group is a much-diminished threat today.) In each case, the United States has fitfully engaged in midlevel back-channel diplomacy to change the dynamics of the conflict. But it has had difficulty sustaining the occasional successes, both because of the complexity of the forces on the ground and because of the inconsistent attention of senior officials in Washington.

In both Sudan and South Sudan, U.S. diplomats have long participated in negotiations to reduce civil conflict and human rights abuses. The United States spends roughly $2 billion per year on aid and peacekeeping to address the multiple humanitarian crises that have ebbed and flowed in the two countries over the years. In Congo, the Obama administration has continued the U.S. strategy of working through Uganda and Rwanda, two allies that are not always reliable and have complex and often unconstructive stakes in the conflict.

A soldier from the Uganda People's Defence Forces (UPDF) gives a demonstration on a Raven unmanned aircraft provided by the U.S at the Kasenyi Special Forces Group barracks, south west of Kampala, August 2012.

Unable to achieve much progress on the conflicts themselves, the Obama administration, like its predecessors, has resorted to paying for a sizable chunk of the cost of the international peacekeeping forces and refugee camps. For almost two decades now, the United States has been the main paymaster of the UN peacekeeping mission in Congo, which, with some 20,000 troops, ranks as the UN’s biggest ever. Yet the force has consistently gotten poor marks when it comes to protecting civilians and pressuring the different sides to behave better. Every year, the U.S. government spends some $650 million to $1 billion on foreign aid, humanitarian aid, and peacekeeping in Congo.

In the absence of more substantial national interests, the United States will not lead an ambitious effort to bring peace to Congo. The Obama administration also made a renewed diplomatic push in Congo. Under the leadership of Russ Feingold, the special envoy to the Great Lakes region, the United States sought to reassure Rwanda about its security concerns while pressuring the UN peacekeeping force to more aggressively fight antigovernment rebels in northeastern Congo. The strategy appeared to work in 2013 and 2014, when Rwanda withdrew its support for the so-called M23 rebels, who were soon defeated by a beefed-up UN force working with the Congolese army. Violence has fallen, but major obstacles stand in the way of further progress: the continued presence of anti-Rwanda groups in Congo rightly preoccupies Rwanda, which could yet decide to support another rebel group to defend its interests there, and Congolese state institutions, including the army, possess very little capacity for good and remain deeply predatory.

As is true elsewhere in central Africa, in Congo, in the absence of more substantial national interests, the United States will not lead a more ambitious effort to bring peace to that troubled country. The reality, then, is that these humanitarian emergencies could continue for years to come, despite the substantial aid and diplomatic effort being devoted to the region.

BRIGHT SPOTS

Then there is the rest of the continent, the part that is threatened by neither Islamic fundamentalism nor state collapse. This is the Africa that gets mentioned glowingly in newspapers’ business pages, with its fast-rising economies, growing Chinese presence, and impressive trade and investment numbers. Of course, with a combined GDP that is just slightly larger than Brazil’s, Africa is still a marginal player in the global economy and accounts for only a couple of percentage points of all global trade. And although recent growth outside the commodities sector is cause for optimism, that growth is starting from a very low base.

Still, the economic progress in the more stable parts of Africa is undeniable, and this has not escaped the Obama administration’s attention. In these countries, humanitarian and security concerns have taken a back seat to democracy promotion and, in particular, economic diplomacy. And it is here where the Obama administration has made a sharp break from its predecessors.

Bush’s major initiatives in Africa involved foreign aid, the traditional instrument of U.S. policy there throughout the postcolonial period. Obama, for his part, can be considered the first post-foreign-aid president. Appreciating Africa’s economic potential, his administration has sought to replace the asymmetrical relationship implied by foreign aid with more equal economic partnerships with governments. It has preferred to work through the private sector, and most of its innovations concern promoting trade and investment. The underlying logic is sound: that African markets are now attractive enough to entice U.S. investors, with just a little push from Uncle Sam.

Fittingly, the Obama administration’s most prominent initiative for Africa puts a premium on private-sector investment. In June 2013, during his visit to South Africa, Obama unveiled Power Africa, a program designed to increase the region’s woefully inadequate electricity generation capacity by 10,000 megawatts. Obama dramatically expanded Power Africa in August 2014, during a summit of African leaders in Washington, D.C. Eager to announce an ambitious new program to the African heads of state and American CEOs assembled, the administration sought to increase electricity capacity by 30,000 megawatts, targeting 60 million households and businesses through impressive, albeit nebulous, long-term commitments by public-private partnerships, for which the administration promised 
$7 billion over five years.

A boy stands in front of wind turbines at the Ashegoda Wind Farm, Tigray, Ethiopia, October 2013.

The expansion of the initial program, orchestrated in a matter of days, demonstrated the progress that can be made on Africa policy when the White House gets directly involved. But with the limelight gone, implementation of the program risks falling back into the laborious interagency processes such initiatives often get mired in, subject to the usual turf wars, procedural obstacles, and general bureaucratic resistance to change. The logical agencies to lead public-private partnerships—the Overseas Private Investment Corporation and the U.S. Export-Import Bank—remain constrained by outdated regulations and their own cautiousness. And the Africa bureaus of the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development have little capacity when it comes to business development.

Obama’s pro-growth diplomacy toward this part of Africa has been promising but too timid. The rhetoric of public-private partnership can serve as a fig leaf for the unavailability of public resources and the lack of a will to act. Guarantees of public investment can be a powerful tool to mobilize private-sector investment, but in some countries, such as Angola, the substantial flow of new private investments suggests that they are unnecessary, whereas in others, such as the Central African Republic, they may be inadequate without more substantial public investments. Still, Obama deserves credit for broadening U.S. engagement with Africa beyond the frames of security and humanitarian relief.

A TIME FOR AMBITION

Obama can be considered the first post-foreign-aid president. This subregional breakdown is not perfect. Important U.S. allies on or below the southern edge of the Sahel—notably, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Nigeria—function as both important security partners and emerging economic players, a reality that Washington has recognized. South Africa boasts the continent’s largest military and largest economy and so naturally falls into both those policy frames. The Obama administration’s rapid response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014 included both humanitarian and economic objectives. Still, Washington has always struggled to integrate security, humanitarian, and economic goals.

The dissonance between Africa’s economic successes and its political failures constitutes a central paradox about the region today. There is reason for both enormous optimism and enormous pessimism about its future. Which will prevail, the Africa of jihadists and collapsed states or the Africa of rising prosperity and dynamic entrepreneurship? It is tempting to engage in a kind of triage and focus exclusively on the successful countries. But it would be foolhardy to ignore the dysfunctional Africa, since the distance between the two is not as great as one would think, and recent history has shown just how dangerous the diffusion of conflict across borders can be. If newfound economic growth in Ethiopia after several decades of civil conflict gives one cause for optimism, the decline into patrimonial thuggery in Zimbabwe and the near collapse of democracy in Mali suggest that few countries in the region are easy to categorize.

Still, Africa’s last decade has tipped the balance in favor of optimism, and the United States should take advantage of the current possibilities. Obama’s economic diplomacy with the region has been a clear win-win, so the policy should be expanded by implementing Power Africa and enhancing trade agreements such as the African Growth and Opportunity Act. But make no mistake: allowing various crises to persist will increasingly serve as a brake on growth in the stable parts of Africa. It is illusory to believe, for example, that Rwanda and Zambia suffer no ill effects from living next to perennially chaotic Congo: the private sector will withhold investment from these countries until there is greater regional stability. Sometimes, this dynamic plays out within the same country: economic growth in Nigeria surely depends in part on ending Boko Haram’s barbaric attempts to terrorize Nigerians.

Ever since the end of the Cold War, when Africa stopped being viewed as a major arena of international politics, the continent has struggled to find its way onto the United States’ foreign policy agenda. Like those who came before him, Obama has grappled with 
a lack of motivation to prioritize the continent. Now more than ever, however, Africa merits real attention. The emergence of radical Islam in the northern half of the continent has enhanced Africa’s security profile, and the growing dynamism of its markets showcases its economic potential. Obama has too tentatively begun the process of upgrading Washington’s Africa policy; these changes should at last give his successor the license to 
be more ambitious.

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