Obama and Africa: The Change We Have Been Waiting For?

Copyright The Huffington Post
By Howard W French
Posted Nov. 6, 2008
In the momentary lull that follows a presidential election, between full-out campaigning and real decision-making, the media has a few time-honored rituals that center on parlor games and policy speculation.
This election has been no different. While we wait for an Obama administration to start taking shape, one of the favorite exercises has been gazing into crystal balls about the foreign policy crises the new president will face. Others, a bit more boldly, make forthright statements about what the incoming government’s foreign policy priorities should be.
Fred Kaplan’s take in Slate on Wednesday was a fairly typical offering of this kind. Under the heading, “A Foreign-Policy Repair Manual: Six priorities for President Obama,” he went on to detail a fairly typical laundry list of crises and opportunities, from getting out of Iraq to “laying the initial groundwork for renewed Israeli-Palestinian talks.”
As priorities, the lists were fine as far as they went. The problem is that for a new leader promising change, they have tended to reflect the most traditional sorts of Washington priorities, neglecting other parts of the world that are starving for American moral and political leadership; places where Obama, by virtue of his unique background, offers particularly compelling potential for impact.
The most obvious and important omission by list keepers like Kaplan is Africa, a continent of nearly one billion people today that according to United Nations projections will count an astounding two billion people by mid-century.
Today, for example, a new war looms in the Congo, a place where unbeknown to most Americans the United States has played a critical and mostly disastrous role since independence from Belgium in 1960. According to respectable international estimates some four million people have died in the Congo as a result of wars there since 1996, the greatest toll anywhere since World War II.
There is a powerful argument to be made that this disaster, along with the Rwandan genocide that preceded it, is Bill Clinton’s most important foreign policy legacy, and an Obama policy toward Africa run by many of the same people and carrying forward Clinton era thinking would be a sign of disdain for the continent and its problems.
The Congo’s apocalyptic dissolution began in earnest when Washington gave Rwanda the green light to invade the country, setting off a free for all that sucked in many of the Congo’s neighbors.
Washington has spent money on the crisis through the United Nations, but in terms of showing political leadership it has run from the problems of the Congo ever since, leaving a vast and potentially rich country that is the effective crossroads of north, south, east and west in Africa crippled and unattended.
Africa has never long retained the attention of our foreign policy elite, journalists included, and yet today this fast-growing continent, the homeland of our new president’s father, teeters on a fulcrum point, credibly capable of veering off in radically different directions in ways that will profoundly affect Americans and indeed mankind.
An Africa that can douse its conflicts, build functioning institutions and continue to lay the foundations of democracy stands to become an important player in the next phase of globalization, as labor costs rise in much of Asia, and capital begins to prospect for productive opportunities elsewhere.
An Africa pocked by neglected failing states will increasingly become a nexus of catastrophe, and contrary to the wishes of our foreign policy establishment, which always seeks to confine Africa to the realm of our lowest priorities, the blowback from its ever-larger disasters will inflict high costs and pain everywhere.
During the last decade of political neglect of Africa, China has made extraordinary inroads on the continent, eclipsing the commercial presence of Europe’s old colonial masters, and lapping fast at the heels of the United States as Africa’s most important trading partner.
China’s trade with Africa has more than doubled in the last two years alone, reaching roughly $120 billion this year. It is important to state that China is pushing into Africa not as some charity project, but because of two very carefully reasoned conclusions.
China, for one, badly needs priority access to Africa’s storehouse of minerals, petroleum and even farmland. Even more jarringly for Americans, who have embraced a deep and abiding bigotry of low expectations about the continent, though, China sees Africa as a frontier of opportunity; a place whose future is bright.
Today, all across Africa Chinese, not Western companies, are building vital infrastructure — ports, railways, roads, schools and hospitals — at a rhythm and scope that surpasses anything the continent has seen before, including during the heyday of colonialism.
For the most part, for Africa and for the world, this is good news. The problem with leaving the African playing field to China alone relates to the most profound shortcomings in Beijing’s emerging foreign policy, just as it relates to some of the United States’ most special qualities, as well as to the unique potential of our new president as a game changer in America’s relationship with the continent.
For reasons of deep-seated diplomatic tradition and because of its own underrated insecurities, China still clings to the idea that the so-called internal problems of other countries, be they harsh dictatorship, rampant corruption or even genocide are none of its business — or indeed even ours.
Africans are grateful for China’s intense interest in the continent, and they rightfully find inspiration in China’s example of a stirring rise from poverty largely on the strength of concerted and sustained national effort.
Africans have no illusions, though, of Chinese leadership in resolving the conflicts that continue to tear their continent apart and hold them back. And for good reason there is even less hope among the civil societies that have sprouted in country after country, even in the seemingly least fertile of soils, that China will help Africa democratize, which is a key to the continent’s future.
While much of the world has gone sour on the United States’ claim of being a beacon of hope, the 53 countries of Africa have by and large remained profoundly attached to a vision of America as land of justice, opportunity and freedom. Obama’s election will only make such feelings much more intense, a fact I can attest to from correspondence from friends across the continent of prayer vigils in every faith for his candidacy and for his success in office.
To waste this moment would be more than a lost opportunity. For the United States, for Africa and for the world, it would be a tragedy.
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