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What Will ‘Brother Barack’ Do for Africa?
Posted on Dec 26, 2008
One such possibility, according to Kenyan Graphine Okinda, is a boost in Kenya’s tourism industry from which he would expect a personal gain. “People will come from America to see where he [Obama] is from. The tourism industry will improve. Maybe, when I finish school, I can be employed in a big hotel.”
Motlanthe also urged Obama to use his presidency to tackle poverty in Africa. “We express the hope that poverty and under-development in Africa, which remains a challenge for humanity, will indeed continue to receive a greater attention of the focus of the new administration.”
Obama is not unaware of these hopes and expectations. Indeed, they have been high since he visited the continent as a senator in 2006 and proclaimed, “You are all my brothers and sisters.” In Kenya, South Africa, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Chad, he told cheering crowds that he would lobby for help back in the U.S. to solve their problems.
And even though he was quick to remind his kinsmen in western Kenya that he was the senator for Illinois in the United States—not Kogelo, or indeed Africa—the foreign policy page at barackobama.com states that Obama worked with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid “to secure $20 million for the African Union peacekeeping mission in Darfur.”
Obama co-sponsored Senate legislation that would enable federal, state and municipal government entities to divest themselves of Sudan-related stock. He co-sponsored, along with Sen. Sam Brownback, who accompanied him on his August 2006 trip to South Africa, Kenya, Djibouti, Chad and Sudan, the Darfur Peace and Accountability Act of 2006, which classified the Darfur conflict as genocide and authorized U.S. assistance for African Union peacekeeping forces in the region.
He also co-authored, with Brownback, an Op-Ed article published in The Washington Post about the Bush administration’s efforts regarding the genocide in Darfur. On the subject of the African Union, the two senators wrote: “First, the administration must help transform the African Union protection force into a sizable, effective multinational force. … The African Union has begun discussions with the United Nations about folding itself into a follow-on U.N. mission, but because of the West’s reluctance to offend African sensibilities, all parties seem resigned to muddling along. It has become clear that a U.N.- or NATO-led force is required, and the administration must use diplomacy to override Chinese and Sudanese opposition to such a force and persuade outside troops to join it.”
And even now the man who traveled on dirt roads in bumpy buses with chickens nestled in his lap as he traced his Kenyan roots still has Africa very much on his mind. According to Witney Schneidman, a deputy assistant secretary of state for Africa in the Clinton administration who is now an Obama advisor, the president-elect has three fundamental objectives for Africa: to accelerate the continent’s integration into the global economy; to enhance peace and security; and to deepen democracy.
Whether he will be able to realize these objectives has, however, become a matter of grave concern across the African continent. After the riotous celebrations of the election of “one of our own,” reality is beginning to set in. While the less informed continue to daydream about the loads of benefits that might flow to them from Obama’s presidency, the elite are aware that Obama faces momentous global challenges, especially in Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Israel, Palestine and North Korea. There are also the global economic crisis and the current budget deficit in the United States.
The sobering reality therefore is that an Obama presidency may not bring a concrete change in terms of U.S. policy in Africa. The challenges Obama will face as president are so daunting that, according to Mark Schroeder, director of risk analysis for sub-Saharan Africa at the political intelligence group Stratfor, “Whatever his personal preferences are, he is going to face much more immediate pressing concerns. And those are dealing with Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Russia and the global financial crisis.” Schroeder concluded that “there is not going to be a lot of political capital left over to devote to Africa.”
Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade has cautioned that “Africans must not ask extraordinary things from him [Obama], must not expect ... that through the miracle of his election America will rain money on Africa to change our continent. I don’t think that’s going to happen, and it wouldn’t be a good thing.”
Cameroonian historian and political theorist Achille Mbembe also warns that Africa’s expectations of Obama are “too emotional, irrational, and unrealistic.”
Says Mbembe: “I would make a distinction between the symbolic significance of this black man being elected to the most powerful position on Earth and the political consequences. Obama will be pushing the interests of America first. He would not be there as an African; he would be there as an American.”
Ousmane Sene, a professor of literature and American civilization at Senegal’s University of Cheikh Anta Diop, says, “we [Africans] should be drawing [inspirational] lessons from Obama’s victory rather than that … the coffers will open and billions of dollars will come. ... It doesn’t work like that.”
Those who are well aware that Obama’s presidency may not bring much to Africa in terms of concrete change, however, agree that it has great symbolic value for Africa and Africans. Political theorist Mbembe argues that Obama’s rise to office “holds the promise of a shift in Africa and the Diaspora from a politics of victimhood to a politics of possibility.”
According to Mbembe, “the Obama phenomenon reframes the black question. It pushes it to a level that we have not achieved in the history of modernity. It’s more than Frederick Douglass; it’s more than Martin Luther King Jr. It’s something else.”
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