Obama’s policies failed to uplift Africa

In 10 days, Barack Obama’s eight-year presidency will be over. When the Kenyan-Kansan was elected the first black US president in 2008, a wave of “Obamamania” swept across Africa and its diaspora.

By the time Obama visited Africa in 2013, the magic had worn off. The unrealistic expectation that he could transform the continent’s fortunes had not even come close to fruition.

Obama’s Africa policy was based on four pillars: democratic governance; conflict management; economic growth and development; and access to quality health and education. But these crumbled on rickety foundations of crass self-interest and empty symbolism.

Obama continued several of the truculent George W Bush’s most egregious policies, which militarised the US’s engagement with the continent.

About 2000 US soldiers remained in Djibouti to track terrorists; autocratic regimes in oil-rich Equatorial Guinea, as well as in Egypt, Morocco, Uganda, Rwanda and Ethiopia remained staunch US allies or clients, rendering Obama’s 2009 Accra pledge to support “strong institutions, not strong men”, meaningless. The US’s Germany-based Africa Command still roams the continent in a seemingly endless “war on terror”.

The Obama administration, in fact, oversaw one of the largest military expansions into Africa, establishing small bases and outposts for drones, surveillance, air bases, special forces, and/or port facilities in Kenya, Uganda, Chad, Central African Republic (CAR), South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Burkina Faso, Ghana and Senegal.

More positively, the Obama administration provided support to peacekeeping missions in Africa and contributed to peacemaking efforts in the Great Lakes and Horn of Africa. Rather than supporting French neocolonial actions in countries such as Mali, Ivory Coast, and CAR, however, the US president could have lent greater support to regional-led UN peacekeeping efforts.

In 2014, Obama described the aftermath of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s Libya intervention three years earlier, as his “biggest foreign policy regret”, bemoaning the failure to plan for post-conflict reconstruction.

Instability from Libya soon spread across the Sahel into Mali. This was in effect Obama’s mini-Iraq: acephalous Libya is now characterised by rival governments, armed groups, violent abductions, arbitrary killings and 300000 internally displaced persons.

In the socioeconomic sphere, the US-led Group of Eight’s New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition created fewer jobs than the 650000 it had promised. But various US programmes contributed to improving education for children across the continent.

Obama also inaugurated a Young African Leaders Initiative through which 500 African youths under the age of 35 (Mandela Washington Fellows) are annually provided with six weeks of executive leadership training.

In the area of health, Obama increased the number of people receiving HIV/Aids treatment from 1.7 million in 2008 to 6.7 million by 2013. His administration supported victims of Ebola in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea.

In August 2014, Obama hosted 40 African leaders in Washington DC in the first yet US-Africa summit. However, this meeting was in effect a talk shop that did not produce any concrete results. Obama’s signature policy “Power Africa” was proudly touted. But as he leaves office, this $9.7-billion (R133.3-billion) project to double electricity access to 20 million African households has left the continent in the dark: less than 5% of the 10000MW target has been generated.

Africa’s exports to the US also remain dominated by oil and gas.

As an individual, Obama has remained popular across Africa. But the early lustre of Obamamania has clearly faded as the realisation gradually dawned on Africans that even a powerful leader with close family ties to the continent could not change six decades of “malign neglect” of their continent by Washington.

The tragedy of this tale is that the enduring continuity of US foreign policy has trumped the early idealism of an extraordinary individual of African ancestry.

Obama has not only failed to remake Africa, he has also failed to change the US and the world. Much of his key achievements – healthcare, the Iran nuclear deal, rapprochement with Cuba – will be dismantled by the incoming Donald Trump administration.

The “dreams of our fathers” – recalling the title of Obama’s memorable 1995 memoirs – have now morphed into a ghastly nightmare that could reverse many of the gains of the civil rights struggle. Another “parting of the waves” may soon be needed. Where is our Black Moses?

Professor Adekeye Adebajo is director of the Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation at the University of Johannesburg.

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