Obama to step up engagement with Africa this year

2011-01-03 07:35

President Barack Obama is quietly but strategically stepping up his outreach to Africa, using this year to increase his engagement with a continent that is personally meaningful to him and important to US interests.

Expectations in Africa spiked after the election of an American president with a Kenyan father. But midway through his term, Obama’s agenda for Africa took a backseat to other foreign policy goals, such as winding down the Iraq war, fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan and resetting relations with Russia.

Obama aides believed those issues were now on more solid footing, allowing the president to expand his international agenda. He would focus on good governance and supporting nations with strong democratic institutions.

Obama delivered that message on his only trip to Africa since taking office, an overnight stop in Ghana in 2009, where he was mobbed by cheering crowds. In a blunt speech before the Ghanaian parliament, Obama said democracy was the key to Africa’s long-term development.

“That is the ingredient which has been missing in far too many places, for far too long,” Obama said. “That is the change that can unlock Africa’s potential. And that is a responsibility that can only be met by Africans.”

The White House said Obama would travel to Africa again and the political calendar meant the trip would almost certainly happen this year, before Obama had to spend more time on his re-election bid. No decision was made on which countries Obama will visit, but deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said stops would reflect positive democratic models.

The administration was monitoring more than 30 elections expected across Africa this year, including critical contests in Nigeria and Zimbabwe.

John Campbell, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former US ambassador to Nigeria, said the different elections gave the Obama administration the opportunity to establish clear policies.

The administration “should be less willing to cut slack when those elections are less than free, fair and credible”, Campbell said.

The White House could send that message right now as it dealt with the disputed election in Ivory Coast and an upcoming independence referendum in Sudan, which could split Africa’s largest country in two.

Rhodes said the president had invested significant “diplomatic capital” in Sudan, mentioning the referendum in nearly all of his conversations with the presidents of Russia and China, two countries which could wield influence over that Sudan’s government.

When Obama stopped in at a White House meeting last month of his national security advisers and United Nations ambassadors, the first topic he broached was Sudan, not Iran or North Korea. And as lawmakers in Congress neared the December vote on a new nuclear treaty with Russia, Obama called southern Sudan leader Salva Kiir by telephone to offer support for the referendum.

White House officials believed the postelection standoff in Ivory Coast could be the model for Obama’s stepped-up engagement in Africa.

The president tried to call incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo twice last month, from Air Force One as Obama returned from Afghanistan and then a week later. Neither call reached Gbagbo; administration officials believe the Ivorian leader sought to avoid contact. So Obama wrote Gbagbo a letter, offering him an international role if he stopped clinging to power and stepped down.

But Obama also made it clear that the longer Gbagbo held on, and the more complicit he became in violence across the country, the more limited his options became, said a senior administration official. The official insisted on anonymity to speak about administration strategy.

Rhodes said the White House understood that US involvement in African politics could be viewed as meddling. But he said Obama could speak to African leaders with a unique level of candour, reflecting his personal connection to Africa and that his father and other family members were affected by the corruption that plagued many countries there.

Officials also saw increased political stability in Africa as good for long-term US interests – a way to stem the growth of terrorism in east Africa and counterbalance China’s growing presence on the continent.

The US was caught off guard during the 2009 climate summit in Copenhagen when several African countries voted with China and not the US, the administration official said. The official said the administration must persuade African nations that their interests were better served by aligning with the US.?

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