Africa mulls Obama's presidency

2012-11-01 20:46

Johannesburg - Four years ago Africa greeted Barack Obama's election with rapture, predicting America's first black president would smother the continent with attention. But instead of warm hand-holding, Africa got hard-headed, security-first policies.

Africa's response to Obama's election in November 2008 was nothing short of ecstatic. A Nigerian foreign minister wept, Nelson Mandela hailed it as proof that people should "dare to dream", and Kenya declared a national holiday.

The fawning was quickly reciprocated, with Obama visiting Ghana just five months after his inauguration.

"I have the blood of Africa within me," he emotively told the Ghanaian parliament and rapt television viewers across the continent. Africa, the new president declared, was now "a fundamental part of our interconnected world".


But as America's Great Recession deepened, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan trundled on and the Arab Spring exploded, sub-Saharan Africa found itself in a familiar spot; on the back-burner.

"There was an expectation that he was going to be the US President for Africa," said long-time South African diplomat Thomas Wheeler, now of the South African Institute of International Affairs. "It was just an unrealistic expectation."

"The fact that he had an African father did not mean that he was going to devote a lot more time to Africa."

Symbolically, Obama's visit to Ghana was to be his only trip to the region. Equally symbolically, it took until June this year for his White House to come up with a nine-page "US strategy toward sub-Saharan Africa".

Yet the continent was far from ignored.

Quiet attention

Air Force One has been conspicuous in its absence, but the US Air Force and other branches of the US security services have not.

Quietly, US policy toward Africa has started to look a lot more hard-headed and a lot more like policy toward the rest of the world.

"Obama to my mind is more engaged in Africa, but the nature of how the United States is engaging has changed. It is mostly security related," said Jason Warner, a Harvard-based expert on African security.

According to Warner, Obama has helped "normalise" Africa policy. "There is no other region in the world that the US engages on simply humanitarian grounds."

Since Obama took office it has been widely reported that the administration has expanded a network of air bases across Africa, training its might on al-Qaeda affiliated militants and other groups.

More covert

Clandestine bases in Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Uganda are said to have been used variously to spy on al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and track elements of the Lord's Resistance Army, led by Joseph Kony.

Unconfirmed US drone strikes are reported with some frequency in Somalia.

According to the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, between 58 and 170 people have been killed in 10 to 23 strikes on Somalia, although some took place during George W Bush's administration.

"The nature of what he is doing is definitely more covert. But you do get these glimpses every few months that the US is really deeply embedded in Africa," said Warner.

A year ago Obama deployed 100 US special forces to help Ugandan troops scour thick African jungles of the Central African Republic for Kony - an indicted war criminal - backed up by surveillance planes.


The linchpin for this newly securitised policy toward Africa is the United States Africa Command, or Africom, which operates as a nerve centre for US military operations and military-to-military contacts in the region.

The command became operational barely one month before Obama was elected and now boasts 2 000 designated staff. By one count that is more Africa staff than the foreign aid department USAid.

But much like Obama's security policy in Africa, Africom has remained largely low-key. It is based in Stuttgart, Germany, rather than in the region, in part to allay accusations of neo-colonial ambitions.

Officials are keen to talk up military training programmes and not so willing to discuss covert operations.


That lack of bombast has been welcomed by many on the continent.

According to Chidi Odinkalu, head of Nigeria's National Human Rights Commission and a respected activist, Obama's policy toward one crisis - Nigeria's Boko Haram Islamist insurgency - has struck a balance.

"It would've been easy to overreach... and take Nigeria into the realm of the global war on terror. But I think the US has recognised the particularities of the situation."

Still, there is little doubt that Obama has missed an opportunity to create goodwill through more high-profile appearances in African capitals, but according to John Campbell, a former US ambassador to Nigeria, the impact of the loss is limited.

"I don't doubt that for many people on the street it is somehow or other disappointing," he said. "But you keep looking for concrete examples of where it has damaged relations, and I don't really see any."

Regardless of the perceived neglect, Obama's power to grasp the African imagination remains undimmed, according to Nigerian rights activist Odinkalu.

"I think the success of the Obama presidency goes beyond whatever he's done for Africa."

  • nikelom - 2012-11-01 21:01

    I hate this notion that Pres Obama (or indeed the US) owes us something. He is a US Pres. (full stop) It is naive and unfair to expect him to do anything but advance the cause of that country, for which he's taken oath. It's time Africa (and the old boys club called the AU) wake up and smell the coffee. . . we are on our own. Own up and clean up to earn respect in the world.

      theo.schoeman.71 - 2012-11-01 21:56

      Sorry to say but it's the old Africa sickness... begging and hoping for help from elsewhere. Hoping that Obama or any one else except themselves will solve Africa's issues. Until that day come Africa will remain just Africa. So sad but yet so true

      fidel.mgoqi - 2012-11-01 22:14

      There's nothing true about your ignorance. Firstly you assume why some Africans had grown an affection for Obama, something that your addled brain is unable to comprehend because you are not African and hence have no idea what Obama's election as president of the USA had on the African psyche, including those in the Diaspora! Stop talking out of your a$$!

      theo.schoeman.71 - 2012-11-01 22:34

      @fidel.mgoqi - Please tell me what makes you African.. your black skin or or your name? I am a proud African despite my white skin and name. I was born in Africa so was four generations before me. Fact remains when Obama was elected Africa thought their problems wich they cant solve will be solved for them. Obama is who he is not because of his black skin, but because he is one of the greatest nations in the world.

      lorain.maseko - 2012-11-02 07:39

      Nikelom That's the truth bro, especially thekenyans,they felt like somehow Obama would make the US their play ground,he was elected by the Americans to run the affiars of America and keep their interests at heart,regardless of the fact that he has African blood in his veins he doesnt owe anybody anything, it's quite annoying when Africans start with that "you as a brother or sister owe me"mentality, nobody owes you sh...t the sooner we all realize that the sooner we start creating our own something.

      nelie.vanaardt - 2012-11-02 08:53

      I salute you my fiend!! I wrote something the same a minute before reading your comment. Please befriend me on Facebook so we can chat more easily.

      tim.gordon.5011516 - 2012-11-02 10:30

      @fidel. Why does your happiness and achievement rely on someone else's achievement? Go forth and do something special because of what you can do. You're whole outlook on life will improve dramatically and you wont have to find reasons to blame your unhappiness on.

      fidel.mgoqi - 2012-11-02 10:52

      Kinship is a foreign concept to your kind and it is understable why you would mouth off nonsense like that. Who said I wasn't happy, you gonna try and psycho analyse me now?

  • jacob.molife - 2012-11-01 21:17

    Let Obama run the affairs of his country without you African leaders burdenin 'im with your self inflicted problems. Once you'r in your jungle states you tend think no one is wachin you. Well, God is!!!!!

  • hannah.p.mostert - 2012-11-01 21:18

    I agree nikelom we are on our own so we better make it work here, I wish we had Obama as our leader tho,he is working against such strong republican currents in America that his hands are tied to do all he has set out to do, they block him at every turn those bastard republicans

  • fidel.mgoqi - 2012-11-01 22:09

    Why would any self respecting African cozy up to an African-American President who regained his popularity by condoning the lynching of one of Africa's Greatest sons in Muamar Gaddafi!

      theo.schoeman.71 - 2012-11-01 22:21

      "of one of Africa's Greatest sons in Muamar Gaddafi!" And the rest of the world is still wondering why Africa is never getting anything right ! With the greatest part of Africa's population believing that the like's of Gaddafi, Mugabe and Zoomer is great leaders.. that explain why Africa will remain 3rd world and America under the leadship of the Obama's of this world will remain 1st world countries.

  • johnny.matsetse - 2012-11-02 06:35

    Obama has no time for Dictators ,once he become involved in African problems ,He won't tolerate the Mugabes N Zumas of this Continents ,hence he is staying far away from Africa,Look at the way the campaigning R conductected in America no Running in the street opposing Parties threatening each othr with violence ,Or singing Bring back my machine Guns

  • nelie.vanaardt - 2012-11-02 09:09

    fidel.mgoqi. Somhow Ithink you miss the point, Blacks are a Minority in the US. Many, Many whites voted for Obama. They do not see his colour but the person who he is. I cannot understand why Black Africans have such a passion for their colour even if it is just half Colour, he is not Black he is mixed and the Whole World appreciate him for who he is. It is only the Black Africans making such an issue about Colour. You know waht God made me White and I am graefull for who I am. He made you Black be proud of yourself and reach for the sky, make the most of it instead of being negative about whom you are. Or are you so ashamed of the fact that the Black Countries are so far behind that they have to worship some Coloured American because there is not one Black worthy of being worshiped. Look around and find one African state that hve achieved what the Americans have. With Hard work, innovation and perseverance. Remember all other Countries had to fend for themselves with hardship unknown to us. It is theirs and Obama like all other Leaders priority is with his people and they are the Americans, White, Black, Coloured, Spanish. Indian etc. etc. Admire him for his achievements and not his patch of colour

      fidel.mgoqi - 2012-11-02 09:16

      I responded to a faulty assertion above that Africa's enthusiasm was based on Obama solving Africa's problems, which is not the case. It's called KINSHIP, look up the concept! As for the rest of your boneheaded comment, I'll treat with the contempt that it deserves.

      LanfearM - 2012-11-02 10:17

      @ fidel.mgoqi - your comments are just dripping with venom Oh yeah right, kinship! Bullshyte! African-Americans have very little to no kinship feelings with Africa. If you doubt me, contact some of them online and ask them where they would rather live, and who they see themselves as. Your hate of anything not Africa is so virulent, you must be a supremely unhappy person, always hating and angry. You can delude yourself all you want fidel.mgoqi! Many Africans DID think that with Obama as president, the US will turn its full attention and resources towards Africa. Yes, Gaddafi did do a lot for the upliftment of his people. Yes, Gaddafi also was a tyrant and a dictator who had thousands upon thousands killed and kept his people oppressed. NO, Gaddafi was NOT an African by blood you idiot! North Africa is far more Arabic and Semitic these days, and have been for a couple of thousand years. Let us test Gaddafi's DNA and see the result. You define an African as someone who is black and of the "Negroid" ethnicity native to the African continent. Yet you claim Gaddafi as a "son of Africa", while he was most definitely of the Semitic ethnicity. North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa could just as well be two different continents, that is how different the people of the two regions are. Oh dear fidel, I feel sorry for you.

      fidel.mgoqi - 2012-11-02 10:49

      How would you know anything about kinship, when you only kin is money. Kinship has nothing to do with where one lives, again an indication that you know nothing about this concept. It was African-Americans who affirmed their Africanness by adding the prefix "African" to their race classification, instead of being known as "Black Americans". It is they who refer to Africa as the motherland because of their affinity (kinship) towards Africa and Africans. There is a holiday (working) in the US called "Africa Day" and "Africa History month". If this doesn't affirm African-American's affinity towards Africa then I don't know what does. Your problem and that of many whites is that kinship is a foreign concept to your kind hence your ability to easily dismiss it as irrelevant. It matters not whether Gaddafi was dictator or not, what matters are his actions towards this continent and its people, and how he expressed himself. Berbars and Tauwregs by the way are not Semites!

      LanfearM - 2012-11-02 12:39

      @ fidel.mgoqi - you are making a huge assumption that my only kinship "is to money"! Do you know me? No you don't, so stop making assumptions. LOL! It wasn't the African Americans themselves that added the prefix to their names you dolt, it was advanced on the model of "Irish American" etc. to denote country of origin, and used after "Afro-American" fell out of flavour after the 1970s. We whites do have kinship, once again you make assumptions that you have no proof or basis in fact for. It DOES matter that Gaddafi was a tyrant! Much the same as Mugabe, he did a lot for his people in his early years of rule, then turned into a power-mad murderer. Once again fidel, you clearly show your ignorance. The demographics of Libya clearly show that the vast majority of the people are of Arab origin and thus of Semitic ethnicity, as Gaddafi was himself. A very small minority are of mixed Arab-Berber origins. Most Berbers live today in Algeria and Tunisia, not in Libya. The Berbers are also not African Negroid. The prehistoric populations of North Africa are related to the wider group of Paleo-Mediterranean peoples. DNA analysis has found commonalities between Berber populations and those of the Sami people of Scandinavia showing a link dating from around 9,000 years ago. Most North Africans have "interbred" with Europeans, Meditareans and Arabs for millenia. I suggest you brush up on your history, especially your ethnic African history and DNA results.

      LanfearM - 2012-11-02 14:39

      @ fidel.mgoqi - to add, Africa is a continent of diversity. There are Caucasians, Semites, Asians and of course "Black Africans", that make their home on this continent. If the "out of Africa" and the "Cradle of humankind" theories are true, then we were all African at one stage or another. We Africans of European descent do have kinship, with our ancestors in Europe, with our brothers and sisters in Africa and SA, and most of all, with our fellow human beings. For we are all homo sapiens, and all one race at the end of the day. Gaddafi was also murdered by his own people, not by the US. Does it matter if the US supplied weapons? Or should it rather have been an illegal and obscure arms dealer that provided weapons? Would have made a difference? Gaddafi did do a lot for his people in his early years of rule, as I commented above. However, by the time of his death he was living in obscene luxury from oil revenue, while his people barely had their basic needs seen to. The death of Gaddafi, and the "Arab Spring", is also not necessarily to th benefit of the western countries in Europe and the US.

  • pritchard.modisaotsile - 2012-11-02 12:34

    I'll be a bit of a devil's advocate here, but Africa must also be able to stand it's ground as opposed 2 always always seeking help. When will it be it's time to come through the world? Obama's always facing catastrophes in his country, but does Africa ever lend a helping hand?

  • umeh.aguoha - 2012-11-02 19:29

    If Obama can build legacies that made Americans ask him to lead them, why can't African leaders rely on themselves

      jomar.delange - 2012-11-02 22:17

      Good question.

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