In Africa, Obama's presidency couldn't help but be personal

2017-01-18 17:14
Barack Obama. (File: AFP)

Barack Obama. (File: AFP)

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Johannesburg - Africa was electrified by the rise of Barack Obama, the first US president of African descent. It was in Africa that he signaled a historic opening toward Cuba, took aim at the twin scourges of corruption and dictatorship and sent thousands of troops to fight one of the most terrifying disease outbreaks in decades.

Above all, Obama's ties to Africa were personal. On the first visit to his father's homeland, Kenya, since winning the White House, he assured the cheering crowds: "I'll be back."

But many Africans with high hopes were left wishing for more.


Like Nelson Mandela, Obama became the first black president of his country.

A rhetorical highlight of Obama's connection with Africa came at the December 2013 memorial service for Mandela, the anti-apartheid figure who became South Africa's leader after historic elections in 1994. Obama energised tens of thousands of mourners and nearly 100 visiting heads of state with a plea for the world to emulate Mandela, describing him as "the last great liberator of the 20th century".

Mandela's memorial was also the setting for a handshake between Obama and President Raul Castro of Cuba, a longtime US adversary. While US and Cuban officials said the handshake was a courtesy rather than a symbol of warming ties, Washington and Havana restored diplomatic relations in 2015.


In his address to the African Union at its shiny, new headquarters built and funded by the Chinese government, Obama bluntly told African leaders not to cling to power. "When a leader tries to change the rules in the middle of the game just to stay in office, it risks instability and strife," he said. "No one should be president for life."

Since Obama's July 2015 address, a number of African leaders have nonetheless made efforts to stay in office, whether by extending term or age limits, saying election preparations would take longer than expected or simply, as in the current case in Gambia, refusing to step down.

Obama's visit to Ethiopia, the seat of the African Union, was criticized by human rights groups, which said his trip lent legitimacy to an oppressive government.


Days before President-elect Donald Trump won election, some Ugandans were arrested outside the U.S. Embassy with placards in his support. They said Trump would be tougher on "dictators" like Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni — a criticism of Obama's failure to deal more firmly with African strongmen.

Also baffling to some was the Obama administration's support of gay rights in Africa, where many countries criminalize homosexual acts. "Under Obama, the definition of human rights really was gay rights, and many people ridiculed him for that," said Nicholas Sengoba, an independent analyst and newspaper columnist.

Sengoba called Obama an "average president" in the eyes of many Africans who had high — sometimes impossible — expectations of the first African-American president. Some had hoped for more aid and visa relaxations because they are used to strongmen who make things happen, he said.

"Obama has mostly left Africa where he found it," he said.


Obama witnessed both the creation and disintegration of South Sudan, the world's youngest country. The oil-rich East African nation declared independence in 2011 after decades of struggle and with significant U.S. support. Two years later, civil war erupted.

Today, South Sudan is at risk of genocide, according to the United Nations. The fighting has killed tens of thousands. The US led talks to reach a peace deal in 2015, but it collapsed after fighting erupted in the capital, Juba, in July. A recent US-led effort to impose a UN arms embargo failed and was met with hostility from South Sudan's government.

Anti-American rhetoric remains high. Hours after Trump's election win was announced, government spokesman Michael Makuei took a final jab at the outgoing president. "I really doubt President Obama had any clear policy to South Sudan other than to destroy it," Makuei said.


In September 2014, as the world's worst outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus surged in West Africa, Obama announced the deployment of about 3,000 troops and called for the U.S. to lead global efforts to end the epidemic, saying it was "the best way to keep Americans safe."

Obama's response came more than six months after the first Ebola cases were confirmed, and his administration was accused of moving too slowly and initially focusing too much on Liberia, a country with historic ties to the US that ultimately recorded more than 4,800 deaths, the most of any country.

By early 2015, cases were declining considerably, and the White House said the work of U.S. military and civilian responders "dramatically bent the curve of the epidemic."


Kenya declared a public holiday when it became clear Obama had won the U.S. presidency, and many babies born that day were named for him. The news uplifted the East African country that had seen more than 1,000 people killed in recent election violence.

Obama's visit in July 2015 was the first to his father's homeland since winning the White House, as well as the first visit by a sitting US president. Perhaps no one celebrated more than his Kenyan family, which included Obama's step-grandmother and his half-brothers.

Obama also spoke passionately about rooting out corruption in Kenya — comments that the government received more diplomatically than on his first visit to the country as a state senator in 2006.

Obama remains loved in Kenya, and many will be saddened to see him leave office. "Obama is a sort of miracle of the century," writer Ocheing Ogodo said.


The use of drones for military purposes in the war on terror was a major theme in Obama's presidency and it could be seen in Somalia, where the al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab extremist group started threatening neighboring countries.

The US deployed more drones across the Horn of Africa nation against al-Shabab leaders. One drone attack in 2014 killed the group's spiritual leader Ahmed Abdi Godane, a year after he claimed responsibility for one of the group's deadliest attacks outside Somalia, the assault on Westgate Mall in Kenya that killed at least 67.

Officials in Somalia say the killing of Godane and other al-Shabab leaders has dealt a serious blow to the group's ability in coordinating high-profile attacks.

Read more on:    barack obama  |  us  |  africa

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