President Barack Obama embarked on his second African journey two weeks ago because of bitter criticism at home as well as from Africa for having no policy on Africa at all.
His attitude to Africa has been characterised by benign neglect which resonates with that of earlier presidents, except of course, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. How else would one explain visiting Africa once in his first term? It is a condescension that baffles many of his admirers because it is seen as antithetical to expectations of the continent whose concerns were expected to be high on his priority.
The parallels drawn between him and his immediate predecessors—Bill Clinton and George W. Bush are justified. Bill Clinton continues to receive praise for his policy of AGOA which assisted the economies of Africa, particularly sub-Saharan Africa through improvement of trade relations between the US and the Africa. The benefits of AGOA include provision of ‘’trade preferences for quota and duty free entry into the US of goods’’ from Africa, for instance, it facilitated access to US market for textiles and apparels, resulting into the growth of apparel industry in Southern Africa and creating jobs for people from the sub-region.
Nigeria and Angola- exporters of oil and other energy products to the US benefitted hugely under AGOA, but these countries still fell behind Southern Africa whose more diversified economies were able to export agricultural products, automotives and steel thereby reaping huge benefits. One criticism of AGOA however has been its insistence on eligibility legislation which precluded many countries from participation. Thus AGOA improved on the balance of trade between the US and Africa in the latter’s favour and this was concretised by the establishment of three regional trade centres in Accra, Nairobi and Gaborone –Botswana.
President George W. Bush whose unnecessary Iraq war and its devastating aftermath angered many Africans and as a result vilified him thoroughly and deservedly too, emerged from this ill- feeling to become something of a darling, if not an outright hero, at least in official circles. George Bush’s makeover is owed to his Emergency Plan For Aids Relief (PEPFAR) to which he committed over $15 billion over five years beginning from 2003-2008, to fight the AIDS pandemic whose prevalence in Africa was decimating its population. Specifically, the programme was aimed at providing anti-retroviral drugs for ‘’resource –limited setting’’ to prevent new infections as well as provide support care for some 10 million people by 2010. PEPFAR increased the number of Africans receiving the ART from 50,000 at the start of the initiative in 2004 to about 1.2 million in 2008 in Africa alone and because of this it became the largest health initiative instituted by one country to combat a global disease.
A study undertaken in 2009, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine noted that the programme averted some 1.1 million deaths in Africa and reduced the death rate due to AIDS in the countries involved by 10%. A mark of the success of PEPFAR is that it has continued to be the cornerstone of US’s health policy even under the presidency of Barack Obama, indeed while his administration was launching the Global Health Initiative in 2009 to develop a comprehensive US government strategy for global health, PEPFAR was cited as a major component of it.
These policies enunciated by Barack Obama’s two predecessors have portrayed him as a non-starter on Africa issues and driven the criticism that by seemingly neglecting Africa in his scheme, he risks going down as ungrateful and insensitive to matters concerning the continent. For an African-American who incidentally can point to a specific and concrete location as his father’s house in Kenya, unlike many of his kind whose attachment to Africa is mere sentimentality, nothing can be more damning. The effect was that he was stung into action by embarking on an Africa journey which he used in announcing a raft of policies he intends to pursue for the benefit of Africa for the remainder of his tenure.
They include his Power Africa Initiative (PAI) whose goal is to bring 10 giga watts (GW) of electricity to Sub-Saharan Africa geared towards bringing energy to 20 million households and businesses for the first time ever. To kick start the initiative, the US has pledged $7 billion as investment to develop energy from the whole gamut of sources including oil and gas reserves, hydro and wind, solar and geo-thermal. A number of countries including Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya and Tanzania as well as Ethiopia and Liberia constitute the initial beneficiaries and it is envisaged that ‘’working with Africa on energy issue can be an effective way of creating jobs and opportunity’’ in Africa.
Another policy is Trade Africa Initiative (TAI) which also aims principally at expanding trade between Sub-Saharan African countries. In Tanzania, President Barack Obama told some business leaders drawn from the whole continent that TAI would focus on moving goods across African borders faster and cheaply, yet make them affordable. TAI is targeted mainly initially at East Africa countries of Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda and Tanzania but envisaged to encompass the whole continent. With AGOA billed to expire by 2015, TAI would certainly provide the auspicious platform so that the gains of the former would continue to be reaped even when the focus has shifted to facilitation of trade among African countries. It should be said that trade between African countries has continued to be on the card but hardly pursued with the vigour it deserves.
The third policy is Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders aimed at affording young men and women with promise with the opportunity to visit the US to participate in leadership and mentoring programmes. The fellowship would provide opportunity for meeting with civic and business leaders as well as provide internship and apprenticeship for Washington fellows. It is fashioned to groom new leaders for Africa who would play critical leadership role in future.
A cursory survey of the policies would reveal that President Barack Obama has considered carefully the areas he intends to intervene in the quest to contribute to the development of Africa. PAI seeks to deal with the energy issue whose insufficiency is the principal cause of Africa’s under-development. TAI seeks to facilitate inter/ Africa trade hitherto rendered impossible by archaic laws and custom practices that have hamstrung free movement of goods and services and Africa integration, while the Washington Fellowship Progamme is all about developing a new corps of Africans with the necessary knowledge, skill and exposure capable of shouldering the challenges of the future.
President Barack Obama is well aware that both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush are basking in the successes chalked up by their respective policies which have turned Africa to home from home for the two of them. This poses a challenge to Obama to bring to fruition the policies he has enunciated for Africa’s development. It is hoped that he will burnish rather waste the huge goodwill and opportunity to prove he is a real son of the Africa.