In light of President Obama’s 2015 trip to Africa, likely his last trip to Africa as US president, it is appropriate to evaluate his government’s foreign policies in Africa since he assumed office. Through this assessment, it is sadly plain to see that Obama’s policies have not helped the vast majority of Africans. Instead, the policies have allowed the suppression of the African people’s hoped-for democratic reforms, while simultaneously bolstering the power of corrupt African elites.
In 2008, many Africans were overjoyed when the son of a Kenyan man was elected president of the US. Many had hoped Obama would help change Africa’s enormously negative plight, especially in the areas of civil conflict, poor economic development, lack of democracy and the terrible governmental corruption that is displacing and killing thousands of people.
On his first trip as president to Africa in 2009, Obama gave a speech in Ghana, calling for “democratization in Africa.” Just five years later in August 2014, at the US-Africa Summit in Washington DC, President Obama rolled out the red carpet for some of Africa’s most brutal dictators. These included President Yahya Jammeh of The Gambia; Paul Biya of Cameroon; Faure Essozimna Gnassingbé of Togo; Idriss Deby of the Republic of Chad; Yoweri Museveni of Uganda; and Pierre Nkurunziza of Burundi – just to name a few. By inviting these leaders, Obama’s message to the African people was made clear: America has no interest in fostering democracy for the African people.
To further illustrate the truth of this, look at Obama’s Power Africa Initiative. This initiative promised 20 million Africans electricity, but we see today that it remains mainly unfinanced. Many have given up hope that President Obama has the will to truly change anything for the better for the African people.
It appears Obama does not understand that Africa is more important than ever to the United States, and that the US must take its partnership with the African people more seriously than its partnership with the despots who prevent democracy from taking root. Africa is a rapidly growing actor in the global economy, but is being wooed by China and Russia; only by gaining the allegiance of the masses of people instead of the controlling elites will the US make better and more sustainable partnerships.
It is well known that most US government aid to Africa gets siphoned off to a combination of military power to suppress grassroots African civil society, and the rest is taken directly by African dictators who stay in power for decades. Too many Africans remain starving and in squalor while nothing serious or substantial is being done to stop the corruption. Humanitarian aid groups do far more effective work, but US government aid is crucial in suppressing democracy by giving violent leaders the tools of suppression.
The problem of Africa is not the people, but instead the despotic leaders who want to hold on to their usurped power – and the support they get from external powers, especially the US. Most African leaders cling to power as long as they can, because power leads to the opportunity for more wealth accumulation through channels of corruption long known to the international community. The known strategies used by these leaders to hold on to power has been through imposing restrictions on political participation, the use of violence and manipulating the constitutions to amend term limits.
Unfortunately, when African leaders abuse their power and positions, they are supported by the American government, because these corrupt rulers do benefit American corporate elites by providing access to cheap human and natural resources. This history traces back to colonial Europe, but now is giving democracy a bad name in Africa, and emboldens terrorists who will increasingly haunt the US too.
Obama could use his remaining time in office to end this corruption, halt military aid and instead promote two-way trade with direct investments through the involvement of the US private sector, and he must ensure that the American government works with African countries to develop and strengthen their markets.
President Obama and the State Department should implement these common sense recommendations to end corruption and promote multiparty democracy in Africa:
- Obama should push for presidential term limits across the continent as a condition for American support of governance. This will certainly limit political violence as manifested in Burundi, Uganda, Togo, The Gambia and many other countries.
- Obama should also stop supporting corruption. The US should freeze assets of known corrupt leaders. Several of these dictators have millions of dollars of assets in the US, and the US government knows it.
- Any US aid must be accompanied with stipulations such as accountability and good governance.
- Smart sanctions – issue travel bans for dictators and their families to the US.
If the goal for Africa is really the spread of democracy, as stated by Obama in 2009, changing these corrupted leaders without changing the old institutions that they have built will be meaningless. Right now, Obama has the power to nonviolently change the way that Africa works for the people, and all Africans deserve better from the powerful son of one of their own.