Barack Obama’s policy towards Africa has probably not lived up to the expectations that accompanied his election, but instead managed to create an intense debate paving the way for a total change of direction.
When Barack Obama was elected in 2008, expressions of joy were seen across the world, especially in Africa. His origins, the first black American president, created among Africans the expectation that finally the continent would be placed at the top of the agenda. The years 2008-2012, instead brought turmoil, disillusionment and even some sort of rancorous reflection on Obama’s African legacy. What is the reality and how to assess Obama’s policy?
In June 2012, Obama unveiled the new U.S. Strategy Toward Sub-Saharan Africa, outlining achievements and defining new strategic points for the next years.
Stability and Security: Few Doors Left Ajar, Many Others Opening
The major achievements during the last four years are outlined in the document as follows:
1. Success in consolidating power in Ivory Coast, following the civil war and President Gagbo’s arrest;
2. Increased efforts in Somalia to reduce piracy and to counter al-Shabaab militancy;
3. At least 100 military advisers have been sent to Uganda to assist the army in hunting the LRA’s leader Joseph Kony;
4. The US has been a great sponsor for the establishment of the new state of South Sudan.
The list, although impressive at first sight, in reality hides several shortcomings and paved the way for new tensions and conflicts.
At a closer look, there is a general decrease in security and governments’ abilities to guarantee effective control. A couple of African states seem unable to control their borders or to ensure security against major terrorist organisations. Tribal and religious sects are responsible for turmoil and atrocities that often make the news.
Ivory Coast is recovering from the destructive war that changed the face of a country seen as a model of stability. Still, it needs to build solid institutions to face internal tensions with the military and ethnic rivalries.
The establishment of South Sudan was seen as the cure to all illnesses in the Sudan case, but it is now becoming the incubator for a potentially bloody war between the two countries as well as internal ethnic and tribal conflict. This was an ill-considered action that discarded the African Union which traditionally opposes any change of the borders inherited by the colonial powers. This example constitutes a dangerous historical precedent in a continent where nearly all countries have a minority group ready to secede or start a war of “liberation”. South Sudan’s independence can be seen as a temporary solution. A new war with Sudan could erupt at any time, due to tension on the oil rich border or due to internal tensions between tribes and ethnic groups that comprise the new state.
Ugandan military operations to capture LRA’s leader Joseph Kony have been unfruitful. Despite military assistance, and increased investments in technology, LRA is still able to operate. Observers in Africa are sceptical that Kony will be captured anytime soon.
Somalia is still threatened both by piracy on one side, and Islamic terrorism on the other; the choice to limit UN support has been replaced by a new strategy with the involvement of Kenyan military. This policy, however, is not totally new as the Bush administration assisted Ethiopia when it invaded Somalia. In either case the result has been the same, al-Shabaab is still able to attack, allthough some successes have been reported in the cities, rural areas and regions affected by the recent famines. They are under control of the Islamic group which opposes any humanitarian assistance from outside. The fall of Mubarak’s and Gaddafi’s regimes in Egypt and Libya have paved the way for Islamic movements to abandon their underground activities and benefit influx of militants and weapons and Al Shabaab was able to take advantage of.
Another area of criticism is Zimbabwe, which has practically disappeared from the news and US attention, whilst it used to be a central point in the Bush administration’s fight against “evil and dictatorship”. The US also failed to build strong links with an emerging economy such as Angola, where historical rivalries, due to American support to UNITA during the civil war, have been not yet forgotten by the leadership of the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola, in power since 1975 following independence from Portugal (the US and China used to support UNITA against MPLA, backed by Soviet Union and Cuba).
To conclude, the Democratic Republic of Congo is still under threat of military mutineers, ethnic violence and poor governance.
A Judgement on the African Policy: Not a Failure, a Strategy Gone Wrong
Judgements on Obama’s foreign policy toward Africa range from neglect and disinterest, to ineptitude or abandonment. It was clear from the start that the African continent was never going to be a main theatre for US operations. This was due to the American engagement in Iraq, Afghanistan, special operations in Pakistan – specifically the one that lead to the assassination of Osama bin Laden – developments in Tunisia, Egypt and Syria, tensions with Iran, North Korea and a bitter relationship with Russia. These situations all formed the vast mosaic of threats that Obama faced.
Nonetheless, it would be wrong to think of Obama’s African policy as a neglected one or judge it a total failure. It can be described as a disengagement or constructive policy of maintenance. US policymakers in the Obama administration, conscious of the impossibility of an active engagement in Africa, opt for a policy of limited intervention, reducing expenditures whilst ensuring that control of the ground was not abandoned completely. Instead of direct intervention, third party action was encouraged, for example in Somalia, where the US also supported Kenyan military actions. It needs support to be maintained from traditional allies.
What made this policy make the wrong turn is a combination of internal US factors, internal African weaknesses and external influences on Africa.
Internal US factors related to the financial crisis have forced the administration to reduce the support and shift financial resources to more immediate issues, such as the Afghan-Iraqi area or to support the Arab Uprisings in North Africa and in the Middle East. The budget for investment has been reduced to supporting direct action of regional forces like in Somalia or Uganda. In both cases, the actions are limited by troops of African countries. Even those that compose the UN peacekeeping or ECOWAS forces are easily targeted by hostile groups, the result is that the liberators become aggressors as soon as they cross the border.
Internal African factors, such as corruption of the political classes, are a historical limit that undermines any investments or ensuring transparency in the democratic process. Political weakness is often balanced by military actions, with soldiers intervening in politics considering themselves the only credible alternative to corrupt elites. The risk for the US is that strengthening their military support could undermine civilian governments shifting the balance towards the military establishment. US policies have been affected by the constant tribal/ethnic tensions affecting most African countries. This had made it impossible to mediate or find alternatives to a simple split of a country, as happened in Sudan.
The main factor that affected US policy in Africa was their direct action in other geographical areas. The indirect effects of Western powers actions in North Africa had disastrous effects for Sub-Saharan Africa, with the change of geopolitical equilibrium following the Arab Uprisings. Notably, by supporting Libyan civil war, the seed of instability were sown that freed Islamic movements from repressive regimes, assured a flow of weapons, and weakened already poor governments. Therefore, it is not surprising that the area that suffered most is the Sahel.
Mali experienced a coup that dismantled the civilian government accused of inactivity towards the Tuareg rebellion – Ansar al Dine, an al Qaida affiliated group, has strengthened its position. Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is now a major threat to the US in Africa, and the rise in activity and power of Boko Haram in Nigeria and al-Shabaab in Somalia completes the spectrum of Islamic terrorist insurgences.
New Sub-Saharan Strategy
According to the U.S. Strategy towards Sub-Saharan Africa, US actions in the region during the next years will be based on the following four principles:
- Strengthen democratic institutions
- Spur economic growth, trade, and investment
- Advance peace and security
- Promote opportunity and development.
The new policy abandons the maintenance strategy and more incisive action will be required. The reason for this change is to protect US interests when it comes to geopolitical equilibrium and security.
The US is conscious of the Chinese expansion, not only in Asia but also in areas that are core interest for the US: Latin America and Africa. The Chinese evolution continues with military renovation and will undermine US interests, if left unchallenged. This led Obama to unveil the new Pacific Ocean strategy in 2011. The US, however, cannot stay idle elsewhere as demonstrated by the rapidity with which the Chinese filled the void in Sub-Saharan Africa or strengthening relations in South America.
The other main reason for change is the growing terrorism threat represented by AQIM and the galaxy of groups inspired by Jihadism and Mahdism. Inactivity in the Sahel could prove disastrous, especially if two factors convene: Arab Uprisings spreading to the Maghreb and collapse of Nigeria.
The eventual turmoil in Morocco could open new fronts in the Western Sahara and Mauritania; along with traditional fighters of the Polisario and the Tuaregs, AQIM would have the opportunity to strengthen its positions against already fragile West African states. Algeria represents an area where in the past a bloody civil war was fought and where, even now, the government does not have total control over the southern regions.
US action is needed especially in West Africa and Nigeria. Nigeria’s government needs urgent assistance to oppose Boko Haram as they are not a simple and usual Islamic Nigerian movement. Their dangerous activities and capacity of hitting core federal interests have been proved by the attacks carried against the once powerful and untouchable Nigerian Secret Service. President Jonathan Goodluck needs assistance in building an effective deterrent to protect the federal state not only against Boko Haram, but also from military adventures leading to a coup. The President is facing the biggest challenge since civilian rule was restored in Nigeria in 1999.
US inactivity and indifference could lead to the collapse of the Nigerian pillar and with it of the roof upon which Western Africa security is built. Obama and the US cannot afford to imagine what kind of society could emerge from the ruins underneath.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.