Posts Tagged ‘obama and democracy in africa’

Obama and Democracy in Africa, 2011

Saturday, July 16th, 2011

Michelle Obama’s visit to Africa in June was, by most accounts, a successful goodwill tour by the First Lady and her family, serving to underline the importance of U.S.-African relations in general, and the personal interest of the First Family in African countries in particular.

See Andrew Malcolm (commentary), “Michelle Obama’s magical family tour of Africa,” Los Angeles Times, June 24, 2011

Certainly, the symbolism, particularly of her meeting with Nelson Mandela, was powerful, recalling as it did the triumph in two great countries of peaceful social revolutions based on the ideas and inspiration of Mahatma Ghandi, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela himself.

Nonetheless, the visit was also a time to reflect on U.S.-African relations, evoking a number of criticisms of U.S. policy toward Africa under President Barack Obama.

An article by Krissah Thompson, published in the Washington Post on June 18, 2011, nicely captured the gulf between the attention given the Obamas as media celebrities when they travel to Africa, and the reality of U.S. policies toward the countries of the continent.

Typical of the criticisms cited by Thompson were the foilowing:

(T)he big challenges facing the continent — poverty, government corruption, threats of extremism, and AIDS — have not drawn the White House attention that Mwiza Munthali, public outreach director of TransAfrica Forum, had hoped for.

U.S. officials, said Munthali, “are not seeing Africa as a big priority. There has been some ambivalence.”

From another viewpoint, the following criticism was heard:

Sebastian Spio-Garbrah, a Ghanaian who runs a New York investment and research firm specializing in Africa, pointed to what he said was the irony in the shared disappointment. “We really said if a black man became president, it would change the world, but we are basically back at the same level we were before,” he said. “The bulk of the policy is still the legacy of the Clinton and Bush years. The Obama legacy toward Africa is still yet to be seen.”

–Krissah Thompson, “First lady’s African trip resurrects criticism of president on African issues,” Washington Post, June 18, 2011

A lame defense of U.S. policy towards Africa offered by White House officials only underlined the absence of really significant U.S. programs and initiatives in the region.

White House officials disagreed (with the criticisms), saying that the administration has laid out clear priorities in Africa: supporting democratic regimes, decreasing hunger and developing the $63 billion Global Health Initiative. That program seeks to integrate the Bush administration’s focus on AIDS with a wider approach to public health issues.

Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser, noted that Obama met with the leaders of Nigeria and Gabon this month, and last year hosted a large group of handpicked young adults from the continent for a White House forum.

While Obama’s schedule has prevented him from traveling (to) the continent more, Rhodes said, the president delivered audio messages urging a peaceful democratic transition in Ivory Coast and an end to violence in Sudan, which recently divided into northern and southern jurisdictions with U.S. backing.

“We have looked for ways for him to continue to speak to the African people directly,” Rhodes said.

–Krissah Thompson, “First lady’s African trip resurrects criticism of president on African issues,” Washington Post, June 18, 2011

This defense was bolstered–perhaps–by an apology for Obama administation policies toward Africa written by two Brookings Institution Africanists and published on July 6.

See Mwangi S. Kimenyi and Nelipher Moyo, “Favorite or Prodigal Son? U.S. – Africa Policy under Obama,” Brookings (blog of the The Brookings Institution), July 6, 2011

Against this backdrop, one might ask, what is going on in terms of U.S. support of democratic forces and civil society in the region? How much money is it spending on such support?

Going forward, how much has the Obama administration asked for, and how much is the Republican-controlled House of Representatives willing to spend, on democracy and governance activities in Africa that support democratic forces and strengthen civil society?

To put these numbers in perspective, one might also ask how does this number, per country, compare to the cost of supporting one U.S. soldier in Afghanistan for one year?

The fact is that demands for democracy and accountable government are not confined to the North African countries of “the Arab Spring.” They have also been heard in West Africa, from Ivory Coast to Liberia to Nigeria, while deep and significant movements toward democracy are also underway in the countries of Southern Africa, inspired in part by the example of South Africa. Elsewhere in the 54 countries of Africa, elections are being held and democratic governments are being formed and, everywhere, the struggle for democracy is underway.

What is the Obama administration doing, now, to support democratic forces and civil society in these African countries that are caught up in the struggle for democracy?

That is the question.

The Trenchant Observer

www.twitter.com/trenchantobserv

See also Words and Deeds: Obama’s Defense of Democracy in Africa, 2011, August 1, 2011