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A New Start for Barack Obama in Africa?

With Barack Obama re-elected to the Presidency of the United States for four years after the election of November 6, 2012, Africa is reviewing his legacy[fr]. This following his four years at the head of an America more concerned with the economic crisis than international relations, especially within the African continent. The expectations of Africans were great, but many think that the second term of President Obama will enable him to have a wider margin of manoeuvre on African issues.

U.S. President Obama walks with Malia, Michelle and Sasha following, during their visit to Cape Coast Castle, Ghana via pd2020@sbcglobal.net on FlickR (CC license-NC-BY)

Adrien Hart wrote on Slate Africa that the African legacy of President Obama is rather mixed. He explained [fr]:

Visiblement peu à l’aise pour endosser l’habit du « gendarme du monde », il a géré les affaires du monde en bon père de famille, sans faire de vague.  Ses détracteurs lui reprochent un manque flagrant de leadership, ses partisans mettent en avant son humanité et rappellent que Ben Laden a été éliminé sous son mandat.

Avec lui, l’Amérique est devenue moins arrogante. Mais a-t-elle gagné en popularité dans le monde musulman et en Afrique? Pas sûr.

Bien sûr, concernant l’Afrique, Obama a essayé de se rattraper. En août 2010, il a reçu à la Maison blanche plus d’une centaine de jeunes Africains pour discuter de leur « vision de l’Afrique pour les 50 ans à venir », critiquant implicitement la génération des indépendances.

Visibly ill at ease to act as the “world’s policeman”, he managed world affairs like a good father, without making waves.  His critics accuse him of a lack of leadership, his supporters highlight his humanity and remind us that Bin Laden was eliminated under his mandate.With him, America has become less arrogant. But has it become more popular in the Muslim world and Africa? This is not so certain.Certainly, as far as Africa is concerned, Obama has tried to catch up. In August 2010, he received more than a hundred young Africans at the White House to discuss their “vision for Africa for the next 50 years”, implicitly criticising the generation of independence [ed. note: African leaders that came right after the colonial period]

However, many found there were extenuating circumstances for him.  RFI reported that Nadine Gordimer, winner of the Nobel Prize of South African Literature, thinks that one term is not enough [fr] to solve the world's problems:

Dans un grand pays avec autant de problèmes, difficile de les régler tous en un mandat. Mais je pense qu'il a eu la bonne approche. Sa philosophie et son énergie vont globalement dans le bon sens. Et bien sûr, les Etats-Unis sont très importants pour le reste du monde. S'ils éternuent, c'est le monde entier, nous autres, qui attrapons une pneumonie. Je pense aussi qu'il a les bonnes idées en matière d'égalité, matérielle et dans les esprits.

In a large country with so many problems, it is difficult to sort them all in one term. But I think he had the right approach. His philosophy and his energy are going in the right direction, globally speaking. And, of course, the United States is very important for the rest of the world. If they sneeze, it's we in the rest of the world who catch pneumonia. I also think that he has the right ideas regarding equality, both practical and of consciousness.

Obama giving a speech in Accra, Ghana, 2009 by L'expressmu

These critics are harsher on Obama’s strategy in Africa. Gene Healy of libertarian thinktank the Cato Institute described the militarised action of the American administration in Africa:

Four years ago, few could have predicted that one of President Obama's legacies would be increased militarization of U.S. foreign policy towards Africa – but that seems to be the case. [..]
Promiscuous war-making leads to unintended consequences. For example, U.S. intervention in Libya stoked the civil war in Mali, as Tuaregs serving in Gadhafi's army joined the fight after the dictator's fall.
It's not clear that our expanded military presence in Africa serves any pressing U.S. national security need.

The Ambassador of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Henri Lopès, thinks that the expectations placed by Africans on Obama’s policies were unjustified. On RFI, he stated [fr]:

Il ne faut pas se faire d'illusions. Obama est le fils d'un Africain, mais Obama est américain. Son élection est historique dans un pays qui a connu l'esclavage et la ségrégation. Mais sur le plan de la politique, il s'agit de grands calculs d'intérêts.

We must not delude ourselves. Obama is the son of an African, but Obama is American. His election is historic in a country which has known slavery and segregation. But on the field of politics, it’s a question of large-scale calculations of interests.

At Kogelo in Kenya, the woman that Barack Obama considers his grandmother, Mama Sarah, picked out these criticisms. Stéphanie Braquehais told of how she experienced the victory of her ‘grandson’:

Sourire en coin, elle répond aux questions avec vivacité et humour. A chaque déclaration, elle plisse les yeux et donne parfois un coup de coude à son voisin. A aucun moment, elle ne dérive de son propos. “C’est Dieu qui a permis cette victoire”, elle refuse de parler « politique » et compte bien se rendre aux Etats Unis pour l’investiture.

With the hint of a smile, she answers questions with liveliness and humour. After each statement she squints, sometimes nudging the person beside her. At no time does she deviate from her script. “It’s God who has allowed this victory” [she says], she refuses of speak ‘politics’ and intends to go to the United States for the inauguration.

The election of Barack Obama for a second term still appeals as much to young Africans.  In Madagascar, bloggers rose at dawn to follow together the election outcome live onscreen. Here is the video of this meeting by jiviard [fr]:

Even though the disappointment felt at Obama’s legacy in Africa is certainly tangible, the political convictions of Obama seem to converge with those of the majority of Africans. The ‘chemistry’ felt is not due to his family ties with Kenya but rather to a geopolitical pragmatism and common interests to defend, as underlined by [fr] Adrien Hart:

Obama, comme les Bush avant lui, n’a pas vu venir en Afrique l’«ogre chinois». Les Américains, tout comme les Européens, n’ont pas anticipé non plus la menace croissante des «fous de Dieu» en Afrique [..]Obama n’a rien pu faire pour contrer l’avancée des Chinois et des islamistes. Mais l’Afrique votera-t-elle en novembre pour son adversaire Mitt Romney, républicain, mormon et surtout immensément riche, sûrement trop riche? Sûrement pas. Oui, Obama a déçu. Mais l’Afrique ne veut pas qu’il parte. Sans lui, cela serait pire.

Obama, like the Bushes before him, did not see the ‘Chinese Dragon’ coming to Africa. The Americans, just like the Europeans, did not anticipate either the growing threat of ‘God’s fanatics’ in Africa. [...] Obama could not have done anything to counter the advance of the Chinese and the Islamists. But will Africa vote in November for his opponent, Mitt Romney, Republican, Mormon and above all immensely rich, surely too rich? Surely not. Yes, Obama has disappointed us. But Africa doesn’t want him to leave. Without him, things would be worse.

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