Back to Africa

If Barack Obama is reelected, he'll have to deliver on his promises to Africa -- and act more like Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush.


The ascension of Barack Obama to the presidency of the United States in 2008 heralded positive change in the country’s Africa policy. But, over the last four years, he failed to deliver on his promises. As the United States prepares for Election Day, one wonders whether or not the next president’s Africa policy will break the inertia and revive U.S. interest in the continent. Africa is so disconnected and removed from the rumblings of domestic politics in Washington that it is one of the rare areas where being bipartisan works. Thus, the problems that plague the continent constitute low-hanging fruit for any president who is willing to commit his political capital to Africa.

Ironically, like other non-Americans, Africans see no major foreign policy differences between Republican and Democratic administrations. Gov. Mitt Romney’s shift to the center on foreign affairs during this campaign further muddles the horizon and makes it hard to tell how his Africa policy would differ from Obama’s.

It is equally unclear how a second-term President Obama would approach Africa. His record, however, allows some insight. In the summer of 2009, he outlined the foundation of his Middle East and Africa policies in two historical speeches he delivered in Cairo and Accra. Given in the halls of the Ghanaian parliament, the Accra speech resonated with political leaders and civil society groups across the continent for two reasons. Ghana embodies the worst and best of the political struggle of Africans. It was the first African country to wrestle independence from a colonial power, leading the 50-year freedom movement that culminated with the demise of South Africa’s Apartheid regime in 1994. Ghana also led the continent with a succession of bloody coups d’état, which ended with the transition to democracy in 1993, allowing the country to emerge as a beacon of stability and economic growth.

So when Obama called for the end of the era of strongmen and pledged U.S. support to democratic reforms and institution-building, Africans applauded and saw a partner in the new president. But strongmen across the continent quickly tested Obama’s resolve. When the authoritarian leaders of Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo hijacked elections to cement their grip on power, the Obama White House failed to unambiguously stand with the disenfranchised voters. The gap between Obama’s rhetoric and actions continued to widen as his administration failed to capitalize on his popularity and tremendous goodwill towards him in Africa. His policy lacked the creativity to adjust engagement to the changing face of the continent and rested on the old Cold War approach that saw Africa primarily as a resource provider and a battleground against enemies of the United States. As a result, democratization and the defense of human rights took a second seat to security concerns. Thus, under Obama, the main interlocutors of the United States in Africa were not the democratically minded leaders of Botswana, Ghana, Namibia, or Zambia, but rather the strongmen of Angola, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Uganda, and Rwanda.

Where democracy and human rights are concerned, the Obama State Department prefers to deal with African leaders behind closed doors, shielding U.S. policy from public oversight and allowing their allies to save face. This approach has exacerbated tensions in conflict-prone areas such as the Great Lakes and Horn of Africa regions.

For four years, Obama faced a formidable opposition from members of the Republican Party in Congress, who sought to block or derail his domestic initiatives. But as a senator, earlier in his career, and member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he worked successfully with Republicans to pass the Democratic Republic of Congo Relief, Security and Democracy Promotion Act that was signed into law by President George W. Bush. As president, Obama distanced himself from this legislation and did not apply it as the Congo crisis worsened during his watch. If the last four years are any indication, one should not expect Obama to change the way he has engaged in Africa.

Still, considering Africa’s growing importance on the global market, the next president of the United States should have the courage to turn the current, negative and despondent narrative upside down and learn from Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush. As former governors, neither president had half of Obama’s foreign policy experience, but showed great courage and creativity in their Africa policies.

Serving in the height of the Cold War when human rights and democracy were relegated to the periphery of U.S. Africa policy, Jimmy Carter successfully challenged the reasoning behind that approach. He elevated democracy and freedom, two pillars of American political thought, to policy prominence. He became the first Western leader to show that political freedom and military hegemony were not mutually exclusive. For the United States to be successful in its global outreach, the promotion of democracy, civil liberties, and good governance had to be a top priority of U.S. foreign policy. Carter managed to protect American interests across the continent while promoting democracy. In Zaire, he rescued the dictatorial Mobutu Sese Seko regime from two invasions in 1977 and 1978, but never wavered in his push for democratization. This pressure and enthusiasm for political freedom encouraged the emergence of a democracy movement in the 1980s that included Zaire’s Etienne Tshisekedi, Ivory Coast’s Laurent Gbagbo, and Senegal’s Abdoulaye Wade. In 1978, Carter visited Nigeria and pushed for the first transition from military to civilian rule that saw Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo step down and make way for the emergence of President Shehu Shagari in 1979.

During the 2000 campaign, the pundits and the media derided Governor Bush for his apparent lack of foreign policy experience. At the time, he did not know who Pervez Musharraf was. No one expected him to do much with Africa. But as president, Bush for some of the most innovative development initiatives that have made remarkable impact in the lives of millions of Africans, including the Millennium Corporation Account, the Presidential Malaria Initiative, and the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief.

If Obama secured a second term, he would have to gather the courage to recalibrate his Africa policy to reflect his speeches and earlier work in the Senate. He should learn from Jimmy Carter and his predecessor George W. Bush, capitalize on the bipartisanship nature of U.S. Africa policy and turn hope to substance.

During the campaign, Governor Romney struggled to articulate his position, often reversing himself on critical issues. When it comes to Africa, what is required of him is the courage of his conviction. There is a surplus of bipartisanship when it comes to the region. But Obama proved that foreign policy experience does not guarantee success in Africa. Carter and Bush proved that conviction and courage matters as much as experience.

Mvemba Phezo Dizolele is a professorial lecturer at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies and a visiting fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace. He is a veteran of the United States Marine Corps.