Wednesday, November 19, 2008

“Obama is not the Great Black Hope.”

Africans will have to look for solutions within themselves, not abroad, Priscah Edith Awino wrote in the Daily Nation, the leading newspaper of Barack Obama‘s ancestral land.

The self-help theme has become increasingly prevalent with the recognition that 50 years of Western aid and emergency rescues of famine, disease and war victims have failed to cure Africa‘s ills, and may even have held the continent back.

So rather than expect Obama to be a cure-all, Awino wrote, his election “should inspire us to build institutions that will produce leaders with Obama’s greatest strengths his dignified bearing, statesmanship, brains, know-how and depth.”

Many of the remedies Obama has said he would apply to Africa’s miseries will sound familiar: aid twinned with an emphasis on fostering entrepreneurship; tough talk for dictators; commitment to fighting AIDS.

He has also said he would double foreign aid spending from $25 billion in 2008 to $50 billion by the end of his first term.

But he hasn’t said how much of it would go to Africa, and the continent will struggle for a place on a presidential agenda that includes Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran’s nuclear program, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the global financial meltdown, and climate change.

What would really help, says a new generation of African economists, is more foreign investment for profit and easier access to Western markets. Obama indeed has promised to “expand prosperity” by fostering African entrepreneurship, opening U.S. markets wider and boosting U.S. investment in Africa.

South African economist Iraj Abedian would like to see Obama lead the way to a breakthrough on the long-stalled world trade talks, from which, he says, Africa and other vulnerable areas of the world would be the first to benefit.

In a way, Obama has a tough act to follow: Some of President George W. Bush‘s Africa initiatives have widely been seen as one of the few bright spots of his foreign policy legacy.

Bush, who twice visited Africa during his eight years in office, crafted an emergency plan to combat HIV/AIDS the largest ever deployed against an infectious disease. The White House says Bush’s effort has enabled 200,000 children of HIV-positive women in Africa to be born virus-free.

War, as much as disease and poverty, is Africa’s scourge. And Obama may be no more able than previous American presidents to intervene decisively.

The U.S. has been wary of African military entanglement since its blood-drenched encounter with Somalia, where it led a U.N. force in the 1990s. It didn’t send troops to Rwanda, and later took partial responsibility for failing to prevent the 1994 genocide that left more than 500,000 dead.

It declared the conflict in Darfur a genocide, imposed sanctions on Sudan and trained and transported other nations’ soldiers for peacekeeping there. But it didn’t send in its own troops.

Now as Obama prepares for office, Congo’s conflict is deepening again, despite the biggest U.N. operation in history to hold elections after a war that had sucked in neighbors to become what was called “Africa’s first world war.” A resurgence of that war may only underline the limits on any American president’s ability to alleviate the suffering.

Still, Obama can make a difference simply by virtue of his part-Kenyan ancestry and his political achievement.

Anything he says about African issues will get extra attention here, less burdened by the racial overtones that historically play into any Western interaction with Africa. He may not be able to persuade dictators to step down, but his example will embolden Africa’s own pro-democracy activists, speaking with an authority no previous American president could claim.

Consistently, surveys of global attitudes have shown the U.S. image in Africa is better than anywhere else democratic, generous, open to immigrants.

On a continent where power struggles too often end in death for the loser, Republican contender John McCain’s quick and gracious concession of defeat did not go unnoticed.

“If, in Africa, incumbents would accept defeat and would graciously depart from the seat of power, this would be a different continent, and indeed Zimbabwe would be a different place,” said Tendai Biti, a Zimbabwean opposition leader whose party endured a violent election campaign in March and is deadlocked in power-sharing talks with President Robert Mugabe.

The idea of America as a moral beacon took some battering under Bush, tarnished by accusations his war on terror was an assault on human rights.

But when Ivory Coast was wracked by civil war, protesters held up signs begging Bush to send in the Marines. And when Togo’s dictator of 38 years died, only to be succeeded by his son hours later, angry young protesters shouted: “Tell George Bush to send us guns.”

That image of America as friend of the underdog was only strengthened by Obama’s win.

“It’s American values that made America,” said Wafula Okumu, a Kenyan researcher at South Africa’s Institute for Security Studies. “If Americans can teach those values to Africa, it can do much more good than pouring money into the continent.”

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