The American financial meltdown is upmost in the minds of both US Presidential candidates and voters. It seemed unlikely, therefore, that the continent of Africa would be more than a minor footnote, and certainly provide no sound bite, as the campaign enters its final month.
Yet, in last Tuesday’s second presidential debate, both Senators Barack Obama and John McCain used several bloody and conflictual examples from the oft-forgotten continent to illustrate the reach and purpose of their foreign policy doctrines.
In suitably vague terms, Obama proclaimed that standing “idly by” in Ruanda “diminishes us”. He announced that the genocide in Darfur can only be curtailed by an American-led effort to bolster the UN- African Union Peace Keeping Force there. McCain offered similar boilerplate assurances on preventing genocide, but pointed to the “limits of our capability”. He cited the infamous, “humiliating” Somalian intervention as a cautionary case of reach exceeding grasp. McCain went much further in Foreign Affairs (December 2007) by naming Africa as the most compelling case for humanitarian intervention and promised to use “all elements” of US power to halt the outrages in Darfur.
But Africa’s two minutes of presidential primetime raises prospects about the continent’s relationship with the next occupant of the White House.
President George W Bush’s policies and programs in Africa have provided him with rare approval from his domestic opponents. His $15 billion AIDS-fighting PREPFAR initiative has provided 1.7 million Africans with anti-retrovirals and has converted the disease, for them at least, from a death into a life sentence. Senator Joe Biden proclaimed it as one of Bush’s “finest hours”. The substantial enhancement by the Republicans of the Clinton administration’s Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) and the generosity, and crucially the conditionality, of the Millennium Challenge Account (MCA) has been described as one of his most important foreign policy innovations. Both Obama and McCain are enthusiastic supporters of the MCA. Obama initially announced he would fund it more generously but has now pulled back that pledge in view of the deteriorating fiscal picture in the US. McCain would enhance it in a different, and arguably more durable, direction: by abolishing wasteful agricultural subsidies for US farmers which so tamp down African agricultural exports.
While the Bush administration acted decisively and swiftly against Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki’s electoral theft last December, its attempts to restore democracy in Zimbabwe have been uneven and feeble. By appointing then regnant, now vanquished, but at all times pro-Mugabe, Thabo Mbeki as his “point man” in Harare, Bush effectively handed the issue over to South Africa to resolve (or not, as the current stalemate suggests).
Too often the Bush focus on “the war against terror”, allowed rights’ delinquent regimes such as Ethiopia’s to escape the democratic-deepening requirements of the MCA. Meanwhile the multiple conflicts and violent anarchy in the strategically significant Horn of Africa remain unaddressed.
Bush’s engagement with Africa has not always been reciprocated. The recent establishment of the stand-alone Africom (US Military Command for Africa) has generally been coolly, even suspiciously, received on the continent. The pre-emptive unilateralism of the Bush doctrine has given forward cover to the anti-American chorus which has escalated in volume over the past five years.
Africa will remain in the frame of the next President because of the other major driver of US policy, aside from the war against terror, namely America’s energy needs: by 2015 it is estimated that no less than 25% of US oil imports will come from Africa, up from 15% in 2007.
Obama’s campaign advisor on Africa, Witney W Schneidman recently suggested that his perspective is informed by the fact that “he is the product of the African Diaspora, the son of a Kenyan father, whose grandmother still lives in Kenya”. This unusual provenance has suggested to some, in my country at least, that Obama will be a “soft touch” when it comes to Africa. In fact, a close analysis of his record indicates otherwise: during his 2006 visit to Africa, he forthrightly attacked the disastrous AIDS-denialism of South Africa’s then Health Minister. In Kenya he railed against “the lack of basic rule of law and accountability” in many predatory African states. While Obama has scaled back his promise of doubling US foreign aid he has not adjusted his requirement of conditionality: it is helpful that Obama has coupled US aid with “an insistent call for reform, to combat the corruption that rots societies and governments from within”. Citizens of the world’s poorest continent, governed by some of the world’s richest leaders, can only say “amen” to that.
Obama’s initiatives in the Senate such as his 2005 amendment which helped bring Liberian tyrant Charles Taylor to international justice, suggests that Obama might become impatient with the “big man solidarity” which the African Union invokes repeatedly to shield dictators from justice and accountability, most recently, in the case of Omar Al-Bashir of Sudan.
Obama proposes to renew and restore America’s somewhat tattered international partnerships. However, in dealing with Africa and the world, he will soon enough confront the limits imposed on United Nation’s action imposed by Russia and China who had vetoed decisive action from Burma to Zimbabwe.
McCain has elaborated little in the campaign on his grandiose project of creating “the league of democracies”, to act “where the United Nations fails”. He clearly envisages such a body to overcome the shield for tyranny which the Russia-China vetoes provide. However, there is no appetite in Pretoria and in other African emerging democracies for such a league.
Whoever wins in November, Africa’s worst problems, from AIDS to Zimbabwe and its best prospects, from deepening democracy to spreading economic opportunity, require a continued engagement and partnership with the United States.