Barack Obama’s election as the first black President of the United States was greeted with tremendous fervour and hope across the globe, especially within sub-Saharan Africa. Many Africans (and Africa observers) had believed that the biracial son of a Kenyan father, whose biography did not typify that of many of his predecessors, would approach US-Africa relations in much less paternalistic ways, and would regard the region as strategically important to US interests. Even before his November 2008 election, many Africans had bitten the Obama bug, with his famous “Hope” poster facsimiled on wall posters, T-shirts, decals and other decorations. Indeed, many Africans had invested a sentimental attachment in the outcome of the 2008 campaign and in unprecedented ways.
Early on in Barack Obama’s presidency, it looked as though this notion of an administration thoroughly engaged with African affairs might represent a dream fulfilled. Only 6 months into his first term, President Obama visited Ghana where, in a much-heralded speech to the Ghanaian parliament, he made a number of declarations that came to shape his dealings with sub-Saharan Africa; notably, he asserted that “the twenty first century will be shaped by what happens not just in Rome, or Moscow or Washington, but by what happens in Accra as well,” also adding that “Africa’s future is up to Africans”. Perhaps most famously, he declared that “Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions.”
Yet during the course of the Obama presidency, a curious narrative emerged regarding Obama’s Africa legacy—one of false starts, disappointments and, in some quarters, outright failure. A writer at The New Republic, perhaps America’s most renowned centre-left publication, wrote that “… there is a palpable sense that Obama’s legacy in Africa is not what it could have been”. In 2015, Politico discussed lingering feelings of frustration and disappointment among African leaders, advocacy groups and regional experts, contrasting Obama unfavourably with George W. Bush. Nicolas van de Walle, an African Studies expert at Cornell University, argued in Foreign Affairs that, as President, Obama maintained the status quo in US-Africa relations, rather than reinvent the wheel as expected.
On the Continent, it is not difficult to find op-eds from Nigeria, Uganda and even Kenya (the birthplace of Barack Obama’s father) extolling the virtues of Obama’s symbolism, but bemoaning a lack of substantive accomplishments and monumental shifts in American dealings with Africa. Generally speaking, critics of Obama’s Africa policy argue that he failed to build upon the transformative legacies of Bill Clinton and particularly George W. Bush in Africa, cutting back on official development assistance from Bush-era levels and failing to come up with substantive initiatives of his own.
The same man who decried strongman politics, Obama’s critics charge, maintained the Cold War-era strategy of coddling slippery autocrats like Paul Kagame, Yoweri Museveni, Joseph Kabila, Ismaily Omar Guelleh and Teodoro Obiang, under the aegis of “stability” and “counter-terrorism”. Even where some critics begrudgingly concede a degree of success to the Obama administration, they qualify those commendations with the usual fears of neo-colonialism and militarization of US foreign policy towards the region, where economic assistance, good governance and civil society capacity-building has taken a back seat to counterterrorism.
These charges, while bearing some elements of veracity, are not entirely nuanced. Barack Obama took office in January 2009 with serious strategic, economic and geopolitical challenges, inheriting a global war on terrorism that included conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. In addition, Obama was saddled with: a domestic economy that shed 800,000 jobs the month he took office and required bailouts of key players in the automotive and financial industry; strained relations with European partners over the Iraq War; a nuclear-ambitious Iran and North Korea; the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the usual harrumphs from China and Russia. The last 8 years have not been favourable towards more ambitious foreign policymaking, and given that sub-Saharan Africa has usually been viewed as peripheral to American interests, it is hardly be surprising that engagement with the region flew under the administration’s radar early on.
In addition, President Obama was not as fortunate with Congress as his predecessor. Issues of official development assistance to African countries usually face broad, bipartisan support; indeed, this was true of President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and the Millennium Challenge Corporation under George W. Bush. However, Barack Obama was never able to elicit significant cooperation from Republicans on Capitol Hill and faced a hostile GOP-controlled Congress that forced a government shutdown and almost crashed the debt ceiling in 2013.
There was, also, the 2011 Budget Control Act, which imposed tight limits on annual appropriations by creating spending caps that apply each year through 2021 and by requiring additional reductions through a process called sequestration. According to Devex, in FY2013, sequestration reduced funding for the US State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development by roughly $2.6 billion overall and cut foreign assistance by close to $1.7 billion. The effect of these developments on creating a sustainable legacy cannot be overstated.
Beyond the issues of Capitol Hill gridlock and the necessary trade-offs involved in grand strategy-making, Obama’s shift towards trade promotion (his “Trade not aid” approach) may serve as the cornerstone of his Africa legacy. After an admittedly slow start during the first term, the Obama administration hit a number of highs with regards to improving commercial relations between the United States and Sub-Saharan Africa, with perhaps the zenith of it all coming at the 2014 U.S. Africa Leaders Summit, the first of its kind. The Summit was the largest gathering of African heads of state and government ever convened by an American president.
During Obama’s second term, he launched new initiatives such as Power Africa which leveraged over $43 billion in commitments from more than 120 public and private sector partners, Trade Africa, the Global Entrepreneurship Summit and the President’s Advisory Council on Doing Business. While it must be acknowledged that evaluating the success of these initiatives is a challenging task, Obama deserves significant plaudits for attempting to reorient US-Africa policy away from primarily foreign assistance and counterterrorism, and towards trade promotion and structural transformation of the economy. It also helped that the administration was staffed with experienced Africanists in key positions such as Susan Rice (US Permanent Representative to the United Nations and later National Security Advisor) and Gayle Smith (USAID).
During West Africa’s 2014 Ebola crisis, after an inexplicably slow response, the Obama administration dispatched 3,000 US troops to the region. Furthermore, the US constructed more than 10 Ebola treatment units and bore more than $400 million in Ebola-related costs. With much of the continent living in the shadows of violent insurgent groups—Al-Shabab in Somalia and parts of East Africa, Islamic State in Libya, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in Mali, the Lord’s Resistance Army in Central Africa and Boko Haram in Northern Nigeria, Chad and Cameroon, the Obama administration has attempted to deal with the scourge of terrorism with a combination of ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance), targeted killings, training missions, foreign military financing, the establishment of US military outputs in partner countries, and logistical support. Again, these efforts have had varying degrees of success—they have depended on “pull” factors of domestic events on the ground and an often incoherent US strategy, yet they represent an attempt by the Obama administration to hold the leaders of African partner countries more accountable and fit within the administration’s “leading from behind” mantra.
To be sure, there were no big item moments (an equivalent of an Egypt-Israel peace treaty, or ‘Nixon Goes to China’ moment in the eight years of the Obama administration); sub-Saharan Africa still lacks the strategic pull of the Middle East or the Pacific in US grand strategy calculations. But for a Commander-in-Chief who characterized his foreign policy approach as “you hit singles, you hit doubles; every once in a while we may be able to hit a home run,” perhaps a gradualist approach (as opposed to swinging for the fences) may be the first step in charting a new frontier in US-Africa relations, and that might be the most befitting legacy for the first African-American president⎈