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Africa: President Obama visits
NewsNotes
September-October 2009

Following President Barack Obama’s visit to Ghana, many scholars and analysts have speculated about Obama’s approach to the continent. His speech on July 11 shed light on some of the areas that will be the focus of policy during the next four years. Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns intern Alice Burger contributed to the following article.

During the speech Obama emphasized four main points: the need for democratic institutions, the route for creating opportunity, how the U.S. will help to combat health problems, and how to achieve the peaceful resolution of conflicts. He also emphasized the need to fight corrupt institutions, the self-sufficiency purpose of aid funding, and the hope of Africa that lies solely with Africans themselves.

As a key point in his speech, Obama remarked that “development depended on good governance,” including democratic institutions that resist corruption on all levels. Although it is important that a government have the consent of the people, what happens in between elections is also important. He said that the U.S. will not impose a system of government on another country but will support the institutions and civil society that build toward democracy.

While commentators applauded Obama’s push for sound governance, they noted that Africans are not the only ones to blame for corruption – irresponsible investors and donors that implicitly condone bribery are also at fault.

Obama described his administration’s $3.5 billion food security initiative, which concerns many due to its apparent openness to the controversial “green revolution” for Africa. The Africa Faith and Justice Network (AFJN) writes, “The solution to food security in Africa lies within local communities, not with genetically modified (GM) seeds or fertilizers from [U.S.] American companies such as Monsanto… Obama’s change in U.S.-Africa policy should include subsidizing only small farmers in the U.S, as well as a proposal to repeal patent laws on living organisms.”

The president also pledged to provide $63 billion to fight HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis, polio, and neglected tropical diseases, noting that the harm caused by these diseases cannot be reduced if healthcare professionals continue to leave Africa while many of those who remain work in clinics that focus only on one disease. Obama urged further investment in programs that will support over-all wellness and maternal and child health.

These health-related measures were welcomed by commentators. The Bush administration provided funding for many healthcare programs, including through the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and the President’s Malaria Initiative, but more funding for comprehensive health care is needed.

Conflict, according to Obama, is a “millstone around Africa’s neck.” While the whole continent is not one giant war (as some might characterize it), violent conflict remains a reality for many. Diversity ought to be a source of strength rather than conflict, and vibrant democracies, he said, should help bring an end to conflict. Transnational cooperation through, for example, the African Union, can provide a way for peaceful resolution to conflicts that face countries today. As a part of securing peace, Obama promoted the also-controversial Africa Command (AFRICOM), which will further the militarization of the continent (see NewsNotes, Sept.-Oct. 2007 and Nov.-Dec. 2007) and promote a dangerous integration of U.S. national security and development objectives. According to AFJN, in December 2008, AFRICOM also “helped plan Operation ‘Lightning Thunder’ against the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in collaboration with the Ugandan army, but it failed miserably. As a result, the LRA retaliated against the people of northeastern Congo.”
But the U.S. bears additional responsibility for violent conflict in Africa, including through its support for Ethiopian military operations in and occupation of Somalia in 2006; military aid sent to warring parties in the DR Congo; and military training operations in Rwanda and Burundi.

Furthermore, the U.S, “a permanent member of the UN Security Council and one of the top suppliers of arms in Africa, continues to look away when it comes to a commitment against small arms proliferation. Rather than signing the ‘Protocol against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, Their Parts and Components and Ammunition,’ the U.S. favors businesses that make a profit from both the legal and illegal sectors of the weapons market. ..

“President Obama’s challenge is to review and implement stronger laws in the U.S. to prevent small arms proliferation worldwide and in Africa in particular. In addition, the U.S should not ignore the fact that by reaching an agreement and signing the Arms Trade Treaty now being debated at the United Nations, many lives in Africa could be saved and the number of armed rebel groups reduced.” (AFJN)

Finally, President Obama spoke about the hope that lies in the hand of Africans. He commented that, while African countries were left with the dreadful legacy of colonialism, many of the troubles plaguing the continent today have their cause in the actions of Africans themselves.

Shortly after President Obama’s visit to Ghana, four African presidents – Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia; Paul Kagame of Rwanda; Seretse Khama Ian Khama of Botswana and Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal – issued a joint statement, saying, “Left unsaid as [President Obama] boarded Air Force One is the fact that Africa seeks not patrons but collaborators, who will work ‘with’ rather than ‘for’ the continent. Among the many enormous challenges before the Obama administration is to build just relationships with the people of Africa.”

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