The Obama administration has spent much of the past four years dealing with global emergencies, including the worldwide economic crisis, the ending of US military engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan and the fight against terrorism.
Many Africa watchers complain that in this environment, the administration has not paid enough attention to sub-Saharan Africa.
J Peter Pham, the director of the Michael S. Ansari Africa Center at the non-partisan Atlantic Council in Washington, DC, said "There’s a bit of disappointment the president himself has not been so engaged, that in sub-Sahara Africa he arrived in Ghana one time in his first year in office for little more than 19 hours to deliver one speech; there has not been consistent follow up engagement at that very highest of levels.
"The administration took almost three years to appoint an assistant administrator of US Agency of International Development for Africa. An African strategy was only released this past June. The White House has not been engaged as it has been in previous administrations."
Not doing enough
Pham says one administration success in Africa was in helping to facilitate the peaceful creation of the nation of South Sudan. This, after decades of fighting between Sudan’s predominantly Muslim north and Christian and animist south. But, he says, more needs to be done:
"In South Sudan," he said, "no one has pushed the door open for American business. The American government and people helped bring about South Sudan’s independence but the resources there are being tapped by the Chinese and others."
Analysts say they’d like to see more emphasis on democratization and human rights in countries with close ties to the US. Some cite countries that are doing well economically, but remain authoritarian, like Ethiopia and Rwanda.
Others say the US must continue its efforts to prevent the spread of Islamic extremism in the Maghreb and other parts of sub-Saharan Africa.
Pham said more resources are needed for the US African Command (AFRICOM), a cooperative effort to help allied African forces deal with regional crises – from terrorist attacks to peacekeeping support and other emergencies.
A stake in security
Other observers, including South African analyst Hussein Solomon, say the continent’s own security efforts need to be strengthened through the African Union.
Solomon, a senior professor in the Department of Political Studies and Governance at the University of the Free State, said "US engagement should not just be just one of bomb strikes, like in Somalia, but needs to be a radical strengthening of African Union structures."
"One thing that’s very clear to me when looking at the situation in Mali, for example, is the fact that the African Standby Force [directed by the African Union], which is expected to be ready and going into African solutions to African problems, is a paper tiger. What would be useful for any presidency is to build the capacity of the force and the sub- regional stand-by arrangements."
Competition with China
Many say the United States must also increase investments in Africa, where growth rates remain strong, thanks in part to petroleum and other raw materials.
Some are concerned that China has already surpassed the US as Africa’s largest trading partner.
They say some African governments prefer China’s approach to development, which does not link trade or aid to human rights or efforts to fight corruption.
Solomon disagrees. He said the Chinese model, built on a strong authoritarian and one-party state, was tried in Africa after independence, and failed:
"The reality is that ordinary people actually resent that," he said. " I spoke with academics, workers, people who own little shops…there is extortion by the police, corruption. They would love the government to be accountable in terms of good governance, and not follow the Chinese model. Political elites love the Chinese model because they can get away with murder, but ordinary Africans do not buy into it."
Solomon hopes the US and China can work together to help develop Africa, and not return to Cold War politics, saying it would not benefit fragile African states to have to choose sides in another competition between global powers.
"I think it’s imperative," he said, "that we do not see a repeat of the 1960s, 70s and 80s of the Cold War politics between Washington and Moscow -- now being Washington and Beijing. It’s imperative that he US and China agree on how they engage with Africa. While there have been tremendous strides in terms of democracy in Africa, the African state is fundamentally fragile and will not deal well with tensions [involved in choosing sides]."
J. Peter Pham said American business can provide the United States with a competitive edge. He said Walmart has invested more than $2.4 billion in investments in South Africa – more than the US Government’s financial support to the country over the past 10 years. And, he said Chevron has signed an agreement to spend half a billion dollars developing Sierra Leone’s offshore energy reserves, more than the US government’s Millennium Challenge Corporation would provide if the country were accepted as a partner.
Telling the story
Obama administration supporters defend US Africa policy, though they agree that global crises have taken certainly taken media attention away from the president’s efforts.
Richard Joseph is John Evans Professor of International History and Politics at Northwestern University in Chicago. He’s also a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute’s Global Economy and Development Program.
He says the administration has not received enough credit for encouraging peaceful transfers of power in Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Senegal and Malawi. Constitutional government was restored in Niger and introduced in Guinea.
The administration has also worked with partners to counter the Lord’s Resistance Army in East Africa and Islamic extremists in Somalia and Mali.
In three blogs earlier this year on “Strategic Priorities in Contemporary Africa”, Joseph synthesized the complex economic, political and security issues that confront policymakers. The State Department’s Africa Bureau has been expanded to respond to them.
"Maybe one of the problems," he said, "is that special envoys [and journalists] have not been good at telling the story of what goes on. But I can tell you there is a story to be told because I have been brought in on some of these consultations, and this administration with regard to Africa policy has been the most open to input from the scholarly and expert community as ever.
Joseph suggests the White House convene a conference on Africa following the example set by President Bill Clinton nearly 20 years ago.
"President Obama could well consider convening a high level roundtable on Africa calling together Africa experts," he said. "That roundtable needs a really clear mission – basically, (participants) should present clear position papers on what they would like to see the administration doing and then have President Obama devote a substantial part of a day meeting with people and talking about [actionable proposals], and having that be the prelude for his second visit as president early in his term to more countries."
Joseph agrees that President Obama does not have so far a high profile or signature program in Africa, though he has maintained support for well-known efforts initiated by his predecessors.
They include the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief; President’s Malaria Initiative; and the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act, which has increased Africa’s non-petroleum exports to the United States to over five billion dollars. The Millennium Challenge Corporation it has spent over one billion dollars over the past three years on developing those countries with strong economic and political management.
The administration says its focus is on strengthening democratic institutions, fostering broad based economic growth with trade and investment, improving public health, resolving armed conflict and addressing transnational threats and challenges.
The administration has introduced many new initiatives, including Feed the Future, which aims to make Africa’s self-sufficient in food production. So far, it has helped over two million people, in part by creating school feeding programs for Tanzanian children, investing in public-private partnerships in Ghana and helping Ethiopian farmers obtain landholding certificates.
Another program, Partnership for Growth, is helping to create investor friendly environments and private sector growth in countries that could soon be added to a growing list of emerging markets, including Ghana and Tanzania.
The New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition is using private-public partnerships in an effort to move tens of millions of small farmers and women out of poverty within 10 years.
Joseph and other administration supporters acknowledge that many of these programs are just gaining momentum, and more time is needed before their impact is determined. But they say these efforts may well define the Obama administration for future generations.