Critics accuse Obama of inaction in Africa | World| Breakings news and perspectives from around the globe | DW | 04.07.2011
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Critics accuse Obama of inaction in Africa

US President Barack Obama has been accused by his critics of lacking a cohesive Africa policy and ignoring the plight of many African nations. However, others say that his approach is one of pragmatism not inaction.

A map of Africa superimposed on the face of Barack Obama

Obama's critics have accused him of neglecting Africa

When Barack Obama was elected to the presidency of the United States in November 2008, the townspeople of Siaya in Kenya celebrated as fervently as any of his supporters around the world. The residents of the Kenyan town, the origin of Obama's African heritage, fully expected the new president to make his ancestral home the first stop on what would be the first of his regular visits to the continent.

Three years on and Obama has visited Africa just once. He didn't come to Siaya. He didn't even visit Kenya. He flew to Ghana seven months after his January 2009 inauguration where he delivered a speech which laid out his administration's "hands-off" policy toward Africa, a policy that some observers are now calling his "non-doctrine" for the continent.

Africa didn't need interference, he said. Africa's future should be built by Africans and that he and his administration would strive to "minimize our footprint and maximize the degree to which we're training people to do for themselves," he declared.

Some political observers considered his "non-doctrine" to be a brave and sensible move, arguing that Africa had become over-reliant on aid and oppressed by the Western meddling which stunted the ability of its own leaders to develop and govern.

While assistance was clearly needed in some areas and at certain times of disaster, Africa was producing generations of educated and talented people who would be equipped to lead without needing a guiding or protective hand from Washington.

Others, however, accused Obama of neglecting Africa and turning the focus of US foreign policy to other regions. Critics claimed that Obama was doing nothing to advance the policy guidelines for Africa that had been set up by the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations

A rock and a hard place

US President Barack Obama addresses the Ghanaian Parliament

Obama hasn't returned to Africa since his 2009 speech

Some analysts believe that Obama has been caught between a rock and hard place over Africa and that his policies reflect this. As an American of African descent, the expectations for him to favor the continent by both supporters and critics have been huge. In a sense, they say, he would be damned if he did and damned if he didn't.

"It's hard to fashion a doctrine for a continent which is evolving at such different speeds," Richard Gowan, an Africa expert at the European Council for Foreign Relations, told Deutsche Welle. "Some countries are growing and developing while others remain in a fragile state. The idea that anyone can come up with a single doctrine in this situation is ultimately flawed."

Professor Tim Allen, an Africa expert at the London School of Economics, says Obama's responses to Africa have been somewhat predictable.

"He has needed to demonstrate that he is not treating Africa as a special case. We'll have to wait and see if his position will change if he wins a second term. Knowing that he will not face another election may make quite a difference."

Since his speech in Ghana in July 2009, the situations in many African nations have become global issues with international repercussions. Obama's cautious approach to most of the developments has inspired those who have criticized his record on Africa to once more accuse him of neglect.

Cautious approach

An Egyptian woman chants anti-government slogans

Protestors across North Africa called on the US for support

The wave of pro-democracy revolutions known as the Arab Spring began in North Africa. While the US has encouraged democratic change and urged restraint, some observers have been disappointed by the lack of active US support for protest movements across the region.

"I don't think Obama is the only one who has been wary of acting precipitously in North Africa," said Professor Allen. "In some countries - notably Egypt - open support from the US would have compromised the position of the protest movement. I thought the US handling of events there was rather astute. In Libya, it is also not at all clear that fully supporting opposition factions will improve the situation."

In East Africa, Obama's behind-the-scenes diplomacy may need to go more public should the birth of Southern Sudan when the secessionist state is awarded its long-awaited independence on July 9 lead to a larger conflagration with its northern rival.

Fighting between the two regions over the disputed oil-rich Abyei region has marred the preparations for the south's secession and the separation of the country is likely to exacerbate the dispute, not solve it.

Obama and Southern Sudan

The creation of Southern Sudan, the largest new African nation-state in over 40 years, can be largely attributed to efforts by the last Bush administration to secure a peace deal between the north and south.

But, according to Richard Gowan, it was the Obama administration which secured the referendum on secession which led to the vote on independence and it has been Obama who has held President Omar al-Bashir to his promise of honoring the result.

Sudan President Omar al-Bashir

Al-Bashir is being held to his secession promise by Obama

"Bush can be credited for the peace deal in Sudan but at the end of his presidency, the relationship with al-Bashir was fractious," said Gowan. "It was Obama and his envoy Major General Scott Gration who drove Khartoum to hold and respect the result of the referendum."

"The US made a huge effort behind the scenes with the United Nations to secure the referendum and then avoid a meltdown after the vote," he added. "There was violence - there still is - but it would have been a lot worse had the US not put the work in behind-the-scenes."

Some of this work has come in the form of the proposal the Obama administration has tabled at the UN to give Ethiopian armed forces the authority to police the restive Abyei region as independence nears.

Congo headache

In Central Africa, the continuing atrocities in the Democratic Republic of Congo have highlighted another failure Obama's critics hold him accountable for. Ending the war in Congo, which claimed around 5.4 million lives and displaced some 1.7 million people, was a cause célèbre for Obama when he was a senator back in 2006.

Before becoming president and secretary of state respectively, Obama and Hillary Clinton presented The Congo Relief, Security and Democracy Promotion Act to the US Senate, a bill which was passed unanimously and then signed into law. The law stated that the US government would promote humanitarian relief, security, democracy, and transparent management of natural resources to help end the conflict in the DRC and move the country toward peace and stability.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, right, is greeted by members of the Congolese government

Hillary Clinton visited Congo in 2009 but has yet to return

Five years on, the lack of direct US involvement has continued to provoke vehement criticism of the president and his top foreign diplomat.

However, Richard Gowan argues that the US has been engaged in Congo but instead of launching gung-ho interventions, it has channeled its power through the United Nations.

"US policy in Congo has a lot in common with that in Sudan where Obama has displayed his broader trust in the UN to work multilaterally in an attempt to stabilize these countries," he said. "Besides, the US doesn't have the stomach or resources to get involved directly. Congo is a real quagmire."

Ivory Coast pragmatism

In West Africa, the US again took a pragmatic approach to the violence in Ivory Coast which erupted during a six-month post-election crisis that left hundreds dead. Initially, Washington aggressively called on Laurent Gbagbo, the former president who refused to stand down, to leave and threatened him with sanctions if he didn't as the crisis spiralled out of control in November 2010.

Former President of Ivory Coast Laurent Koudou Gbagbo

The US made way for France in its dealings with Gbagbo

Once the French, Ivory Coast's former colonial masters, along with the European Union, took over the situation, however, the US took a back seat.

"In Ivory Coast, Obama recognized that France had more leverage there and took a step back, letting the French and the Europeans lead," Gowan said. "In the end, France delivered the coup de grace and forced Gbagbo out, allowing his rival and new President Alassane Ouattara to assume control."

"If there is any kind of Africa doctrine in the Obama Administration, it's one of pragmatism," he concluded. "The president realizes that sometimes it's better to lead from behind."

Author: Nick Amies
Editor: Rob Mudge

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