Obama’s African Legacy

Obama’s African Legacy

Monday, January 30, 2017 5:00 pm

Ademola Araoye

By Ademola Araoye

The palpable euphoria of Africans and peoples of African descent worldwide elicited by the election of President Barack Obama in November 2008 has fizzled out to a disappointing two four year terms that end this week on January 20, 2017. Some noted that this son of a Kenyan father would not only understand the continent better than his predecessors in the White House, the thinking went, but he would also treat it as a strategic priority and direct more resources its way. These observers however cautioned that Obama’s personal biography actually made him less likely to focus on Africa. Eight years after and based on the evidence, they conclude that Obama and his advisers viewed Africa as a liability. American policy towards Africa continued to lack consistent Congressional support, while Africa remained at the bottom of U.S. policy priorities.


Obama’s expressed paradigm shift in African policy was premised on his sentiment that U.S. policy must start from the simple axiom that Africa’s future is up to Africans. This is based on a belief in Africa’s potential and promise, commitment of his administration to Africa’s future characterized by strong partnership with the African people. Africa, underscored as essential to America’s interconnected world, would be in alliance with one another rooted in mutual respect and accountability. But observers note that these became crumbling pillars built on rickety foundations of crass self-interest and empty symbolism. Notwithstanding, some dared to take this promise to heart, considering the biological affinities of the new President to this very oppressed and maligned universe.

This hope was kindled within the context of the long history of the struggle for the emancipation of Africa and its descendants, to which the new President of the United States belonged. The epochal evolution of events represented by his unprecedented election transcended Barrack Obama as an individual. It marked a watershed in global history, completely shattering the contrived myth of the sub humanity of black humankind and ushered in a hope that the first black occupant of the most powerful office in the world was going to cut his people a slack in letting his people go.

Eight years after, the promise seemed deferred. In practice, Africa turned out to be a mere obscure priority of President Barrack Obama’s in the overall scheme of his administration’s foreign and security policy. Aid to Africa, not exactly his preferred mode of operations with Africa, naturally declined in the face of the dwindling of absolute quantum of available resources and more demanding competing beneficiaries. Nicholas van de Walle observes that President George Bush got high marks for his Africa policy, but the praise focuses almost entirely on his decision to expand foreign aid to Africa by over 600 percent and create new aid agencies—such as the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and the Millennium Challenge Corporation—to disburse much of the money.By contrast, de Walle suggests that Obama, no doubt in response to the budgetary pressures imposed by the recession, cut funding by several hundred million dollars for PEPFAR and the Millennium Challenge Corporation. Worse still, the Obama administration that spoke of partnership as central to his African policy ended up pawning off African interests to buy rapprochement with France and Europe in the security realm. He was grudging in the engagements with Africa that were forced on him by the logic of America’s place in the world.

Obama’s performance compared poorly with those of Bill Clinton and George Bush, his immediate Republican predecessor. Accordingly, providing a platform for the business opportunities that trade and financial interactions between the United States and Africa offer could be seen as Barack Obama’s key Africa legacy. The US-Africa Business Forum (USABF), a structured mechanism of engagement to deepen business and financial ties between the US and Africa, which metonly for the second time in New York on 21 September, 2016, at the tail end of his two terms in office, is flagged as a culmination of efforts to diversify Washington’s focus away from humanitarian concerns and counterterrorism.

US military in Liberia against Ebola

Yet in the area of counter terrorism, where the President has depended on a string of American drone bases, and associated humanitarian challenges, Obama’s USA shied away from a meaningful leadership role that it simply conceded to France. This may be interpreted as part of the quid pro quo to cuddle France, estranged by profound agreements of Sarkozy’s France with George Bush’s regime change project in Iraq. Obama sacrificed Africa to ensure the support of France in America’s engagement elsewhere, including Afghanistan. He therefore gave France a cache blanc to pursue its hegemonic interests in Africa. Specifically on Nigeria, Obama’s lack of sympathy for the complexities of the country was clearly in view.

But recognizing it as a truly important country, he dined with it with a long spoon. Along with France, he assured South Africa of the support of the United States for the proposed wimp African seat in the restructured Security Council. Obama and France retracted their promise to South Africa because Thabo Mbeki’s South Africa appreciated better than Nigeria the mortal games of France in Cote d’Ivoire. According to Aziz Pahad, the South Africans understood thatthe outcome of the Ivorian crisis will have negative consequences for the whole of Africa, including South Africa. It was therefore vital that SA and Africa act in a principled and decisive manner to help stabilize the situation and create conditions for long-term peace, stability and democracy.

Aziz Pahad notes that Ivorian the issue had simplistically been depicted as a battle between Ouattara, the democratic winner, and Gbagbo, the despotic loser, who had refused to give up power and therefore must be removed from at all costs. It was clear to keen observers that France had co-opted the Obama administration in seeking to advance a strategic project of a regime change in that country. This externally driven agenda made impositions on the UN secretary general, the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) and the African Union Peace and Security Committee (AUPSC). Obama and France put these institutions under tremendous pressure to follow their dictates. It is noteworthy that major powers, such as France, the US, EU, AUPSC and ECOWAS as well as the media houses, including those in South Africa, ignored the findings of credible observers from the African continent on the Ivorian crisis. Obama remained consistently contemptuous of Africa perspectives on the management of African crises.

An Ebola patient

Obama’s anti-Africa’s role in the Ivorian crisis reflected a complete repudiation of the Bush’s administration’s sensitivity to the progressive African will. It is a revealing indicator of Obama’s lack of understanding or sympathy or even strategic connivance with the forces against the continent in the struggle of Africa against hegemonic forces. That has to be clearly codified in relation to the Ivorian and Libyan crises. In Cote d’Ivoire, the 200-strong AU observer mission, headed by the former Togolese Prime Minister, Joseph Kooky Koffigoh, commented that his mission noted with regret serious acts of violence, namely losses of human life; infringement of physical integrity, intimidation and abduction; attempts and damage to electoral material.

The mission recorded serious irregularities in over 70 polling stations in the north under siege of the rebel Forces Nouvelles acting on behalf of Ouattara. The report noted these extremely serious events prove that the ballot process in Bouake, Korhogo, Frekessedougou, Samatiquila and Mankana among other localities, could not be held transparently in the north. The mission concluded that it could not guarantee the integrity of the results. An independent West African observer team, Oscada avowed, after visiting 620 polling stations where they recorded acts of violence and other serious violations of the electoral code, they confirmed that the credibility of the run-off (in the locations they visited) was doubtful.

In another report Jean-Marie Ngongjibangte of Cameroon, head of the observer mission from Cameroon, Senegal, Benin, Mali, Morocco, Gabon and Togo, said there were many problems with the validity of the election process: These problems were stealing of ballot boxes; arresting of candidates representatives; multiple voting; refusalto allow international observers to witness counting of ballots, and the murder of representatives of candidates.

They declared that the second round of voting was not free, fair and transparent in these localities.However, the French and US government of Barrack Obama and the UN Secretary General intensified their campaign for the removal of Gbagbo. Obama was thus complicit in exploiting the weaknesses of Africa in pursuit of French sympathy for its own battles elsewhere. Africa was a dispensable pawn in Obama’s global real politik. The Republicans in the US Congress seriously challenged Obama’s complicity in an unconstitutional coup by Ouattara aided and abetted by his administration. The same pattern was observed in the Libyan crisis.

In Libya, Obama was again in league with France in a brutal pursuit of regime change. Again, the duo went against the wise counsel of Angela Merkel of Germany against the use of violence to achieve regime change in Libya. In Libya the Obama administration went along with European project of regime. Before the last mortal had been fired in the Libyan crisis the West had concluded arrangements on how to share Libyan oil. In fact, they had started lifting oil from Bengazi. All these were against the wise advice of perceptive Africans (Nigeria was not among the perceptive ones) and the collective wisdom that notwithstanding the warts of the Libyan guide, it was in the best interest of Africa to have an orderly and peaceful negotiation to end the conflict. Obama and the Europeans declared that Libya was an Arab state of the Maghreb. Black Africa was declared a non-stakeholder in the future of post Gaddafi Libya.

Some have thus concluded that one of the greatest disappointments of Obama’s presidency for Africa is that he continued to support, rather than challenge, neo-colonial French actions in Africa, including countries like Mali, Côte d’Ivoire, and the Central African Republic. Also, Adekeye Adebajo notes that in 2014, Obama described the aftermath of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s (NATO) Libya intervention, three years earlier, as his “biggest foreign policy regret,” bemoaning the failure to plan for post-conflict reconstruction. Having at first denied a “regime change” agenda, Obama finally conceded in October 2011 that “we had to make sure that Muammar Qaddafi didn’t stay there…Qaddafi had more American blood on his hands than any individual other than Osama bin Laden.”.

In the Ivorian crisis, South Africa stood firmly behind the Laurent Gbagbo administration understanding fully well aware that the Ivorian crisis was instigated by France to correct policy failures in the post Houphouet Boigny era. It is instructive to note the challenge of the Republican party against the Obama’s connivance with France in Cote d’Ivoire. On Boko Haram, Obama, despite Nigeria’s strident initiatives for support of the US, he was very reluctant to fully come on board, including in equipping Nigeria to meet the challenges posed by the murderous horde. Eventually, Nigeria had to cancel the last phase of the counter insurgency training program for its military offered the Obama administration. Yet, for all Nigeria’s conservative posture on the main security crises that Obama faced in Africa, he did not visit Nigeria. And those countries that he visited like Ghana, Kenya, South Africa could not boast of any truly tangible dividends for his mere symbolic gesture.


In the Sahel, given the economic and socio-political fragility and the threat of the entrenchment of terrorism, the militarization of U.S. policy in the Sahel was accelerated under Obama. The Pentagon expanded drone bases in Djibouti and Ethiopia for operations in the Arabian Peninsula and Somalia and, in 2013, built a new base in Niger for operations in Mali and Nigeria. For the Obama administration, the Sahel region was considered primarily as a security challenge. All in all Obama played second fiddle to France in Africa. The peculiar formally uncodified alliance of Obama’s USA with France on African affairs constrained the options available to Africa and distorted the outcomes of major crises in the continent. This has impacted deleteriously on the advancement of the progressive African will in Libya, and before then in Cote d’Ivoire.

Against this background, the US-Africa Business Forum (USABF) is presented as the equivalent of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) for Bill Clinton and the President’s Emergency Program on AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) or the US Africa Command (AFRICOM) for George W Bush. The African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) was signed into law by President Clinton in May 2000 with the objective of expanding U.S. trade and investment with sub-Saharan Africa, to stimulate economic growth, to encourage economic integration, and to facilitate sub-Saharan Africa’s integration into the global economy. In 2013, U.S. goods imports from sub-Saharan African under AGOA and the related GSP program totaled $26.8 billion, more than three times the amount in 2001, the first full-year of AGOA trade. While petroleum products accounted for the largest portion of AGOA imports, non-oil AGOA trade was $4.9 billion in 2013, almost four times the amount in 2001.

Obama administration officials highlight that it is no coincidence that President Obama wanted a second USABF before he the end of his presidency. The USABF is promoted as the most successful part of the 2014 US”Africa Leaders’ Summit in Washington DC – the largest gathering of African heads of state and government ever convened by an American president. It is advanced that it resulted in announcements of billions of dollars of investment in Africa, and that trade between the US and Africa had subsequently grown significantly, albeit from a low base.

Official narratives highlight that during the second Obama administration new initiatives such as Power Africa, Trade Africa and the President’s Advisory Council on Doing Business in Africa were launched. The Power Africa initiative leveraged nearly $43 billion in commitments from over 120 public and private sector partners and the Trade Africa partnership (with an initial focus on the East African Community) and saw a 24 per cent increase in exports of goods from the EAC to the US in 2013”14. The Global Entrepreneurship Summit, which met in 2014 in Morocco and Kenya in 2015, had led to an increase in trade missions. And not only does the Corporate Council on Africa in Washington DC now promote African trade, but recently the US Chamber of Commerce finally began taking Africa more seriously.

On health, Obama opportunistically sought to burnish his administration’s legacy in humanitarianism in Africa through a massive deployment of the United States military to fight Ebola in Liberia. Even this came too late in the day. Some suggest he was forced to act as France engaged in Guinea (Conakry) and the British in Sierra Leone.

While significant efforts were recorded during the Obama tenure as President of the United States of America, in the face of massive deficits in the outcome of his substantive engagement with Africa that ostensibly focused on the partnership, trade, governance and normative requisites of association of African states with his administration, what is left is the powerful symbolism of the election of a black president to the most powerful office in the world. And it is not a mean symbolism. Also, the preachments to the continent during his visits would remain of great symbolic salience as his tenure is consigned to the archives of deferred hopes and expectations.

Ademola Araoye is a former Nigerian diplomat and a retired official of the United Nations. Currently a Visiting Professor associated with the SARCHi chair on African Diplomacy and International Relations at the University of Johannesburg, Araoye is author of critically acclaimed books including Cote d’Ivoire: The Conundrum of a Still Wretched of the Earth and Sources of Conflict in the Post-Colonial African State. He is a regular contributor to TheNEWS magazine

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