The better question would have been, ‘Did Obama owe Africa anything?’ President Barack Obama was voted into the White House after President George Bush, becoming the first American leader of African descent. That he came after Bush in itself was taken as a reason (by some) to engage with Africa in higher level conversations about the future. Having a Kenyan heritage only made the call seem even more legitimate. After almost eight years in office, Obama’s tenure has largely been seen as falling short of what was expected. He is said to have failed Africa.
The Bush-Africa Relationship
Of President Bush, Cameron Hudson, who served as director for African Affairs in the National Council from 2005-2009 said, “When Bush came into office, there were civil wars going on in Sudan, Congo, Angola, Liberia, Sierra Leone. And by the end of his first term, all those civil wars were over. There was I think a very deliberate effort in the first term of the Bush administration to end those civil wars, and by ending those civil wars, enabling him in the second term to launch a very aggressive development program.”
The highlight of the Bush administration’s tenure in power was the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) in 2003. It is argued that not one of Obama’s plans has been able to eclipse PEPFAR which had been launched as a five year plan to spend $15 billion in the fight against HIV and AIDS. Before the programme started, around 100,000 people were on anti-retroviral treatment in Africa but by the time Bush left office, the number had rocketed to a strong 2 million. President Bush also backed the cancellation of a $34 billion debt for 22 African states and launched a $1.2 billion project to combat malaria in the hardest hit countries. His Aid budget for Africa rose from $1.3 billion to $5 billion by 2008.
Andrew Natsios, USAID administrator from 2001 to 2006 said, “The U.S Agency for International Development went from $150 million when I started to $800 million by the time (Bush) left office in assistance, and much of that was to Africa.”
Such was the legacy of Obama’s fore-runner and he was expected to do just as well or even outdo but there is a general consensus that he has failed to live up to the expectations.
Cameron Hudson says he questions “just generally what his (Obama’s) vision for the continent was”. Indications are that he is not alone.
The Obama Era
President Obama’s tenure in office was largely affected by his African heritage. Africa expected him to be more hands-on than any other president in issues of African development yet America’s “birthers” alleged he had been born in Kenya and was ineligible for Presidency. Both camps pressurised him and he needed to ply the middle route so as to neutralise pressure. It is only as late as 2015 that he started publicly embracing his Kenyan heritage.
Obama’s major programme is the Power Africa which was launched in June 2013. Power Africa is a partnership among various stakeholders to double access to electricity in sub-Saharan Africa. Its initial target was 10,000 megawatts (MW) and 20 million new connections in six countries but during the U.S-Africa Leaders’ Summit (ALS), President Obama announced the target would be tripled- 30,000 MW and 60 million new connections, committing $300 million in assistance per year. As per last year’s Power Africa report, the programme has assisted in the financial closure of transactions that could potentially install over 4,100 MW of clean power. Obama’s Feed the Future initiative, an attempt at fighting global hunger which puts importance on agricultural production to boost harvests, development and trade is predominantly meant for Africa as 12 of the 19 countries it covers are in Africa.
However, though these and a number of other projects show commitment to African development, it is still a fact that in 2009 China overtook the U.S. as Africa’s largest trading partner in 2013 and in 2013, U.S. was only to the tune of $60 billion compared to China’s huge $170 billion. President Obama’s tenure will probably be over before he can overtake the Bush gains. The ultimate question is does he need to?
It seems unfair that Africa would put the burden of its own development on the President of the United States of America. These expectations are the reason some countries use aid to control the continent. Obama had nothing to prove to Africa, the expectations were always unfair from the very beginning and that he failed to meet them should not stir up emotions. He was not an African President and he owed the continent nothing. If Africa is to be taken seriously as a global player, it should engage other countries on the basis of fair developmental conversations as an equal partner not expect aid and cry foul when this is not provided. Obama’s one flaw is therefore not enhancing the economic ties that were already there and allowing trade to go on a decline.