I clearly remember the ceaseless shouts of intense joy in my eternally quiet neighbourhood when Obama was elected in 2008. The live broadcast of his swearing-in ceremony on virtually every TV station, the insistent political analysis and what it meant for the African continent, the millions of branded shirts and Obama-naming ceremonies….and this was not just in my quarter. The world was in joyous rapture and Africans pounded their chests proudly as ‘one of their sons’ had become the number man in the world. A new dawn for the continent they sang and eagerly waited for the manifestation of their ‘son’. Were they disappointed? That I cannot say but the deafening silence at his re-election might have said a lot more than talking drums.
According to Matteo in his submission ‘Obama’s Sub-Saharan Africa Policy: Failure or Miscalculation?’, the first four years after Obama’s election was inundated with turmoil, disillusionment and some sort of rancorous reflection on Obama’s African legacy, and some demanded to know how real and accessible Obama’s Sub-Saharan Africa policies were.
It was not until June 2012 that Obama unveiled the new U.S. Strategy toward Sub-Saharan Africa, outlining achievements and defining new strategic points for the next years. Achievements included success in consolidating power in Ivory Coast, following the civil war and President Gagbo’s arrest, increased efforts in Somalia to reduce piracy and to counter al-Shabaab militancy, 100 military advisers sent to Uganda to assist the army in hunting the LRA’s leader Joseph Kony and greatly sponsoring the establishment of the new state of South Sudan. According to Matteo the impressive list in reality was hiding several shortcomings and paved the way for new tensions and conflicts.
He said that Ivory Coast needs to build solid institutions to face internal tensions with the military and ethnic rivalries as they are recovering from the destructive war that changed the face of a country seen as a model of stability.
Also, the establishment of South Sudan which was seen as the cure to all illnesses in the Sudan case was now becoming the incubator for a potentially bloody war between the two countries as well as internal ethnic and tribal conflict. This, in his opinion was an ill-considered action that discarded the African Union which traditionally opposed any change of the borders inherited by the colonial powers.
He declared Ugandan military operations to capture LRA’s leader Joseph Kony as unfruitful while noting that Somalia was still threatened both by piracy on one side, and Islamic terrorism on the other.
He faulted the US government for failing to build strong links with an emerging economy such as Angola and gave judgements on Obama’s foreign policy toward Africa as ranging from neglect and disinterest, to ineptitude or abandonment as it was clear from the start that the African continent was never going to be a main theatre for US operations. He explained that the American engagement in Iraq, Afghanistan, special operations in Pakistan – specifically the one that lead to the assassination of Osama bin Laden – developments in Tunisia, Egypt and Syria, tensions with Iran, North Korea and a bitter relationship with Russia - were responsible.
Nonetheless, he defended that it would be wrong to think of Obama’s African policy as a neglected one or judge it a total failure as US policymakers in the Obama administration, conscious of the impossibility of an active engagement in Africa, opted for a policy of limited intervention, reducing expenditures while ensuring that control of the ground was not abandoned completely.
He further added that the policy took the wrong turn when it combined internal US factors, internal African weaknesses and external influences on Africa. Internal African factors such as corruption of the political classes are a historical limit that undermines any investments or ensures transparency in the democratic process.
According to the U.S. Strategy, US actions in the region during the next years will be based on the principles of strengthening democratic institutions, spurring economic growth, trade, and investment, advancing peace and security and promoting opportunity and development.
Again, the new policy abandons the maintenance strategy and more incisive action will be required. The reason for this change is to protect US interests when it comes to geopolitical equilibrium and security.
He specifically called for US action in West Africa - particularly in Nigeria. He said that Nigeria’s government needs urgent assistance to oppose Boko Haram as they are not a simple and usual Islamic Nigerian movement. Their dangerous activities and capacity of hitting core federal interests have been proved by the attacks carried against the once powerful and untouchable Nigerian Secret Service.
President Jonathan Goodluck needs assistance in building an effective deterrent to protect the federal state not only against Boko Haram, but also from military adventures leading to a coup.
The President is facing the biggest challenge since civilian rule was restored in Nigeria in 1999.
Matteo concludes that the US inactivity and indifference could lead to the collapse of the Nigerian pillar and with it of the roof upon which Western Africa security is built. Obama and the US cannot afford to imagine what kind of society could emerge from the ruins underneath.
A stitch in time saves nine.
By Unen Ameji