Not the president from Kogelo


Barack Obama may be sympathetic to Africa‘s problems, but solving them requires US policy changes he can’t possibly make.

 

When, during a 2006 visit to Africa, Barack Obama was asked what he could do for Kenyans, his response was: "I am the senator from Illinois, not the senator from Kogelo."

 

The question and answer capture his complex relationship to Africa via Kenya. His symbolism demands that he be a global leader who will bring a measure of peace and well-being to the third world, and therefore Africa. But in practice, his rule has to be dictated by US domestic and foreign policy needs that will often run counter to those of Africa. He will, after all, be the president of an empire stretched thin by war and an economy in a recession. And the empire is hungry.

Yet I do not think the hope placed on Obama by Africans is misplaced. Obama knows Africa like no other US president before him. He has direct roots, some frayed and others strong, in Kenya. He grew up in Hawaii, an international outpost of the US, and has lived in Indonesia. His internationalism seeps through his memoir, Dreams from my Father. If any president ever stood a chance of leaving the world a better place, quite literally, it is Obama.

 

But he cannot be a US national leader and a global leader at the same time. And the problems in Africa call for US foreign policy changes that Obama cannot possibly make.

 

Where Obama might increase foreign aid to Africa, what Africa needs is an elimination of US farm subsidies. The subsidies cost African countries more in lost revenue due to depressed markets than it gets in foreign aid. In fact, Oxfam estimates that African countries lose two dollars through unequal trade for every dollar it gets in foreign aid. What Africa needs is equal trade as opposed to paternalistic foreign aid that masks unequal trade.

 

Obama has expressed support for Bush’s Africa Growth Opportunity Act (AGOA), which creates "export processing zones" where manufactured goods are shipped to the US duty free. But EPZs largely benefit corporations enticed by a tax-free existence, cheap non-union labour and raw materials. What Africa needs are investments that benefit its citizenry, re-invest profits in local economies while promoting national industry.

 

Obama supports the US Africa Command (Africom), an attempt to unify US military operations in Africa. But Africa does not need further militarisation of Africa-US relations. Equal trade between nations and economic justice within African countries will restore stability and security for the long run.

 

Obama might not engage in revenge wars. But as he himself says, he wants to end the war in Iraq to better hunt down terrorists in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Somalia, where a US military strike is as likely to kill civilians or terrorists, is one such place. What Africa needs is not a better-executed war on terror, but an end to it so that it is no longer trapped in the vice of punitive terrorist and US bombs.

 

Pepfar, George Bush’s HIV/Aids initiative captures Obama’s Africa dilemma well. Bush undermined Pepfar by tying faith-based initiatives to it while being beholden to pharmaceutical companies. This meant promoting programmes that preached abstinence rather than condoms as the first defence, while at the same time maximising profit for the drug companies. Understanding faith-based initiatives as impractical, Obama has signalled that he will end them, a good move in and of itself.

 

But Aids is also an emergency in Africa. Under the WTO’s rules, patents can legally be broken to avert human catastrophe. While stressing prevention, generic Aids drugs need to be manufactured cheaply and locally if the epidemic is to have less deadly consequences. But it is unlikely Obama will go far as to challenge patent laws. And it would be unrealistic to expect him to.

 

Closing the gap between what Obama promises and what Africa needs will have to be the work of Africans. We have to take Obama at his word when he says "we are the ones we have been waiting for". Change in Africa has to be bottom up, not top-down.

 

Africans have to ask their governments to grow a backbone and challenge disastrous patent laws, the militarisation of US-Africa relations and unequal trade while demanding social and economic justice within Africa.

 

Given Obama’s African roots, his internationalism and his politics that have underlined fairness, Africans will at least have a sympathetic ear in the White House. But to paraphrase John F Kennedy, another young president fraught with the contradiction of promise and practice: Ask not what Obama can do for you, but what you can do for the world.

Leave a comment