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Beyond Obama's Africa Trip: How Oil and the War on Terror Still Drive U.S. Policy

President Obama's symbolic visit to Africa will not usher any paradigm-shifting policies.

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American interest in Africa: Oil and terror

US interest in Africa faded a bit in the 1990s with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the demise of the Cold War. However, this decline has been reversed with the development of two factors: (1) the emergence of  China as an economic competitor, and (2) the country's concerns about terrorism since the bombing of the  US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 and the events of 9/11 . 

The need for imported oil in the US, along with China's determination to secure energy sources for its super-hot economy, has elevated interest in Africa. China appears to be winning this game because of its "pragmatic" approach of not "interfering" in the domestic affairs of countries. Although the US still gets a significant amount of its oil imports from Africa, China has gained a substantial foothold with new oil producers such as Ghana, Uganda, and Sudan , and has made some headway with older ones. In spite of these setbacks for the US in Africa, the guardians of US policy in this regard are the big oil companies, whose position and influence on African policy have not gone through any transformation simply because a person of African origin occupies the White House.

Analytically, our assessment of US policy toward Africa must take a leaf from US policy toward the Middle East, which has remained unchanged despite the fall of the USSR and the end of the Cold War. Similarly, the prospect of America's becoming more energy independent should not suggest that its interest in African resources, or Africa's geopolitical importance to the US, will fade any time soon. China's strategic growth in Africa will remain a key factor for the US government, and that is why the American military presence in Africa since Obama came to power has increased.

'War on Terror'

Neither the Obama administration nor his predecessors have considered the  horrific impact that the War on Terror has had on African people. We all understand that the US President has to protect American citizens from those who want to visit terror on the US, such as Al Qaeda, but there is little appreciation in the Washington halls of power that America's fight against this scourge must not be conducted at the expense of the African people.

Although the original focus of the War on Terror was South and West Asia, Africa has gained more US attention,  particularly the Horn of Africa and the Sahara region. The US claim here is that international terrorists are moving into Africa and/or that local merchants of violence are linking up with Al Qaida. As one former Department of State diplomat told me, "It is not possible to gain a hearing in the halls of power unless you coach Africa policy issues in the terminology of terrorism." Local issues that have little to do with terrorism are framed in those terms, which then impose war on many who seek justice under tyranny. Consequently, the victims of these global machinations respond and are then caught in the traps of the terror-masters.

The Somali case is the clearest manifestation of such a misplaced agenda. Indigent people who were terrorised by warlords for nearly two decades decided to fight back and regain their dignity using their faith, Islam, as the principal mobilising tool. Once this became known, Western media and the terror bosses, and their regional allies, like Ethiopia, interpreted this movement as a terrorist menace. 

Elsewhere in the continent the  Obama administration has supported regimes that are or were at odds with the wishes and well-being of their people. Egypt's Mubarak was a case in point in which the administration "weighed its options" until the Egyptian revolt was not reversible. Further, the administration expanded American military presence in the continent such that there are at least a dozen countries where American forces are regularly stationed.

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