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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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Obama's Africa policy team

Finally, beyond the oil and terror issues that have fundamentally shaped African policy, one cannot ignore the new generation of African American members of the administration who have dominated Africa policy formulation.

From the Clinton years to the present, a new breed of African Americans has occupied senior positions in Africa policymaking; the Department of State's Africa team has included  Susan RiceJendayi Fraser, and Johnnie Carson. It appears that these individuals are driven by mundane career aspirations rather than political ideals of serving America and Africa in mutually beneficial ways. Many of them see their African heritage not as a moral and ethical signifier that carries with it great responsibility to right injustice, but rather as a resume entry that makes them more attractive than other members of the establishment. This new breed of African American diplomats is joined at the hip with the established order and may in fact not be more favourably predisposed toward Africa than their predecessors.

My personal experience with several of these diplomats has convinced me that their worldview is no different from that of their white counterparts and that Africans must be aware of the meaninglessness of race or ethnic politics. Jendayi Fraser, Susan Rice, and Johnny Carson are no  Andrew YoungRandall Robinson, and  Jesse Jackson.

Who is minding the African shop?

With the exception of very few countries, mostly in southern Africa, the continent is not blessed with high-quality leadership that can mind African interests and promote the continent's long-term development while also addressing the needs of others.

There are three types of African leaders: those who want to be on the "right" side of Washington in order to have US support for their particularistic (and often non-developmental or non-democratic) agenda; those who engage with Washington but who part company with the US when fundamental interests are at stake; and those who refuse to deal with Washington either because their national interests are at loggerheads with the US agenda or because their country has been unduly targeted with sanctions by the US Collectively, there are very few leaders who have their people's interest at heart and who are able to negotiate with America and others on the basis of that agenda. The other institution that has the potential to negotiate on Africa's behalf is the African Union , but unfortunately, it has been significantly weakened by factionalism and opportunism.

What now?

The more things change, the more they remain the same. Given the actors and interests involved in defining Africa's relations with the US, I do not expect Obama's second term or his visit to Africa to produce any progressive change of Africa policy.


Abdi Ismail Samatar is professor of geography at the University of Minnesota and a fellow at the University of Pretoria.

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