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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.

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, along with Malia and Sasha, participate in a departure ceremony at Accra airport in Ghana, July 11, 2009.
Photo Credit: Pete Souza/White House


Five years ago, Africans were thrilled about Obama's election to the American presidency. The premise of the jubilation was the reasonable expectation that the new administration might pursue an Africa-friendly policy, a depature from previous regimes. On the eve of his visit to three African countries, African optimists and the President's supporters in America argue that things will be different during the second term. 

In 2008, I took exception to the celebratory atmosphere that engulfed the African world and others of good will who had hoped for assistance in development and democracy in Africa. My skepticism did not underestimate the importance of the Obama victory, since it marked a  historic break with America's deeply race-driven politics. It was a victory for all those who wished that racial and other forms of inequality in the country were finally in the past. However, I was only too mindful of the deep moorings of the American power structure and the limited purchase of racial politics.

The assessment of those had hoped for a different policy in 2008 was speculative, but we now have the experience of the past four years to help us better gauge what to expect in his second term. More recently, analysts of the administration and well wishers have argued that the Obama administration's ability to effect meaningful changes to its Africa policy in its first term was severely constrained by two interrelated challenges. First, the President inherited the worst economic recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s, which required urgent and sustained action. And second, the administration came to power at a time when  America's global public image was in ruins due to the excesses of the War on Terror. Logically and legitimately, the President and his team had to give absolute priority to these two top objectives, and this had the unfortunate effect of depriving oxygen to progressive new foreign policies.

Whether or not the assumptions about the restraining effects of the economic and political crisis were correct (and I do not share these assumptions), I would still argue that the administration failed to tap opportunities to engage Africa that would not have required a great expenditure of  resources or distracted the President's attention from the serious domestic issues. For example, the administration could have been more serious and genuine democratization in the continent, as in the  Democratic Republic of CongoSomaliaEthiopia , etc. 

Elsewhere in the developing world, some Obama supporters also argued that his Palestine/Israel policy during the first term was shaped by the American political realities of reelection. These optimists must have been shocked by the unequivocal remarks of the President that were precipitated by the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip after the election. Obama's victory in November 2012, rather than opening a new page in American Middle East policy and giving the President courage to embark on a more balanced and just course of action, appears to have  intensified his pro-Israel stance. For Africans and their American supporters who dream about second-term transformation, the President's remarks about Palestine should be a rude awakening. It is possible that in Obama's second term his agenda might be unchained from old anchors through a miracle; however, all the signs point to the unlikelihood of meaningful progressive change.

The impact on Africa of any US regime change should be guided by three fundamental realities: (1) the general American interest in Africa and the individuals who are its key drivers; (2) the quality of the new President's policy team on Africa; and (3) the nature of African interests and the identities of its leading champions. Systemically and critically analysing these issues would require several volumes and go well beyond the scope of this commentary. But I will try to suggest a number of key points to keep in mind when examining what Obama's second term is likely to look like.

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