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Africa and the US: Great expectations

By Patrick Smith in Washington
Posted on Monday, 23 November 2009 15:33

“This is a realistic and credible policy programme… more US support and engagement on governance, trade, peacekeeping and climate change,” enthused Northwestern University professor and policy analyst Richard Joseph amid the jubilation of President Barack Obama’s trip to ?Ghana in June. Hopes for a more ?effective and better-informed US policy remains strong among many Africans and Africanists – even if critics are already complaining that the new administration has been slow to define policy and to choose its personnel.

Given the dominant domestic policy demands of the recession and health-care reform, it seemed a minor miracle that President Obama made it to Ghana to set out a policy agenda within six months of his inauguration. Obama’s straight talking on election-rigging and corruption, as well as promises of ?substantial new investment in farming and food production were well received by African voters, but less well by ?incumbent regimes.

Hard heads and big hearts

“President Obama’s entry may create outsize expectations that rapidly lead to disillusion,” according to ?Jennifer Cooke and Stephen Morrison of Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies(i). “That disillusion could be acute if the global economic downturn results in worsening poverty, malnutrition and instability among vulnerable African states and if the USA and other Western states are perceived as indifferent.”?

Cooke and Morrison argue for a hard-headed strategic approach focusing on a few well-funded and well-implemented priorities: continuing increases in public health programmes; much more investment in agriculture and rural development; and a more ?activist multilateral diplomacy, working more closely with other rich countries, the AU and the UN, and above all finding ways to work more cooperatively with China in Africa.

Following Obama’s trip to Ghana, secretary of state Hillary Clinton set out on a six-nation tour of Africa in ?August, starting with a US-Africa trade conference in Nairobi. Taking in Kenya, South Africa, Angola and Nigeria, ?Clinton returned to Washington with a determination to push African issues up the agenda and asked officials to start planning a follow-up trip.

Assistant secretary of state for ?Africa Johnnie Carson, with long diplomatic experience in Southern and Eastern Africa, has called for US policy to give more weight to Nigeria and South Africa. Carson is also pushing for more targeted support for Zimbabwean agriculture and education following Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai’s meeting with Obama in June. After an ill-fated encounter with President Robert Mugabe in July, Carson reiterated US concerns about the hardliners’ grip on the security services, especially in the Marange diamond mines: “Revenues from these diamond mines and gold mines that rightfully belong to the Zimbabwean people are plundered by these hardliners and moved outside Zimbabwe for their own personal use.”?

Today, Sudan is the touchstone African issue for Washington. All the US presidential hopefuls – Democrats such as Obama and Hillary Clinton and the Republican candidate John McCain – had called for “an end to genocide in Darfur” and the use of military means (such as a no-fly zone) to enforce that, if necessary. It is also one of the most divisive, with a range of views within the administration partly reflecting the ideas of powerful lobby groups such as oil companies and some veteran ?diplomats arguing for a ‘realist’ approach while the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), evangelical Christians and a massive civil society campaign have argued for tougher sanctions to get the Khartoum regime to comply with the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Accord.

Somehow, Washington’s new Sudan policy announced in mid-October managed to split the difference between the two groups. All the senior officials – Clinton, assistant secretary Carson, US ambassador to the UN Susan Rice, Sudan envoy General Scott Gration and the National Security Council’s Michelle Gavin – appeared on the same platform to announce the policy which called for a serious engagement with Khartoum and promised “calibrated steps to ?bolster support for positive change and to discourage backsliding.”

Which carrots and sticks??

Important questions remain about the new policy. Will it include the lifting of sanctions on the Khartoum regime, its removal from the list of terrorist supporters and diplomatic normalisation as incentives? And conversely, will it include military action if Khartoum ignores international agreements and continues the killings in Darfur? Frustratingly for outsiders, details of the sticks and carrots are in a classified annex of the Sudan policy document.

Yet Washington officials want to broaden the inherited policy strategy that had overly concentrated on Sudan and Somalia. The aim is also to move away from a growing militarisation of policy, toward using more diplomatic effort and soft power. More than his predecessors, Obama is aware that the global order has changed sharply in Africa: “One of the striking things about travelling through Africa is that everyone says that the United States’ absence is as noticeable and prominent as the Chinese presence,” he told the CBC three years ago. Certainly Obama has been able to raise the US profile in Africa ?relatively quickly: the tougher job is to make the policy work.

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