Where lies Obama’s Africa legacy?

Zelalem Kibret, special to Addis Standard

Addis Abeba, Jan. 20/2017 – On November 09, 2016 while the GMT + world woke up to a surprising news of victory by the most unexpected candidate in the US election, the US Embassy in Addis Abeba was hosting an election breakfast in one of the most luxurious hotels in Africa, Sheraton Addis. As part of the breakfast, attendants were getting a chance to participate in a simulated election. Among the 123 peoples who attended the breakfast and participated in the simulated election, 99 of them cast their votes for Secretary Hillary Clinton, 14 voted businessman Donald Trump, and the rest of the votes went to the rest of the low-profile candidates.

Given the fact that Africa has never been an agenda (beyond the Benghazi stalemate, which is a Middle Eastern issue under the US diplomatic map) during the presidential race, and for his total disinterest in Africa, we can say that the fourteen votes cast to the President-elect Donald Trump were protest votes. But, protest against who?

Undue excitement proved to be exaggerated

Eight years ago, the euphoria followed from having the first African American elected as the de facto president of the world was engulfing the globe.  Borrowing Lucy Powell’s word ‘Obamania’ was the new global phenomenon.  A mania “fast taking hold reflects an incredible thirst for change in global politics and, dare I say, a wave of optimism that things can be different.” Nonetheless, unlike many claims, the mania was not only as a result of having a black man break the rules and climb the ladder in a world that is patronizing for individuals of his skin color; rather it was for his offer to the world. In his first inaugural address Obama sent a message to anti-democratic forces in the world “who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent,” to let them know that they were on the wrong side of history, but if they are willing to unclench their fist, he promised to extend a hand.

This made many to hope for a better future of their homeland. For some, such message and the whole promises of his campaign signaled a relief to their troubled homeland. Even some argued to the extent of assuring us that “America Will No Longer Be a Welfare Department for Dictators. Others compared him with a miracle. But, not all the expectations were simply taken by everyone. Rather to the opposite, during his historic victory, some were critical of feverish mood as nothing short of foolhardiness for African people to expect Obama to work miracles that will resolve the continent’s ills’.

Whatever said, Africa, particularity down from the Sahel was the foremost among the Obamanic regions in the world. Reason? Democracy. According to Freedom House, at the time when President Obama took office on January 20, 2009, out of the forty-eight sub-Saharan African countries, only ten of them were rated as ‘free’ and the rest were rated either as ‘partly free’ or ‘not free’ at all. In other words, about eighty percent of sub-Saharan African countries were grappling with undemocratic regimes. Africa’s frenzy for the election of a new US president who promised to stretch hands for democracies was, therefore, plausible to say the least. After all, Obama was crowned as a politician with the most political capital in Africa since Mandela. Who knows, many thought, he will clear all the mess.

Six months after he got into office, Obama made his first and last (of the first term) sub-Saharan Africa official visit. In July 2009 Obama spoke about Africa from Accra, Ghana. In his speech, he was mainly focused on democracy, opportunity, health, and the peaceful resolution of conflict and how Africa badly needed the process of democratization for its growth; to that end, he promised his administration’s continuous support. In what has now become a cliché, Obama enunciated ‘Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions”. These types of rhetoric, combined with exaggerated expectations, drew a messianic picture for the first African American president.

However, Obama’s first term in office ushered in the bitter fact to the hysterical mass in sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere. The bitter fact that he is the president of the United State of America, not of the world; not, particularly, sub-Saharan Africa. For many Africans, his first term was a disappointment; some even suggested they no longer mind who replaces him because Obama failed Africa.

At the beginning of his second term in office in 2013, the mania was subdued and African democracy was backsliding to its 2001 level.  The irony subtly suggests sub-Saharan African democracy was flourishing during Bush’s presidency, and after the end of the first term of the first African-American presidency, it plummeted to its level in 2001, the time President Bush took office. This could be a universal phenomenon, but it still suggests Obama’s first term was not something Africa is nostalgic about.

Finally, ‘Africa is rising’ and he came to Africa  

For Africa, Obama’s second term was much better than the first one. Unlike his single trip to Ghana in his first term, in the last four years, Obama visited five African countries and made a major speech at the African Union, which was the first for a seating US president. It is in his second term that he introduced his major Africa policy change – a new US-African relationship that’s based not just on aid and assistance but on trade and partnership. It is in his second term that the Obama administration introduced the new plans of what would be remembered as the trinity of Obama’s Africa legacy, Trade Africa, Power Africa and Lead Africa.

Obama was suggesting, time and again, the new notion of US-Africa relationship that is based on mutual respect. In his first address of a visit during his second term from the African soil, he declared why he was in Africa – yes, the reason [he] came to Africa was because Africa is rising. Jumping in the “Africa rising’ bandwagon, he wanted a new mutual relationship between Africa and his country. To that end, he promised to expand Trade in Africa through an initiative championed by his predecessor, President Bill Clinton, called African Growth and Opportunity Act, or simply, Trade Africa, and his administration’s continued effort to help ‘the war on AIDS’ in Africa as President George Bush’s enduring legacy.

On the other hand, his Power Africa project that he introduced in his July 2013 South African visit was an ambitious Seven Billion dollar project that aimed at doubling power supply in Africa by producing 30,000 Megawatts additional energy in the continent. But, it bumped into Africa’s brick wall of bureaucracy and failed to bear a meaningful fruit.

Unfortunately, the incoming US administration seems disinterested for these two major initiatives. President-elect Trumps’ protectionist trade view will be a big blow to president Obama’s Trade Africa Initiative, and to the demise of his Power Africa Initiative, President-elect Trump downplayed it as a waste of money, crazy and simply a cheque sent to the thieves in Africa.

What is remaining is president Obama’s ‘Lead Africa Initiative’, also known as Mandela Washington Fellowship Program, “the flagship program of the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) that empowers young people through academic coursework, leadership training, and networking.” As one of the 2016 YALI fellow, I personally feel (and I am not alone in that) that President Obama’s enduring African legacy will be his young African leadership initiative. Of course, I am aware of critics who argue taking young Africans to the United States and touring, exposing and empowering them as a bad model of partnering. Let me explain why I feel Obama’s legacy is embedded with his small, but far-reaching leadership initiative.

Obama’s democracy problem

It is understandable that president Obama took office in the middle of a  crisis at home and around the world. Two major regional wars that America was deeply involved by deploying its troops, a deep recession, and a divided American political landscape. However, as a man who breaks the colored glass ceiling to climb the top of the ladder in a rather breathtaking pace and a promising pacifist, many expected him as a messiah who will heal all the wounds in the world. Sub-Saharan Africa suffered much from the wounds of authoritarians all over the continent and expected the President of the most powerful nation on earth to heal it.

He was well aware of that. In the five major speeches he made in the continent, democracy was his central point.  He spoke about building institutions as the pillars of governance; he recognized that democracy has weathered strong challenges all over the continent, but  confronted those who dismiss democracy as a western concept as detractors who are ‘trying to distract people from their own abuses’; he mocked and rebuked those African leaders who are postponing democratization by changing the rules in the middle of the game. To be fair, he in return was also mocked as a drug user for calling the authoritarian regime in Ethiopia as ‘a democratically elected’ one.

However, beyond naming and shaming of dictators all over the continent, Obama, and his administration understood that the process of democratization in Africa is a daunting task that could not be installed by someone’s wish from abroad. Hence, while appeasing strong regimes in Africa, his administration preferred to invest in the future of the continent and its possible future leaders. That is why Obama’s Africa legacy looks promising to the future than today. In other words, the Obama administration preferred to invest in young people like me than taking a direct diplomatic measure against the regime that put me and my collogues in jail for the mere fact that it didn’t like us. Is that a fair way of engagement? Only time will tell.

I remember the excitement and the joy of one-thousand of my peers from forty-nine African countries on August 03, 2016. An excitement of being in the same room with President Obama. A joy of thankfulness. It was the end of six weeks training and exposure in forty US higher educational institutions, which is a life changing experience. President Obama spoke at the closing ceremony and the whole mood was so inspirational. It was a moment of one thousand young Africans showing respect and admiration for him.  Attending the lavish ceremony, I felt the true African legacy of Obama: pure inspiration; an inspiration that will remain in me for years to come. It was an inspiration for many to be passionate in their struggle for a better life in a better world. It is a legacy of passion.

Obama’s Africa legacy in post-Obama

The fact that America’s optimism in Obama failed to match expectations has resulted in ‘voters’ flight’ to a very strange candidate. By the same token, Obama’s inaction to meet what was expected of him has resulted in ‘fans’ flight’ in Africa. The protest votes that went to President-elect Donald Trump on November 09, 2016 during the simulated election in Addis Abeba were the manifestations of the mood by those who felt neglected by the Obama administration.

However, if we see what the future is loading, it looks unfair to despise Obama and protest against him.

In his January 04, 2016 farewell speech to the armed force, President Obama praised the efforts of the US military in helping Ebola victims in West Africa. He quoted an unnamed West African woman as saying: “We thanked God first and we thanked America second – for carrying about us”. However, at the time, Obama’s effort to send US soldiers to save lives in West Africa has infuriated his successor, Donald Trump. The President-elect called Obama by every name; stupid, delusional failure, nuts, Hypocrite, and stubborn. He even went to the extent of mockingly suggesting enrolling all Africans to ‘ObamaCare’, so that Ebola can be stopped.

And while Obama was praised for lifting the ban on entry to the United States for HIV-positive peoples, which would mainly help Africa since seventy percent of the people who are living with HIV are living in Africa, his successor called for a new ban on entry for everyone from ‘Ebola infested West Africa’.

Eventually, this nativist attitude by the President-elect only speaks loud that Obama’s Africa legacy (which by itself is controversial) is here to fade soon.


But wait, the President-elect himself has actually professed Africa’s tremendous potential. Back in 2013, President-elect Trump was asked, “Why does [he] hate Africa so much?” His response was short, “I don’t-tremendous potential!AS

Ed’s Note: Zelalem Kibret is a 2016 Mandela Washington Fellow and currently a Residence in Scholar at the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at New York University. He tweets at @zelalemibret

Cover Photo: Reuters/Jason Reed

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