confidentially speaking

The Africa Confidential Blog

  • 13th November 2012

Rising hopes for Obama's second coming in Africa

By Patrick Smith



BAMAKO: Mali and Libya were the only African states to surface in the three US presidential debates between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. In fact it was Romney who raised the spectre of the jihadist takeover of northern Mali, fresh from his latest briefing session on Al Qaida. It didn't do him much good in Mali. From a trawl through the streets of Bamako on the US election night, I would reckon that support for Obama was running at around 99.9%. The following day, there was jubilation in Bamako and neighbouring capitals at the second US victory for Africa's Obama.

The main gripe with Obama was that he hadn't turned up in Africa – apart from his three day visit to Ghana in mid-2010. Some Malian politicians railed against US and European backing for the Libyan rebels against Colonel Muammar el-Gadaffi. Mostly, they were furious as the west's lack of interest in the consequences of Gadaffi's overthrow: the southward migration of his Tuareg supporters, then the unilateral declaration of an independent northern Mali, and soon afterwards a takeover by jihadists.

After initial doubts, Obama's administration now backs, along with West Africa's regional organisation Ecowas, a military intervention in northern Mali. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been trying to persuade Algeria's President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to join – or at least not obstruct – the action. With another UN security council resolution due later this month, the Mali intervention leaping up up the agenda.

Hillary Clinton has coordinated US diplomacy on Mali with US Ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, who is now frontrunner to take over from her as Secretary of State in January. Clinton says wants to leave the post after four tough years – although there's much speculation that she will run for the presidency in 2016.

Rice, a former Assistant Secretary of State for Africa and an Africa specialist on the National Security Council, is well known on the continent. She takes a robust line with Sudan's Islamist regime; in Kigali she is seen as a good friend of Rwanda as other Western governments pull back on diplomacy and aid after successive UN reports accused Kigali of backing for militias in eastern Congo.

Accused by her opponents of misreading or misreporting events leading to the murder of the US envoy in Benghazi, Rice has fought back with backing from unexpected quarters such as Republican former Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz.

In Obama2, expectations are running way beyond the Sahel and Horn of Africa flashpoints. Top of the list would be to reform US trade policy: for example, ending the billions of dollars of subisidies to US cotton farmers that drive down the world price of cotton and help impoverish cotton farmers in Mali and Nigeria.

Another demand is to boost US market access for African producers and manufacturers, cutting bureaucracy that holds back African exporters. The USA's market access provisions for African exporters may be light years ahead of Europe's, but these days most African exporters are looking east.

A rethink on Washington's agricultural initiative -- Feed the Future – looks necessary. The idea was to boost productivity in 12 African states. But the collective push by GM specialists Monsanto and the Gates Foundation has raised concerns across the continent.

Linked to that, politicians and activists are demanding that the USA to review the excessive demands that the West is making for trade and investment policy liberalisation in Africa. The gap on trade policy between the West and Africa could open as Chinese companies streak ahead in the business stakes.

Activists are also demanding tougher regulation of oil and mining conglomerates to bar them from corrupt deals with ministers and officials in Africa. African anti-corruption campaigners are asking the Obama administration to match its rhetoric on the tax avoidance schemes and the ubiquitous Cayman-Island registered shell companies.

Research from the African Development Bank and Raymond Baker's Global Financial Integrity, a blocks north of the White House, closely monitors how
transfer pricing scams are racking up illicit capital flight from Africa – faster than new investment is coming in.

However, drafting effective laws that don't punish legitimate business takes time and expertise. The Dodd-Franks financial reforms, among much else, penalise mineral-grabbing militias and their corporate cohorts but also have hit hard-pressed local producers in eastern Congo.

Two areas where liberal critics targeted Obama1were immigration and climate change. Both have a critical African dimension. There are as many as 10 million Africans in the USA, many without official papers: they could be among the first beneficiaries of some form of amnesty scheme.

But such a plan remains strongly opposed by the Republican majority in the House of Representatives. A grand-sounding Global Climate Change Initiative to promote renewable energy in Africa is yet to bear fruit in the wake of international failures on a workable treaty on carbon emissions.

Another byproduct of Obama2 might be a rethinking of electoral tactics in Africa. A few hours after Obama's victory speech, a politician friend from Accra phoned up to say his party was studying how money and demographics swayed the vote.

Grassroots organisation and tactics had proved more important than cash – even if both campaigns were swimming in dollars, he concluded. And the power of the women's and youth vote for US parties was a wake-up call for their African counterparts, he insisted. All this, he said, would be put to the test in Ghana's elections next month.