What Will Obama Do for Africa? Are Barack Obama's Blood Ties with Africa Cause for Hope That He Might Be More Sensitive to the Continent's Needs Than His Predecessors? Tom Nevin Investigates

By Nevin, Tom | African Business, November 2008 | Go to article overview

What Will Obama Do for Africa? Are Barack Obama's Blood Ties with Africa Cause for Hope That He Might Be More Sensitive to the Continent's Needs Than His Predecessors? Tom Nevin Investigates


Nevin, Tom, African Business


Of course it would be good to have a brother in the White House," observes Kenny Ngubane, a Durban, South Africa, commodities trader, "but I don't think we should go overboard with what that means for Africa. Will the colour of the next US president's skin make a sudden big difference for us? I don't think so. But I do believe Obama will bring Africa into the global trade and investment mix more thoughtfully than his opposition and, with luck, more urgently."

Khumalo's summing-up on the effects of an Obama presidency for Africa seems to tally with most other considered thought in Africa on the issue. Senator Barack Obama is just one step away from being the US's next president. His African roots have made this eventuality euphoric and cause for great hope on the continent. In some instances, African expectations are the expression of racial pride, maintains Achille Mbembe, a research professor in history and politics at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa. In others, he cautions, they are simply irrational, unrealistic and misguided.

"Knowledge and documentation produced by the best American universities about Africa are unparalleled," he says, "yet the official American imagination still represents the continent as a hopeless place with no internal dynamism, littered with failed or 'rogue' states and racked by poverty, atrocities, disease and pestilence - a distant threat to global health and security."

In Mbembe's opinion, Washington either views Africa "through the prism of the continent's natural resources and the competition to reap the benefits of their exploitation or, more often than not, as an object of humanitarian and, since 9/11, military concerns".

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Centuries of slave trade and systematic degradation of people of African descent notwithstanding, there might be an American legacy of compassion towards the continent. "Africa is undergoing a complex, if at times painful, process of transformation and multiple transitions at the same time. New social actors are emerging," says Mbembe. "A hybrid urban culture is in the making. There are different forms of social and political mobilisations too. As the playing field changes and Western interests are challenged, notably by a strongly competitive and pragmatic China, the urgency of a new US Africa policy cannot be overemphasised."

Wild expectations

Kenya's Daily Nation newspaper editorialises that Africa's mostly wild expectations require some cautionary warnings. "Since Barrack Obama announced in 2007 that he would run for President of the US and, above all, after his democratic presidential nomination over Hillary Clinton, the hopes, the adulations and the expectations of most Africans have gone wild. He is seen as the 'Son of Africa', a kind of godsend for Africans who would thus soon have one of theirs in the highest office on Earth." But wiser voices have been cautioning the hyped hopes. "What is there for Africa in the American elections?" the Daily Nation asks. "Would Obama manage to overcome the strong lobby groups that control America's foreign policy and that have very little time for Africa?" Another Daily Nation writer, Rasna Warah, questions the extent of the effect Obama's blood ties will have on Africa. "We cannot lay claims on Obama," she says. "He's not one of us. What everyone seems to be forgetting is that Barack Obama is an American, not a Kenyan. His roots may lie in Kenya, but he was born and raised in the US, and his loyalty lies with that nation, not with ours."

Mbembe questions that assertion. "Africa's importance to US national interests might even be growing," he counters. "The continent now supplies the US with 15% of its oil. Since the end of the Cold War, the US has diversified its initiatives in Africa."

He point out that several valuable assistance programmes with strong bipartisan support in the US Congress now range from major trade agreements to the fight against HIV/Aids, malaria, tuberculosis and terrorism. …

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