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Published: Wednesday, 7/15/2009

If anybody knows about Africa, it should be Obama

IF AFRICA presents a difficult policy problem for any American president, it presents a particularly difficult problem for President Obama, who actually knows something about the continent firsthand.

Although he has never lived there, his father was Kenyan and he has visited Africa four times. When he visited his father's family in Kenya, he saw the way life is among ordinary African villagers. Since his father's tribe were Luo, not the dominant tribe in Kenya, he even saw the way life is among non-elite Africans, the ones who don't loot their countries' economies and drive Mercedes. In Kiswahili, those people are called wabenzi, the people of the Benz. In the Lingala of Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in the 1970s they were called the Ewingi, after the Texas family in the TV series, Dallas.

Mr. Obama as U.S. President setting U.S. Africa policy is between a rock and a hard place. He is under pressure from one side to try to take care of Africa. This would mean paying attention to African issues and, in particular, taking action to try to round up aid and investment for African countries. He did a certain amount of that on the trip he has just completed, which included stops in Russia, Italy for the G-8 summit, at the Vatican, and, his last stop, Ghana in West Africa. At the G-8, he put the heat on the donors to raise the $15 billion they had intended to provide over three years to $20 billion.

The other pressure he is under to do something positive for Africa comes from his African-American constituency, who voted for him and, in spite of the Bush administration's relatively generous approach to fighting disease in Africa, President George W. Bush, like virtually all of his predecessors since President John F. Kennedy, put Africa at the bottom of the policy heap in terms of attention. Africa, for quite logical policy reasons, reflecting sound strategy, always comes after Europe, Asia, the Middle East, Latin America, and now South Asia in U.S. policy priority terms.

But the President knows from his reasonably broad and deep knowledge of Kenya the profound problems involved in trying to do something for Africa. It lags in terms of development, and in everything that goes with it - education, health care, and infrastructure. In his excellent speech in Accra, Ghana on Saturday Mr. Obama put his finger right on the sores: democracy, opportunity, health, and peaceful resolution of conflicts. Development comes from good governance. Both are missing pretty much universally in post-independence Africa. What is needed, he said, are "capable, reliable, and transparent institutions." America is willing to help, and will support efforts to combat corruption. But, in the end, he said, "Africa's future is up to Africans."

What was really interesting about Mr. Obama saying this to the Africans was the fact that he can. African leaders in general, in spite of sometimes pretty words, rarely speak home truths to each other about such matters. The reason is an almost institutionalized taboo on criticizing each other, no matter how egregious the fault. In general, they don't do that because each one is vulnerable to the same criticism about the situation in his own country. President Jose Eduardo Dos Santos of Angola is going to accuse President Denis Sassou-Nguesso of the Republic of Congo of stealing his country's oil money shamelessly? Both do.

There are other taboos as well. One is the club of former anti-colonial "freedom fighters." That's why no South African president, including Nelson Mandela, has yet told Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe that he has utterly ruined his country and should step down.

Mr. Obama is not bound by any of these constraints. We will assume that no African leader could cite corruption by Mr. Obama in his own country, even if he is from Illinois. Nor could any of them take some rebel guerrilla leader from the United States under his wing and seek to organize the overthrow of Mr. Obama through supporting an insurgency as African leaders sometimes do to each other. (Read a new book by Gerard Prunier called Africa's World War to get an idea of the complexity and depravity of what African leaders do through insurgencies, assassinations and other misdemeanors.) Thus, the American President is able to call a spade, a spade, with impunity.

What is more, he is able to attach conditions to U.S. aid to a country based on its performance in terms of what he considers to be appropriate measures of its level of democracy, proferred economic opportunity, provision of health care, and other social services and, perhaps most important of all, peaceful resolution of its internal and external conflicts.

The one weak point that I saw in Mr. Obama's presentation in Accra was his lame defense of the Department of Defense initiative launched during the days of the Bush administration to create an Africa Command - AFRICOM - as part of the Defense Department. He said, "Our Africa Command is focused not on establishing a foothold in the continent, but on confronting these common challenges to advance the security of America, Africa and the world."

Africans have resisted the insertion of AFRICOM into their affairs, seeing it as an American effort to militarize U.S.-African relations. The Bush and now Obama administrations have denied that, but in the meantime, AFRICOM's headquarters staff has grown to 2,000, the fiscal year 2010 Defense Department budget proposal doubles AFRICOM's funds, and more than 2,000 U.S. troops have been stationed at the American base in Djibouti on the East African Horn.

All in all, Mr. Obama's trip to Ghana, preceded by having passed the hat for Africa at the G-8 summit in Italy, has plunged him into the bubbling water of U.S. Africa policy. He should know what he is doing, but it won't be easy.

Dan Simpson, a retired diplomat, is a member of the editorial boards of The Blade and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

E-mail dsimpson@post-gazette.com



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