Every recent US president has faced major crises in Africa – the Rwanda genocide, US embassy bombings, Darfur, Zimbabwe. Barack Obama, who makes his first presidential visit to sub-Saharan Africa July 10 and 11, inherits several of these crises. Others loom.
The lesson for Mr. Obama? To develop a cohesive strategy for Africa that gets at those conditions that may lead to conflict.
His two recent predecessors gave him something to start with. Bill Clinton put Africa firmly on Washington's foreign-policy agenda – an accomplishment in itself. Eventually, his boosterism culminated in a hard-won Africa trade agreement, but its potential is far from realized.
George W. Bush invested in a spending surge on HIV/AIDS, changing the narrative from funerals to hope for millions of Africans. And in a program known as the Millennium Challenge, he linked development grants to criteria: good governance, investment in health and education, and sound economic policies. Still, little money has actually been disbursed.
These have been important additions to US policy in Africa, but they are just points in a picture – not a fully framed vision. Obama's challenge is to fill in the missing pieces so they fit together as a whole. And this at a time of tremendous pressure on US spending.
As a son of the continent, Obama's persona there is priceless. It gives him unique leverage. He can use it – at little cost to US taxpayers – during his trip to Ghana in West Africa, his last stop after travels this week to Russia and the Group of 8 summit of advanced economies in Italy.
In his Ghana speech, Obama will hold up that country as an example of good governance that fosters economic growth and stability (this is why he's not going to unstable Kenya, birthplace of his father). The governance message needs spreading, given Africa's rollback of democracy in recent years.
The president will also focus on helping Africa feed itself – a topic at the G-8 summit, where the administration is proposing an international fund for agricultural development in poor countries. Food aid brings needed short-term relief, but the lasting solution is to encourage agriculture by building up irrigation and roads and opening up international food trade.
In an interview with AllAfrica.com, Obama lamented that the "green revolution" that boosted India's food production in the 1960s has yet to be copied in Africa. "We need tried-and-true agricultural methods and technologies that are cheap and are efficient, but could have a huge impact in terms of people's day-to-day well-being," he said.
Donor countries such as Canada and Britain no longer insist that their own farmers supply Africa. But in the US, Congress has consistently refused to allow even a portion of US food-aid funds to buy crops directly from African farmers to feed Africans. Will Obama push for that?
And will he pressure Congress to further open the US market and end farm subsidies that hinder African food exports? These steps won't cost tax dollars, though they're politically pricey.
Democracy promotion and food security – two important pieces for the Africa puzzle. But there are many more, including challenging security and antiterrorism issues. Can Obama fit them all together?