For Africa, an Obama presidency has been a disappointment. Rather than pay attention to the sub-Saharan because of his Kenyan heritage, Barack Obama has gone the other way: giving less attention to Africa than any other region of the world. Partly Obama’s inattention to African affairs reflects the crises of his presidency. Urgent problems are elsewhere. But the situation may be about to change and because of an unlikely reason: the defeat of Obama’s Democratic Party allies in Congress.
Next Tuesday’s polls could deliver a big setback to Obama: loss of control by the Democrats of at least one house of Congress. With the Republicans back in command, Obama will face new pressure on his administration to intervene directly in African affairs, and in ways the president has so far avoided.
A glimpse of the future direction of U.S. policy towards Africa can be seen by looking backwards – to the policies of former President George Bush. For complex reasons, the Bush administration engineered an increase in financial assistance to Africa, chiefly in the form of an enormous outlay – an estimated $80 billion over 10 years – to cover the cost of treating Africans with HIV/AIDS. In addition, President Bush engineered a peace deal in Sudan that effectively brought an end to one of the region’s oldest civil wars.
Much of the impetus for Bush’s activism in Africa came from the Christian right, which saw the Sudanese conflict through the prism of religious freedom; the conflict to Republicans was between a militant Islam and a persecuted Christian minority. Evangelicals flocked to the defense of south Sudan and, even now, are among the loudest advocates for legal partition of the country – and a more muscular U.S. role in overseeing a planned election next year that could lead to the creation of Africa’s newest nation.
Obama’s studied restraint towards African issues has permitted him to ignore the liberal wing of his own Democratic party, which would like his administration to push Sudan on the thorny question of the Darfur region as well as the country’s Christian south. With Republicans in control of the House, for instance, pressure for dramatic action will grow.
Nigeria is another large, troubled country that Obama has essentially ignored but his critics say he has done so to the detriment of long-term U.S. interests. Nigeria is the fifth largest source of foreign oil for the U.S., and the country of origin for the largest group of African immigrants in America. As most populous country in Africa, Nigeria has an economic weight that warrants American attention. But the country also contains the largest number of Muslims in any African country. And one of those Muslims last December was caught trying to blow up a plane, raising the profile of militant Islamic groups in Nigeria – and their potential connections with anti-American factions throughout the Muslim world.
President Obama has done little thinking about how to support the progessive in Nigeria. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton has repeatedly warned that Nigeria’s government is dangerously derelict, but she’s offered no concrete proposals on aiding the country, whose presidential election is only months away.
Thus, the possibility exists that Obama will face two African crises – in Sudan and Nigeria – and a Congress who wants his administration to take an active role in engaging the continent. Africans, frustrated privately with the president’s lack of attention to their region, likely will welcome a new approach, even if the approach comes in the wake of Obama’s political retreat.