Obama Administration And Africa: Great Expectations, Practical Realities

Barack Obama is sworn in as 44th US president by Chief Justice John Roberts beside wife Michelle on January 20, 2009 at the Capitol in Washington, DC. (Photo: Tim Sloan / AFP / Getty Images)

The inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States has been hailed worldwide as a remarkable watershed in America’s history. Barack Obama's election and assumption of office has raised extraordinary expectations. No where are these expectations more stratospheric than in Africa, the continent of birth of the 44th President’s father. Africans of all political persuasions, ethnicity and religion expect President Obama to keep faith with his deep African roots and make a difference in the continent. I briefly discuss great expectations of the Obama presidency in Africa and the domestic practical realities in the United State. I end by indicating how best President Obama can have substantial impact in Africa during his first term in Office.

Great Expectations in Africa

The election and swearing in of the son of an African father is a source of pride and joy in Africa as shown by the widespread coverage of the election night and swearing in ceremony in the continent by domestic and international media. Barack Obama campaigned as a change agent and Africans expect his change mantra to extend to Africa. Africans expect a lot from President Obama because he has traveled in Africa for more than 20 years, including the years he traveled to spend time with his relatives in Kenya. Reportedly, the future president slept on the floor in the modest homes of relatives and also assisted his step-grandmother in her petty trading in the local market. Unlike other US presidents, Barack Obama knows Africa from the ground up. Africans also expect a lot from President Obama because of his knowledge of poverty and political instability he witnessed as a kid in Indonesia. His relatively modest upbringing in Hawaii also reinforces the perception that he understands the hard choices struggling families make everyday. As the first African-American president of the United States, Africans know that Barack Obama is making history and inspiring individuals and families around the world. As a US President with deep African roots, the perception is that Barack Obama will pull no punches with African leaders regarding development strategies. As a successful community organizer in poverty-stricken Chicago neighborhoods during the early stages of his career, Africans widely believe that he understands the need for grassroots, community-based, sustainable development strategies.

However, great expectations of President Obama in Africa will run into domestic practical realities in the United States.

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Practical Realities in the United States

A major practical reality is that President Obama was elected with the objective of turning around a moribund US economy that is probably in the worst shape since the depression of the 1930s. The Obama administration will spend most of the first term in office tackling domestic economic problems, focusing on job creation and implementing a massive program to overhaul US domestic infrastructure. Another practical reality is that President Obama has to deal with two wars: Iraq and Afghanistan. He will move to end the war in Iraq and then jumpstart decisive military operations in Afghanistan. As President Obama noted in his wide ranging 2008 TIME Magazine Person-of-the-Year interview, he expects to spend considerable time on Middle East issues with major attention on Iran and the Israel-Palestinian conflict. President Obama also indicated that a major priority will be to improve relations with Latin American countries. Initiating a country-wide program to wean Americans from their love affair with oil will be a major priority of the Obama administration. The potential of alternative energy sources to create new jobs and help slow down destructive changes in the climate will be an added bonus. The President will also manage incremental reforms in the health sector that will likely cost hundreds of billions of dollars in the short term to improve health coverage for children and millions of working Americans.

Despite aforementioned domestic priority areas for the first term President, Barack Obama, like his two immediate predecessors (George W. Bush and Bill Clinton), will pay attention to Africa. The continent is a growing source of oil, scarce natural minerals, trade and potential support in international institutions. During the election campaign, candidate Barack Obama indicated three fundamental engagement objectives in Africa: (1) Accelerate the integration of Africa into the global economy (2) Enhance peace and security in Africa and (3) Strengthen institutions and civil society organizations in Africa. Although these objectives are laudable, time will tell how the sputtering national economy will impact proposed objectives for Africa.

President Obama can best strengthen relationship with Africa by focusing on an over-arching goal, adopting key principles of action and implementing strategies that can be easily translated into viable programs on the ground in the continent. I briefly discuss these issues.

Overarching Goal and Principles of Strengthened US Relationship with Africa

The overarching goal of President Obama policy on Africa should be simple and far-reaching: The United States will engage Africa on policies and programs that have direct, measurable impact on the lives of more than 300 million Africans that live on less than one US dollar a year. As the only continent where the proportion of inhabitants living in poverty has grown in the last quarter century, Africa continues to sit on a demographic and developmental powder keg that can go awry at any moment. Very few governments in Africa have been successful in reducing poverty among their citizens. Virtually all problems in Africa today can be traced to large segments of African people living in abject poverty and seeing no escape route in the immediate or near future. With his first hand experience of poverty in Kenya, a country with one of the highest rich and poor divides in the world, President Obama can implement a hard-nosed US Africa policy goal of improving the quality of life of families and communities in the continent.

To achieve the overarching goal, President Obama should insist on clear and unambiguous principles.

The first principle is to insist on the full and active participation of African partners (government, the organized private sector and the civil society) in all phases of the relationship with the continent to ensure that felt rather than perceived needs of Africans are reflected in chosen initiatives and programs. One of the looming challenges of US-Africa relations during the Obama presidency is how to strike a balance between US strategic interests and the expressed, felt needs of poor target populations in Africa.

The second principle is to insist on population-based democracy and rule of law in long-term relationships with African countries and institutions. Without the majesty of the ballot box and the incredible opportunities of population-based democracy, Barack Obama will not be the president of the United States. African countries should have the opportunity to develop and nurture their own, improbable Barack Obamas through peaceful elections and transition of power.

The third principle is to strengthen and coordinate the activity of all US agencies with active portfolios in Africa. Within a year, US agencies actively engaged in Africa should be working together to implement specific policy directives from President Obama.

The fourth principle is to strengthen representation of Africa in international institutions. It is an open secret that the US plays critical roles regarding top leadership positions in multilateral institutions. Working with other G-8 nations and industrialized democracies, President Obama can ensure that Africa occupies powerful decision-making positions in international institutions and that credible Africans are chosen for these positions. As America focuses on domestic economic issues for the next few years, strong African representation in international institutions will ensure that the continent benefits maximally from the programs of these agencies.

In terms of strategies for US-Africa relations, President Barack Obama can strengthen relationship with Africa by focusing on issues that can have long-term impact in the continent. I briefly discuss these issues.

Strategies for US-Africa Relations

1. Support Infrastructure Projects in Africa

President Obama can make an extraordinary difference in Africa by supporting basic infrastructure projects in Africa to jumpstart entrepreneurial activities, to improve lives in rural areas, and to help move goods and services within and between countries. The World Bank had estimated Africa needs 18 billion US dollars for infrastructure development. President Obama can impact African development more decisively by assisting African governments to improve the so-called basic “hard” and “soft” infrastructure needs in the continent within the shortest possible time. Hard infrastructure projects will focus on telecommunications, power generation and supply, transportation, water and sanitation issues. Soft infrastructure projects will be on financial sector reforms that can spur entrepreneurial creativity and job creation. Rather than start grandiose projects that rarely move from paper to projects on the ground, President Obama can create an Africa Basic Infrastructure Initiative that will focus on rehabilitating existing but dilapidated infrastructure and financing few new viable projects; improving basic sanitation and water projects; completing agricultural irrigation projects; and revamping public schools and health centers, especially in rural Africa and urban slums. President George W. Bush will be known for the US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), an audacious program that was breathtaking in concept and implementation. President Obama has the potential to leave an even bigger legacy as the US President that helped tackle the debilitating infrastructure needs in Africa.

2. Make Healthcare a Bedrock of US Foreign Policy in Africa

Recent reports of the Institute of Medicine and the Global Health Council support an overhaul of US policy on global health issues. These reports recommend that the Obama administration adopt health as a lynchpin of US foreign policy, with the understanding that better health around the world is beneficial to all advanced democracies. This declaration will spur an across-the-board collaboration of US federal agencies on global health issues. The Institute of Medicine recommends a White House Interagency Committee on Global Health. What I recommend is for President Obama to operationalize health as a critical component of US foreign policy with appropriate funding, personnel deployment, program consolidations, and improved operational capacities and reach in Africa.

3. Utilize Targeted Aid and Trade as Major Weapons Against Poverty

To achieve the strategy of accelerating Africa’s integration into the global economy, President Obama should use targeted development assistance and enhanced trade as comprehensive weapons against intractable poverty in the continent. This strategy should achieve two important objectives: (A) Provide targeted aid to African entrepreneurs to expand their businesses and to support civil society and professional organizations to advocate for better government (B) Provide specific assistance to African farmers, small and medium scale entrepreneurs, and, to village-based cooperatives to trade their way out of poverty. A comprehensive review of US development assistance and trade policy is in order, including reviews of the Millennium Challenge Account and the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) to expand opportunities to impact poverty in the continent. The review should also include how best to link private entrepreneurs in Africa to partner with their counterparts in the US, enhancing trading opportunities in both directions. Despite expectations from Africa and poor countries around the world, it is unlikely that a first term US President will tackle vigorously the issue of trade subsidies for American farmers. I expect the issue of special interest subsidies to be tackled as part of comprehensive domestic economic reforms needed to improve the competitiveness of American entrepreneurs. However, President Obama should decisively intervene to jumpstart the stalled Doha Rounds of Negotiations so that agreement could be reached on expanded trading opportunities around the world.

4. Support Continental Institutions and Regional Economic Communities as Part of Comprehensive Efforts to Strengthen Peace and Security, Economic Development and Democracy in Africa

Africa today needs strong, effective institutions to tackle issues that individual countries may find difficult to overcome. This need is now more urgent as key influential countries such as South Africa, Nigeria, Egypt, Kenya and Senegal face delicate political transition program from the next few months to the next few years. As part of a deliberate strategy of improving peace and security, economic development and democracy in Africa, President Obama should help strengthen African institutions such as the African Union, the African Development Bank and regional economic communities. The African Union should be the lead organization in resolving conflicts in Somalia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Darfur, Northern Uganda, the restive Niger Delta in Nigeria and other trouble spots in the continent. To become more effective, the African Union needs financial, technical and logistics assistance. The African Union needs support to establish the Africa Central Bank, the African Monetary Fund and the Africa Investment Bank. The African Union is also actively at work on regional and continental economic integration issues. The African Union and regional economic communities need support in their current role as election monitors. The regional economic communities need financial, technical and logistics support to meet mandated priorities of improving cross border movement of people, goods and services; to establish regional currencies; and to enhance collaboration between professional groups. The African Development Bank, where the US has significant investments and representation, can become a major part in the earlier proposed Africa Basic Infrastructure Initiative. The key is for President Obama to be personally involved on comprehensive efforts to enhance peace and security, economic development and democracy in Africa.

5. Mobilize Africans in the Diaspora to Make a Difference

This strategy is one of the most intriguing opportunities for the new President to make a difference in Africa. Mobilizing Africans in the Diaspora (African Americans, African Immigrants and other ethnic groups with Black populations) on African issues has never been successful on a large scale. However, the opportunities are tantalizing. Thousands of African Diaspora professionals ply their trade in the US. Thousands more are completing undergraduate and graduate training programs. They could be inspired and mobilized to spend time in Africa and make a difference. The African Union has already thrown down the gauntlet by organizing an Africa Union Africa Diaspora Health Initiative to mobilize Africa Diaspora health professionals living in the US, Canada and the Caribbean to work on health projects in specific health geographical locations in Africa. The writer of this article is the non-paid Executive Chairman of this Initiative. President Obama should organize a White House Conference on Africa and Africans in the Diaspora as part of a re-energized US Africa Policy within his first year in office. This Conference should bring together public, private and civil society organizations actively engaged on African issues. The Conference should also involve African government representatives and institutions for a better understanding of issues and needs in the continent. Before the Conference, President Obama should order US agencies actively engaged in Africa to conduct internal reviews on how best to mobilize Africans in the Diaspora to participate in their programs. The outcome of the Conference will be a clear roadmap for action by the US Government, working with the private sector and civil society organizations. The ultimate goal is to mobilize Africans in the Diaspora with professional expertise to provide targeted assistance on specific projects in specific geographic locations in Africa for specific lengths of time. In a forthcoming article, I will discuss the potential parameters of a Presidential Initiative on Africa and Africans in the Diaspora.


The first Africa-American president of the United States has made history. The first US President with an African father has also made history. The US President elected with a mandate for change will focus relentlessly on meeting domestic challenges and managing international issues. President Barack Obama faces special challenges in Africa because of great expectations from Africa, especially from its downtrodden and the poor. The practical reality is that President Obama will have his hands full with turning around the economy and creating new jobs at home. However, the US President has considerable latitude and range to influence policies that can change lives across the world. Through specific goals, principles for action, and unambiguous strategies discussed in this article, President Obama can meet expectations from Africa while taking care of priorities at home.

Selected References for the Article

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2. Chinua Akukwe (2006). Beyond the Rhetoric. Essays on Africa’s Development Challenges. Adonis&Abbey Publishers, London, United Kingdom.

3.Gabriella Boston (2009). With Political Equality, Minorities Seek New Gains. Washington Times Newspaper. Monday, January 19, pages A2, A15; Steven Gray (2008). What Obama’s Election Really Means to Black America. TIME Magazine, Thursday, Nov. 06. Available at; Donna Brazile (2009). Why Obama Must Succeed. Washington Times Newspaper. Monday, January 19, page A18; Aamer Madhani (2009). Obama’s Rise Inspires African Iraqis in Politics. USA Today Newspaper, Monday, January 19, page 9A; Emma Okocha (2008). President Barrack Obama: The Triumph of Africa. Nigeria Vanguard Newspaper. Thursday, 06 November. Available at; Jean Ping (2008). What Can the Continent Expect from a New Adminstration? ALLAFRICA.COM, 26 September. Note from the African Union Commission Chairperson, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; Martins Oloja (2008). How Obama Presidency Can Benefit Africa, by Okonjo-Iweala. Nigeria Guardian Newspaper. Friday, November 14. Available at; Martins Oloja (2008). Obama’s Agenda in Africa, by Oby Ezekwesili. Thursday, November 13. Available at; Frances Cook (2008). What’s Working? What’s Not? – US Policy. ALLAFRICA.COM, 14 October. Remarks by the former US Ambassador.

4. Witney W. Schneidman (2008). Obama’s Three Objectives for the Continent. ALLAFRICA.COM, 29 September 2008; Times Magazine (2008). The Interview. Person of the Year Barack Obama. TIME Magazine Person of the Year Edition, December 20, 2008/January 2009, pages 66,67,68, 70; Stephanie Hanson (2008). Imagining Obama’s Africa Policy. Council on Foreign Relations Daily Analysis. December 22. Available at

5. Ernest Harsch (2008). Fighting African Poverty, Village by Village. August 29. Available at WORLDPRESS.ORG; World Bank (2000). Can Africa Claim the 21st Century. Washington, DC: Author; Fareed Zakari (2008). Global Agenda. How to Fix the World. Newsweek Magazine, Dec. 8; Robert J. Samuelson (2008). The Future of Affluence. The Recession Will End. But Our Real Problems are Just Beginning. Newsweek Magazine, Nov 10.

5. Global Health Council (2008). Open Letter on Global HIV/AIDS Issues to President-Elect Obama. November 24, 2008. Available at; Institute of Medicine (2008). The US Commitment to Global Health: Recommendations for the New Administration. Committee on the US Commitment to Global Health, National Research Council. Washington, DC: Author.