For U.S. in Africa, Benign Neglect No Longer an Option

For U.S. in Africa, Benign Neglect No Longer an Option

Many Africans had big -- and unrealistic -- expectations about the amount of attention they would receive from the United States during President Barack Obama’s first term. The administration’s approach to Africa was relatively low key compared with the Bush presidency’s flurry of big-ticket initiatives on health, development and security, which included the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, and the establishment of the U.S. Africa Command (Africom). Obama was also less personally engaged on the continent than his predecessor, only setting foot in sub-Saharan African for a few hours, very early in his term, to address the Ghanaian Parliament on the importance of good governance.

Below the surface, however, the administration can point to some achievements for which it did not receive sufficient recognition. South Sudan became a new nation with the support of the United States, whose political, economic and technical assistance helped the fledgling country hold a peaceful and credible referendum on independence in January 2011. Diplomatic efforts by outgoing Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson helped resolve electoral disputes in Senegal and set Niger, Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire back on the road to democracy. Financial support to the African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia helped put the terrorist group al-Shabab on the back foot and laid the foundations for political progress. The tone of U.S. engagement with Africa improved, with stronger emphasis placed on building partnerships of equals and more effort made to listen to African concerns and priorities. The priority in Obama’s second term will be to consolidate and expand these efforts to ensure that hard-won gains are not reversed.

On the negative side of the ledger, half-heartedness in tackling the governance deficit in the Democratic Republic of Congo and an unwillingness get tough on the DRC’s meddling neighbors meant that the United States was unable to frame a coherent response to renewed violence in the heart of Africa. A military intervention in Libya succeeded in removing Moammar Gadhafi but had a destabilizing impact on security in the whole region and created bad blood with some key U.S. allies in Africa. There was a worrying lurch toward the use of extra-judicial missile strikes to resolve security threats in Somalia. And overall, the record of the United States in advancing the cause of democracy, one of its declared priorities on the continent, was decidedly patchy.

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