Barack Obama might become the next United States president. Because of his African roots, this possibility has been met with euphoria and enthusiasm in the continent.
In some instances, African expectations are the expression of racial pride. In others, they are simply irrational, unrealistic and misguided.
Centuries of slave trade and systematic degradation of people of African descent notwithstanding, there might be an American legacy of compassion towards the continent.
Africa’s importance to US national interests might even be growing. The continent now supplies the US with 15 percent of its oil imports.
Since the end of the Cold War, the US has diversified its initiatives in Africa. Several valuable assistance programmes with strong bipartisan support in the US congress now range from major trade agreements to the fight against HIV/Aids, malaria, tuberculosis and terrorism.
Still, the US has neither a strategic approach, nor a comprehensive policy towards the continent. Knowledge and documentation produced by the best US universities about Africa is unparalleled.
Yet, the official American imagination still represents the continent as a hopeless place with no internal dynamism, littered with failed or “rogue” states and racked by poverty, atrocities, disease and pestilence - a distant threat to global health and security.
Washington either views Africa through the prism of the continent’s natural resources and the competition to reap the benefits of their exploitation or, more often than not, as an object of humanitarian and, since September 11 2001, military concerns.
Africa is undergoing a complex, if at times painful, process of transformation and multiple transitions at the same time. New social actors are emerging. A hybrid urban culture is in the making. Different forms of social and political mobilisations too.
As the playing field changes and Western interests are challenged notably by a strongly competitive and pragmatic China, the urgency of a new US Africa policy cannot be overemphasised. Military or humanitarian concerns alone will serve neither the US’s, nor Africa’s long-term interests.
The belief that what is best for the US is necessarily best for Africa should be discarded and replaced by a deeper understanding of their shared interests in the continent and beyond.
For instance, it is not evident that a largely ideological pursuit of democracy and a blind embrace of free market evangelism is the best way to respond to the increasing appeal of a Chinese development model based on significant economic growth overseen by a disciplined, if authoritarian, state.
In theory, strengthening democratic institutions is a major objective of US policy in Africa. In reality, there are very limited funds for Africa within US worldwide democracy programmes and no articulated strategy to address the major challenges constitutional rule faces in the continent.
The external stock of capital held by Africans overseas is estimated at $700 billion to $800 billion (about R5 trillion to R6 trillion) - more than the total foreign aid assistance to the continent since independence. Most of this stock comes from illegal dealings.
Democracy and accountability could be more effectively enhanced if, instead of pious sermons on good governance, the US led a systematic and co-ordinated multinational effort to recover looted and illegally obtained African assets.
Between 2000 and 2004, US multilateral aid to Africa has doubled from $2,05 billion to $4,3 billion. Bilateral aid has tripled from $1,139 billion to $3,195 billion. But nearly half of this money is for emergency assistance.
Geared towards short-term priorities, US aid assistance is so fragmented as to be almost entirely ineffective. For the past 10 years, long-term investment for growth has remained static.
Meanwhile, China’s trade with Africa has diversified beyond state-directed enterprises. As Beijing offers African countries relatively beneficial trade deals combined with aid, US trade policies still constitute a major obstacle to Africa’s integration into the world economy.
China has placed a high priority on maintaining strong ties with its African energy suppliers. It has heavily invested in infrastructure, treating infectious diseases and expanding training and exchange programmes. Regular high-level visits and a strict policy of “non-interference in internal affairs” are the rule. African dictators find this comforting.
The most intelligent response to this challenge is neither to try to reform Africa with economic sanctions, nor to privilege a diplomacy that heckles more than it listens. A deeper understanding of US interests in Africa would require supporting Africa’s overall desire to lead herself and enhancing African institutions that promote democracy, accountability and human rights.
A new US Africa policy should aim to trigger fundamental internal changes in the modes of rule in the continent. By enabling the continent to build its export capacity and soundly use its immense human and natural resources, it should hasten Africa’s integration into the global economy.
If elected, Obama has pledged to double US foreign assistance to $50 billion by 2012 and use it to support “failing states” and sustainable growth in Africa, roll back disease and halve global poverty.
But, development assistance is not the answer to the continent’s predicament. Since 1960, the region has absorbed the adjusted inflation equivalent of more than six Marshall Plans. Yet, economic and social conditions continue to stagnate or worsen.
Africa would benefit from an Obama presidency if more resources were invested in long-term projects in rural and inland infrastructure, agriculture and health, basic and higher education, trade facilitation and enhancement, the elimination of obstacles to private investment, the development of credit facilities, support to African civil society organisations, leadership, institutions and expertise and the sound management of Africa’s natural resources and open its markets to Africa’s exports).
The US will not alone provide the full array of investments that are needed to overcome the continent’s economic problems.
But Obama could significantly strengthen and revitalise important public constituencies for Africa in the US and broaden the basis for US engagement in the continent.
*Achille Mbembe is a research professor in history and politics at the University of the Witwatersrand. This article first appeared in the July 20th 2008, Sunday Independent.