by Garth Cilliers

A look at US Policy on Africa

Impact of the US presidential election

President Barack Obama
Obama main.jpg

The United States' presidential election is in full swing. Both the Republicans and Democrats have concluded their national conventions at a cost of a cool US$100 million each. Romney and Obama have been nominated as the candidates and the “biggest circus on earth”, as the US presidential election is often described, is on the road.

In comparison to four years ago, when Barack Obama made history as the first African-American elected president of the US, this year’s election will be less exciting. Obama is now a household name and has lost the curiosity value he had four years ago. Romney, frankly, lacks the charisma.
Also missing this time will be the hype, anticipation and downright unrealistic belief in many circles at the  time of Obama's election that Africa was going to jump to the top of American foreign policy should a man with an African heritage move into the Oval Office.
Africa was gripped in 'Obama fever'. The few who were brave enough to caution that expectations should be tempered to avoid later disappointment were either flatly ignored or spurned as being malicious and unfair. Now, however, it is clear  that the agenda and priorities of every American president are first and foremost determined by domestic issues and that Africa always has been and always will be low on the US foreign policy scale.
An appraisal of the Obama administration’s impact on Africa during his first term is less than inspiring. Even the 'new' African foreign policy that was released in June is described by many analysts as disappointing based on four components:
*Strengthen democratic institutions;
*Spur economic growth, trade and investment;
*Advance peace and security; and
*Promote opportunity and development.
Significant is the distinct militarisation of American foreign policy vis-à-vis Africa under President Obama – something few would have predicted.

This militarisation began under President George W. Bush when he declared a “global war on terror” and approved the formation of Africom – a dedicated US military command for Africa.

Under President Obama, Africom became the trademark and chief executioner of US policy on the continent with the State Department playing a secondary and supportive role.
During the last four years the footprint of the American military has grown bigger and more visible across Africa in a variety of forms that include:
*Participating in a war to topple the regime of Gadafi in Libya;
*Deploying special forces to Central Africa to help hunt down the Lord's Resistance Army;
*Improving and upgrading facilities at the only permanent US military base on African soil at Fort Lemonier in Djibouti;
*Establishing and developing through joint military and training exercises relations with the military of almost every African state;
*Expanding covert intelligence gathering capacity by contracting private security companies; and
*The establishment of bases in a few carefully selected countries to deploy the highly controversial Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV”s) or drones to be used against terrorist targets especially al-Shabab in Somalia.
According to a United Nations report, US military drone flights over Somalia are now frequent enough to endanger local air traffic.
The Obama administration no longer sees the greatest terrorist threats coming from 

(LINK: or Pakistan. Instead, US counter-terrorism officials are 

focusing on a broad swathe of east and north-west Africa 

(LINK: covering an area that includes Kenya, Somalia (LINK:, Chad, Niger and Mali 
(LINK: to Mauritania and south into Nigeria prompting the commander of Africom, General Foster Ham, to declare 
(LINK:, “Countering the threats posed by al-Qaeda affiliates in east and north-west Africa remains my number one priority."

That this view is greeted with much cynicism, even within the Obama administration, is not surprising.
How great a threat to the US are al-Shabab in Somalia, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Boko-Haram in Nigeria when there are strong convincing arguments that most terrorist groups in Africa,  mostly Islamic fundamentalists, are pursuing local aims and do not present any direct threat to the US?
Al-Qaeda, the prime US enemy, has not managed to set off a single bomb in the US in the last 10 years.
More thoughtful
Only a more sober and balanced approach, as expressed by a senior US official, will help restore Africa’s trust and belief in the US.
As he explains; “It's not clear that our expanded military presence in Africa serves any pressing US national security need. But interventions have a way of generating their own justifications. Before long, ‘blowback’ from African adventurism may generate new crises for this or a future administration to solve.”
The US might soon find itself sucked into African driftsands similar to those that caused the traumatic experiences of Vietnam and Afghanistan in a military confrontation it cannot win.
A second-term Obama administration or a first-term Romney administration can only benefit by re-evaluating the current US approach towards Africa. Whether they will do so is a different matter.
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