President Barack Obama and Africa’s Uncompleted Journey, Part II

By: Richard Joseph

With a second term secured, and decades of authority and influence ahead in his post-presidency, President Obama can become a transformative leader in Africa.[i] On March 7, 2013, Senator Chris Coons, Chairman of the Foreign Relations Subcommittee on African Affairs, issued a report that echoed the increasing call for the United States to enhance its economic engagement with Africa. Now is also the time, he said, “to ensure that America’s economic engagement policy toward Sub-Saharan Africa is coordinated, comprehensive and effective.” [ii] The six recommendations in his report coincide with the points made in this essay. The moment is opportune for the Obama Administration to put forward an American Agenda for Africa that is bold, innovative, and inspiring. The Agenda responds to the question posed in the first part of this essay: “How should President Obama most usefully invest his authority and talents and marshal Americans to engage with the positive trends and opportunities?”

Trade and Investments

In view of the extensive work being conducted on this topic, I will focus on a few dimensions. There is a plethora of American agencies responsible for the nation’s international economic engagement. The creation of a more coherent investment-promotion structure is vital.[iii] This is a central plank in legislation sponsored by Senators Dick Durbin and John Boozman to promote American jobs through African exports.[iv] After fifteen years of sustained economic growth in Africa, attention must also shift to the quality of this growth, the productive capacity of economies, the diversification of export products, the capturing of low-wage industrial employment shed by China, and, most crucially, the generating of more and better jobs.[v] As relations with contemporary Mexico demonstrate, American companies can contribute to such advances in a win-win manner. In view of its domestic travails, the case for enhanced U.S. economic engagement must include the expansion of markets for goods and services at home as well as abroad.

Doing business in Africa outside the extractive sector is still a forbidding prospect for many American companies. Moreover, African countries cannot rely on the prolonged commodities boom to sustain their earnings. Oil exports to the U.S. in 2012 declined significantly as American domestic production mounted.[vi] In confronting the new challenges and opportunities, members of the African diaspora have a significant role to play. They can help build efficient and transparent trade and investment regimes in their home nations as well as in other African countries. Africa’s continental and regional organizations must also accelerate the construction of cross-border arenas for the free movement of capital and labor. Resurgent nations in the continent, as they diversify production and exports, will compete with Indonesia, Malaysia, Mexico, Vietnam and other rising nations. They cannot do so without the requisite skills and institutional capacities.

Strengthening Democracy

Most African countries today conduct elections. Some commentators continue to equate the holding of elections with being democratic. Voting exercises can be intrinsic, however, to systems meant to forestall democratization, that is, making governments accountable to, and replaceable by, a country’s citizens.[vii] One of the most important, but under-recognized, achievements of the first Obama Administration has been the support it has given to advancing African democracy. The U.S. Africa Strategy document of June 2012 promises to hold the bar high regarding the fairness of electoral procedures. Where security considerations have not blunted this commitment, for example in Ivory Coast, Niger, Nigeria, Malawi, Senegal, and Zimbabwe, the U.S. has provided sustained support for democracy and insisted on respect for term limits and other constitutional provisions. Where security concerns have been paramount, however, as in Ethiopia, Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the U.S. has often spoken one way and acted another. The gap between rhetoric and practice can and must be narrowed.

There is no reason why African democracy, as part of the international liberal order discussed in Part I of this essay, should not be a continuing policy priority of the United States. The United States enjoys many capacities, in association with myriad domestic and international organizations, to further the empowerment of Africa’s people through democratic institutions and procedures. There is now a variety of instruments to assess the representative quality of African governments.[viii] Governments whose authority is legitimately acquired and maintained are the best long-term guarantors of peace and security.

Developmental Governance

With the resumption of economic growth in Africa, attention should be paid to practices that constrained it for decades. A central question is whether governments optimize, or undermine, the production of desired public and private goods.[ix] The decline of the public services, and the emigration of trained and capable persons, have contributed to the inefficiency, and lessened probity, of administrative systems.[x] Several regimes that demonstrate developmental governance today, such as in Ethiopia and Rwanda, evolved from armed movements. They are often attractive to foreign investors and development agencies because they limit the rent-seeking practices prevalent elsewhere.[xi] Autocratic leaders, and cadres of ruling parties, can impose – when they so desire – efficient and relatively non-corrupt behaviors. Other countries with ample resources and small populations, such as Gabon, are blending developmentalism with established patrimonial structures. Perhaps the most striking case of democratic developmental governance in contemporary Africa is Nigeria’s Lagos State under two successive elected governments.[xii]

How should developmental governance feature in the proposed American Agenda for Africa? It was difficult for many persons to comprehend what governance meant when raised as a major constraint on African growth and development a quarter century ago.[xiii] A further transition in understanding is required today. Schools, clinics, ports, water systems, power stations, grain storage units – these and other public and private services do not run themselves. They are managed by individuals who function within institutional systems that adapt to changing circumstances. If such systems are absent, or deficient, even well-trained persons will be ineffectual.[xiv] When countries succumb to non-developmental and non-optimizing modes of operation, it is difficult to sustain economic growth. A developmental mindset must be nurtured and its procedures enforced.[xv] How this can be accomplished in different contexts is a matter for critical consideration. For the current growth trend in Africa to become transformative, a revolution in developmental governance is imperative.

State Capacity and National Coherence

The lecture, “An Honest Government, A Hopeful Future”, delivered by Mr. Obama as U.S. senator at the University of Nairobi in August 2006, demonstrated his profound understanding of Africa’s state-nation dilemmas and how they are aggravated:

Like many nations across this continent, where Kenya is failing is in its ability to create a government that is transparent and accountable, one that serves its people and is free from corruption…Corruption erodes the state from the inside out…In the end, if the people cannot trust their government to do the job for which it exists, to protect them and to promote their common welfare, all else is lost.

The construction of an impartial state, and citizenship that transcends ethnicity, have lagged in Kenya despite its economic performance.[xvi] Some of the hurdles faced by such countries were inherent in their colonial creation. The current map of Africa has virtually the same configuration of territories as the one designed by European powers over a century ago. Viability as future nations was not an imperial concern. Within these “nation-spaces”, the forging of viable states, that is, entities with the capacity to project power across their lands, and steadily improve the livelihood of the persons inhabiting them, has been uneven. Building capable states, and fostering national coherence and identity among diverse peoples, are challenges that cannot be evaded.[xvii]

Conscious efforts must be made to promote more viable configurations of the geographical areas in which African economies operate. Such a process has been taking place incrementally in Europe over decades. The re-territorializing of Africa, to use Achille Mbembe’s expression, is taking place in benign and malign ways. Benign in the legitimate cross-border trading and investing occurring in many sub-regions; malign in the activities of criminal and terror networks, and the meshing of the two, as happened in Mali. Moreover, in Mali misgovernance and the consequent erosion of state capacity compounded the challenges of an unfavorable territorial configuration. The United States can support the benign processes in many ways, for example, by encouraging trans-border initiatives of the African Union and various regional institutions. New models of state and nation-building are emerging, as in Ghana, coupled with the expansion of their economies. The study and dissemination of successful innovations in state and nation configuration should be supported.[xviii]

Peace and Security

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the eclipse of the socialist option in Africa led to a shift in the foreign policies of western nations. Democracy, human rights, and good governance could be more actively supported. However, the first Iraq war of 1991 initiated two decades of a militarized response by the United States and its allies to new global threats. Critics of the Obama Administration would like Africa to feature more prominently in its global commitments for economic reasons. Yet Africa has acquired greater strategic importance – apart from its mineral resources – for peace and security reasons. The creation of collaborative structures to strengthen security in Africa will therefore command high attention from the United States for many years.

African populations, as people everywhere, want to be protected from physical threats in ways that often exceed the capacities of their governments and regional organizations. The use of British soldiers to end the depredations of militias in Sierra Leone in 2000; of French forces in Ivory Coast to oust the Laurent Gbagbo regime in April 2011 and combat jihadist insurgents in Mali in early 2013; of American squads to track the Lord Resistance Army in Central Africa in 2011; and the announcement of a base for predator aircraft in Niger in February 2013 – all demonstrate how western military agencies are delivering superior military capacities to African theatres in partnership with African governments and regional organizations.

What should the American public require as U.S. military and intelligence agencies increase their African security commitments? Information, transparency, the vigilance of legislative, judicial and civil society institutions, and the scaling up of research by independent research centers on the complex interplay of insecurity, insurgency, and counter-insurgency.[xix] Some countries, for example Colombia and Mexico, are obliged to pursue major political, economic and security reforms simultaneously. Assisting such processes, through diplomatic and not just military means, should be a major component of enhanced American engagement in sub-Saharan Africa.

Energy, Water and Transportation

While Africa has experienced multiple transitions over the past quarter-century, three frontiers have hardly been breached: electrification, clean water supply, and modern transportation. Despite the criticisms, it should be acknowledged how vital a role China is playing in tackling these severe deficits. How should the United States step up its engagement in infrastructure-building in Africa, bearing in mind that it is slipping behind other advanced nations in this regard at home.[xx] Where the United States has a comparative advantage that corresponds to Africa’s needs concerns the critically needed electrification of the continent. Moss and Mejerowicz, echoing other analysts, contend that a major constraint to economic growth in Africa has been the absence of affordable and reliable electricity.

The Obama Administration should put electrification at the forefront of its Africa strategy. The enormous quantities of natural gas that Nigeria flares off, for example, could be used to produce cheaper and cleaner electric power for itself and neighboring countries. Important advances are being made by the Energy Frontier Research Centers established by the U.S. Department of Energy since 2009.[xxi] One of the “grand challenges” to which they respond can be that of assisting Africa close the gap between its abundant energy resources and miniscule power output. Major projects for the electrification of Africa would be a plus-plus for American companies and research institutes and their African counterparts.

Women, Youth, and the Diaspora

Much has been written about these three constituencies and their significance for sustainable growth and development. Empowering African women is now the focus of many programs in health, education, entrepreneurship and the mitigation of conflicts. The youthful population of most African countries can become a motor for development if job training and public work projects are provided. Moreover, African countries that move swiftly to attract the educational and entrepreneurial skills of their diaspora, and the experiences they acquire in western institutions, will tap a resource as important as the remittances that now flow to the continent. What should the Obama Administration do with regard to women, youth, and diaspora? The answer is straightforward: expand and deepen what it and many philanthropic entities are doing and ensure that they dovetail with other policy priorities.

President Obama and the American Agenda for Africa

It was stated at the outset that the American Agenda for Africa must be bold, innovative, and inspiring. Moreover, its core features should be investments, infrastructure, developmental governance, and diaspora engagement (I2D2). The issuance of Senator Coons report, “Embracing Africa’s Economic Potential”, reinforces the arguments advanced here. It points out that just 1% of American foreign direct investments are in Africa, and half that amount is in the extractive sector. While rising to the challenge posed by the rapid expansion of Chinese firms in Africa, the United States cannot mimic China. Its Africa agenda must be “values-based” as “Embracing Africa” affirms.

The Coons report also captures the essentials of what I call “developmental governance”. Programs should be encouraged “that emphasize economic statecraft and underscore the direct correlation between good governance, transparency, economic growth, and political stability.” It also correctly acknowledges that “corruption stifles fair competition and competitive building, and prevents full investment in African nations by private companies in the United States.” The report therefore calls for partnerships with African countries to “strengthen governing institutions, enhance transparency, and reduce corruption.”[xxii]

In a December 2012 commentary, I stated that the Obama Administration had dozens of program initiatives in Africa, “but who knows it?”[xxiii] That will change for those who read “Embracing Africa” which provides a helpful summary. The report also discusses one program of the first Obama Administration that can be called “bold, innovative and inspiring”, namely, the “Feed the Future” initiative of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). This program engages major agricultural companies in helping small farmers achieve higher productivity and improve food security and nutrition. It reflects a win-win approach for Americans and Africans. I would argue that “Feed the Future”, as other U.S. supported programs, should not only promote increased investments. To be fully effective, they must include the other dimensions of I2D2: infrastructure, developmental governance, and diaspora engagement.

Another highlight of “Embracing Africa” is the emphasis it places on infrastructure and opportunities for American firms in the continent. High among these is helping Africa overcome, as suggested above, the huge deficit in the production of electric power. In discussing agricultural development in Africa, “Embracing Africa” mentions the opportunity to create partnerships involving “American businesses, research universities and government agencies.” This three-pronged approach, I would add, should apply to many aspects of U.S. economic engagement in Africa and therefore deserves more emphasis.

Confronting the Congo: Tragedy and Promise

If Aaron David Miller is correct and President Obama is concerned with “fixing America’s broken house, not chasing around the world to fix everyone else’s”, there is not much hope he will take on the tragedy and promise of the Congo. The outgoing Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, Ambassador Johnnie Carson, recently stated that the Congo crisis was a “moral imperative for the world community.”[xxiv] It has been such an imperative for several years, especially as the International Rescue Committee began reporting the appalling mortality rates as a consequence of incessant warfare. However, moral imperatives, to paraphrase President Obama’s second inaugural address, are not self-executing.

In the case of Congo, Mr. Obama has long acknowledged the necessity for action. As U.S. senator, he introduced the “Democratic Republic of the Congo Relief, Security, and Democracy Act” in 2006 which was passed and signed into law. The bill set levels for U.S. bilateral assistance and include a long list of ambitious “good governance” goals. It stipulated that if progress did not occur, “the President shall consider withdrawing” U.S. support. As a 2008 report of the Council on Foreign Relations points out, it was not realistic that these goals would be met or that the U.S. would discontinue its financial assistance. The report recommended instead two objectives for U.S. policy: ending violence, especially in eastern Congo, and encouraging environmentally-sustainable development.[xxv] It also called for a variety of initiatives: a more robust UN peace mission, training and strengthening of the army and police, greater help for education, health, agriculture, and the private business sector.

The Congo and its tragedy are artifacts of western imperialism at its most predatory. The Congo could be President Obama’s Lincolnesque mission: rescuing a major nation and righting historic wrongs. Moreover, with peace and political stability, the DRC – a country of 73 million with abundant mineral wealth, extensive agricultural land, and great hydropower – can be very productive. Multi-year and multilateral efforts were required to bring an end to Africa’s big wars. Peace, security and developmental governance in Congo will only be achieved via such a sustained and comprehensive effort.[xxvi] If Mr. Obama were to take on this challenge, it would require a commitment that extends into his post-presidency.

To conclude: It was stated in Part I that Mr. Obama is linked to Africa by descent and by his life calendar which coincides with the post-colonial era. Two comprehensive and collaborative initiatives have been suggested that would be win-win propositions for America and Africa. The first is an integrated strategy – involving government agencies, corporations, universities and other entities in the U.S. and Africa – that brings together investments, infrastructure, developmental governance and diaspora engagement. The second is a long-term project to help transform the Congo into a peaceful and productive arena. Mr. Obama can be a transformative leader in sub-Saharan Africa. His engagement in the ways suggested would be of profound historical significance.

[i] Aaron David Miller, retired U.S. diplomat, contends that Barack Obama “isn’t going to be a transformative figure in foreign policy as much as a transitional one. The world is too complex for grand bargains”. See “Marco Rubio is not ready for Prime Time”, Foreign Policy, February 19, 2013: See also by Miller:

[ii] See Steve McDonald of the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars and Stephen Lande, Manchester Trade, Ltd, are also spearheading the design of a major initiative on trade and investments to transcend the successive iterations of AGOA. Steve McDonald,, January 2013.

[iii] Todd Moss and Stephanie Majerowicz, “The Second Obama Administration Should Close Africa’s Energy Gap”, Foresight Africa: Top Priorities for the Continent in 2013, The Brookings Institution, January 2013. See also Steve McDonald, op. cit. For further information on this long-standing problem, see Carol Lancaster, “How Smart Are Aid Donors? The Case of the United States,” in Richard Joseph and Alexandra Gillies, eds., Smart Aid for African Development (2009). Moss and Mejerowicz advocate the creation of a U.S. Development Bank to bring coherence and greater efficiency to policy action in this area.

[iv] For a review, see

[v] John Page has written incisively on this topic. See “Can Africa Industrialize?”, and “For Africa’s Youth, Jobs are Job One”

[vi] 74% of African exports to the U.S. under the AGOA preferential scheme were composed of petroleum or its by-products. Most non-oil exports came from South Africa. See Simon Barber, “Letter From America: US trade policy can’t fix waning demand”. For a strong statement contending that much of the current growth in Africa is tied to high commodity prices, and therefore the risk of a downturn in both, see Jonathan Anderson, “The Inexorable End of the Africa Story”, February 25, 2013, .

[vii] For an essay that reflects the assessment of other studies of democratic progress and retreat, see Joshua Kurlantzick, “Democracy’s Decline and the Case of Kenya”, the Council on Foreign Relations, February 28, 2013. An excellent analysis of these trends in Africa is Caryn Peiffer and Piere Engelbert, “Extraversion, Vulnerability to Donors, and Political Liberalization in Africa,” African Affairs, vol. 111, no. 444 (2012).

[viii] A bulletin which monitored incipient transitions to constitutional democracy in Africa, Africa Demos, by the African Governance Program of The Carter Center (1990-1995), has been placed online by the Northwestern University Library.

[ix] See Bo Rothstein, The Quality of Government: Corruption, Social Trust, and Inequality in International Perspective (2011).

[x] For a frank exposition, see the memoir of Nasir El-Rufai, former Head of Nigeria’s Bureau for Public Enterprises and Minister of the Federal Capital Territory, The Accidental Public Servant (2013).

[xi] David Booth and Frederick Golooba-Mutebi, “Developmental patrimonialism: The case of Rwanda”, African Affairs, vol. 111, no. 444 (2012), and Alex de Waal, “The Theory and Practice of Meles Zenawi,” African Affairs, vol. 112, no. 446 (2012).

[xii] These topics are explored in my chapter, “Industrial Policies in Contemporary Africa: From Prebendal to Developmental Governance”, in Joseph Stiglitz, Justin Lin Yifu and Ebrahim Patel (eds.), The Industrial Policy Revolution II: Africa in the Twenty-First Century, (Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming).

[xiii] This was a common reaction when the African Governance Program was created at the Carter Center in 1988 and the World Bank published its path-breaking report, Sub-Saharan Africa: From Crisis to Sustainable Growth (1989).

[xiv] Henry S. Bienen, who wrote important studies of Africa’s political economy including Party Transformation and Economic Development in Tanzania (1967), pointed out in a recent conversation how important public, including rural, administration was as a subject of research and teaching in Africa during the early post-colonial years.

[xv] This is a core argument of Bo Rothstein, op. cit., and other publications of The Quality of Government Institute, The University of Gothenberg, Sweden.

[xvi] I am deliberately using the terminology of Bo Rothstein and his colleagues.

[xvii] Important studies of these dilemmas are included in Richard Joseph, ed., State, Conflict and Democracy in Africa (1999). See also Jeffrey Herbst, States and Power in Africa (2000); Pierre Engelbert, Africa: Unity, Sovereignty & Sorrow (2009); Stephen Ellis, Season of Rains: Africa in the World (2011); and Crawford Young, The Postcolonial State in Africa: Fifty Years of Independence, 1960-2010 (2012).

[xviii] How hard this is to accomplish in some countries is shown by the power of ethnicity in Kenyan politics, and of ethnicity, religion, and region in Nigeria. Despite the setbacks, the younger generation and the diaspora must be assisted to develop new perspectives on state and nation. A notable example can be seen in the edited collection by Wale Adebanwi and Ebenezer Obadare, Democracy and Prebendalism in Nigeria: Critical Interpretations (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).

[xix] A year ago, I wrote about the urgent need for such efforts. The gap is widening between military actions to advance peace and security in Africa and the production of academic and policy analyses of local contexts:

[xx] For a summary of road, rail and water transport endeavors, see “Transport in Africa: Get a move on,”, February 16, 2013.

[xxi] They include the Institute for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern (ISEN) and the Argonne National Laboratory, Illinois.

[xxii] The impact of major institutional advances in Kenya since the post-election violence of 2008 was evident in the more peaceful outcome of the March 2013 contest despite allegations of electoral fraud.


[xxiv] In a meeting at The Brookings Institution, February 11, 2013:

[xxv] Anthony W. Gambino, “Congo: Securing Peace, Sustaining Progress,” Council on Foreign Relations, Special Report No. 40, October 2008.

[xxvi] A Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework was signed by a number of countries and international entities in Addis Ababa on February 24, 2013. While welcomed, its prospects for successful implementation are uncertain.

Copyright © 2013 AfricaPlus

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