After the fervor of President Obama’s historic election back in 2008, many on the African continent who connected with the president’s Kenyan heritage waited and watched to see if his background would translate into true changes in U.S. policy toward Africa.
The reception has been mixed.
While some have lauded the president’s action in helping to fight the spread of militant groups across the continent, others have been at odds with Obama’s stance on gay rights and virtual absence from the continent during the last four years, save for a 24-hour visit to Ghana in 2009.
In order to repair his image on the African continent, Obama will have to show and improve in a wide range of diplomatic efforts. Fortunately (or unfortunately) there are plenty issues for the president to tackle.
First up will be Mali. On Sunday the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) agreed to take military action in the northern region of the country where al-Qaeda-linked militants have taken control and threaten to further destabilize the country and the region. The group will need U.N. approval before boots hit the ground in Mali, and Obama has already mentioned that he will support the effort. However, what’s missing from the conversation on Mali is the fact that the U.S. invasion of Libya and its arming of militant groups there is what allowed Mali’s chaos to happen.
And speaking of Libya, things are still on simmer following the deadly attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi that left two U.S. diplomats dead. Just days before the U.S. presidential election, two of the country’s largest cities were marred by violence from armed militia groups that the transitional government has yet to get under control since the fall of Gadhafi.
Further south, the administration is likely to keep a watchful eye on Sudan. The country’s on again, off again conflict with its neighbor South Sudan has claimed thousands of lives and its alleged ties to Islamic militant groups will be closely monitored after its pledge to strike back against an alleged airstrike by close U.S. ally Israel.
The Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda will also seek help from Obama. In the central African nations a slow-drip of conflict continues to keep the countries destabilized and prevents stable institutions from flourishing. This past year, the U.S. sent 100 troops to help train Ugandan troops to aid in the fight against warlord Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army, whose influence and murderous reach spans the geographic boundaries of Uganda and DRC. Last month, President Obama renewed sanctions against people involved in the DRC’s longstanding conflict, signaling further action to come in his second term.
To be of assistance in any of these areas, foreign policy analysts suggest that the president should get more involved by shoring up special envoy diplomacy across Africa, supporting increased trade and development partnerships and leveraging multilateral relationships to help combat criminal and terrorist networks at work in Africa.
On his first and only presidential visit to Africa in July 2009, Obama addressed members of Ghana’s parliament and said, “Africa doesn’t need strongmen. It needs strong institutions.”
Now, with one term under his belt, perhaps Obama will have the time to help Africa’s institutions gain the strength they need to become true allies.
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(Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)