President Obama and Africa: The irony of neglect

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Six months after he took office, President Obama made a triumphant visit to Africa, stopping in Ghana on his way home from summits in Europe. His state visit, speeches and interviews with African media raised hopes that he would devote significant attention to its one billion people and 60-plus nations and territories.

Africa is critically important to the United States, including in the struggle against radical Islamist terror. For all of the justifiable attention paid to al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Iraq -- the central fronts in the war on terrorism -- the continent of Africa has long been a nexus for recruitment, attacks and fundraising by Osama bin Laden's infamous terrorist network. From Kenya, to the Sudan, to Algeria, al-Qaida has deep entanglements, which threaten not only U.S. interests, but even more the stability of nations that have partnered with the United States.

Regrettably, the Obama administration appears not to understand the strategic importance of the continent. Other than a short paragraph on Sudan, there is no mention of Africa on the "Foreign Policy" issues section of the White House's website, and there has been little follow-up on the president's much-ballyhooed visit of July 2009.

China, Saudi Arabia and Iran are positioning themselves to increase their investment and political engagement in Africa, even as President Obama focuses his foreign policy energy on scolding and alienating U.S. allies, such as Israel, Canada and the United Kingdom. Other than tentative steps by Secretary of State Clinton to increase cooperation with Nigeria, and promises to help with security for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, there have been few new initiatives by the Obama administration.

Under the presidency of George W. Bush, the United States devoted unprecedented resources to Africa, including financial support to nations transitioning to democracy, a multibillion-dollar program to combat HIV/AIDS, debt forgiveness for nations making free-market reforms and the creation of AFRICOM (African Command) in 2008 as the umbrella for all U.S. military operations on the continent.

One dramatic success was the conversion of Libya into an ally in the war on terror and one of the few nations to abandon the pursuit of active nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. In 2002, the United States established a military base in Djibouti, which remains a strategic enclave of critical importance. The U.S. also partnered with intergovernmental organizations, such as the Economic Community of West African States, to improve military and peacekeeping capabilities of key states such as Nigeria and Ghana.

Ironically, given the African roots of our current president, the Obama administration has paid less attention and devoted fewer resources to Africa than did President Bush, risking many recent military, political, health and economic gains. While many Africans are proud that the son of a Kenyan father now lives in the White House, tangible benefits in security, living standards and freedom were far greater under the Republican from Texas who preceded him. We risk losing tremendous ground in Africa, as al-Qaida and its regional allies are poised to rush in where they perceive a lack of interest and involvement by the United States.

While 9/11 is often seen as the beginning of the U.S.-led global war on terrorism, several previous engagements in Africa gave a clear sign of what was to come. Somalia has long been a safe haven for terrorists and remains so today.

In 1998, the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were both hit by suicide bombers, who drove large truck bombs into the two facilities. Twelve Americans, 11 Tanzanians and 201 Kenyans died in these attacks. Bill Clinton's administration followed up these bombings by adding Osama bin Laden to the FBI's Ten Most Wanted List, and also launched cruise missile strikes on al-Qaida bases in Sudan and Afghanistan, but neither action was a determined campaign against the terrorist group. If anything, these moves strengthened Osama bin Laden, whose credibility rose because he could portray himself as having survived the best efforts of the world's superpower to have him killed or captured, even though he had left Sudan in 1996. The Clinton era missed other opportunities to capture al-Qaida leaders, tragic lost years that could have prevented much that followed.

In North Africa, al-Qaida in the Islamic Magreb (AQIM) has been active since 2002, attacking the Algerian and other governments, as well as Western targets. While their operational abilities appear to be less than comparable affiliates in Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan, AQIM has a geographically broader range of movement, including into southern Europe. Loosely tied to Osama bin Laden's network, AQIM has been pursued by Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, has suffered dramatic losses of its personnel and resources, but continues operate, and recently has begun to forge dangerous ties with sympathetic Muslim communities in France, Spain and Italy.

In the late 1980s, an Ethiopian dissident, in a speech at the National Press Club, which was also broadcast on C-SPAN, declared: "We are more than just hungry bellies!" His case is even stronger today, as the continent of Africa has taken on a strategic importance greater for the United States than at any time in history. It would be a supreme irony if America's first African-American president let slip the dramatic gains the United States and its African partners have achieved.

Dr. Wayne H. Bowen is professor and chair of the Department of History at Southeast Missouri State University.

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