Africa, a Troubled Continent, Eyes Obama With Impossibly High Hopes

As the first African-American president, Obama will face extra pressure to deal with Africa's crises.


Barack Obama's election as president of the United States was widely cheered around the world but perhaps nowhere more so than in Africa, where the historic selection of the first African-American to occupy the Oval Office is, for many, a matter of pride and hope. Kenya, where Obama once visited the village where his late father was born and raised, declared a national holiday.

Now, as Obama takes over, he will face the delicate foreign policy task of contending with many Africans' almost certainly overheated expectations of what his presidency will mean for them. "Africans must not ask extraordinary things from [Obama]," Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade cautioned after the U.S. election. Still, the eventual first trip by Obama to Africa as U.S. president could well occasion some of the most remarkable public outpourings of acclaim ever received by an American leader overseas.

On policy, Obama will have to respond to a diverse and vast continent still struggling in many countries with poverty, disease, corruption, and poor governance. More than 40 percent of sub-Saharan Africans live on less than $1 a day. The need for public investment in education, infrastructure, and healthcare is huge. An estimated 22 million suffer from HIV/AIDS. Furthermore, humanitarian and security crises—each with its own causes and attributes—plague Sudan and Somalia, as well as Congo and Zimbabwe.

The death and suffering of civilians in such zones of conflict or political strife could well force difficult choices on the new president on whether to intervene for humanitarian ends. The Pentagon remains skeptical of intervening in the violence-wracked Darfur region of Sudan, for instance. But Obama's top foreign policy adviser during the campaign, incoming U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, is known as a passionate advocate of strong, multilateral efforts to protect the people of Darfur, including military action if necessary. She and many other Democratic policymakers rue the international community's unwillingness to forcibly stop the ethnic genocide that swept through Rwanda in 1994. The fear that powerful countries continue to be unwilling to accept risks to halt atrocities extends beyond Darfur to other areas, too, including Congo. "We are regressing on our responsibility to protect," contends French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner.

At the same time, Obama's approach to Africa comes amid hopeful developments as well. With a rapidly growing population that is now near 1 billion people, many of the economies in sub-Saharan Africa have been showing signs of sturdier growth than they experienced in the past. Foreign investment has risen, in part a reflection of global demand for its energy and other commodities and prospects for future growth. Countries like Sierra Leone and Liberia have climbed back from vicious civil wars enough to launch promising, democratically elected governments.

In addition, Bush administration policy toward Africa has received wide acclaim. Its moves included major increases in foreign aid and on spending for programs to counter disease, along with debt relief. By the end of the Bush years, the United States was supporting antiretroviral treatment for more than 2 million people in sub-Saharan Africa with HIV/AIDS; in 2003 just 50,000 people in the region were receiving such help. Efforts to fight the spread of malaria also received significant attention and money. Africans hope the support will continue—or increase—despite the harder economic times hitting the United States.

Africa's key trouble spots will also draw Obama's attention. The new administration is being urged to "invest significantly in peacemaking," especially by building up the capabilities of organizations like the African Union, as a new report by John Prendergast and John Norris for the activist group Enoughargues. Africa's trouble spots include the following:

Sudan: The Sudanese government and Arab militias it organized have been fighting with black African tribes in Darfur, leaving some 450,000 dead from violence and disease in a conflict the U.S. government has labeled a genocide. Half of Darfur's people (about 2.5 million) have been scattered into refugee camps. Both the rebel groups and the opposing Arab militias have themselves fractured, making negotiations exceedingly difficult. The Bush administration has been trying to support U.N.-authorized African peacekeepers in Darfur. Obama has spoken of tougher sanctions against Sudan's rulers and of a possible no-fly zone above Darfur. Further, an international arrest warrant for Sudan's leader, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, on war crimes charges may be issued in Obama's early days in office.