Don't expect a revolutionMarch 13th, 2009
Barack Obama may differ little from George Bush in his approach to Africa
The Economist - IT MIGHT seem obvious that American policy towards Africa would change under America’s first African-American president. But while the new man seems set to break with his predecessor in many other foreign-policy areas, changes towards Africa may be less substantial.
Though unloved in much of the world, George Bush is still popular in most of Africa. He vastly increased America’s development aid towards the continent. He created the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), which was reauthorised last year with a budget of $48 billion over five years, to help stop the spread of HIV and to treat those infected. While PEPFAR has been less successful at prevention than its proponents had hoped, it has kept 2.1m people, most of them African, on life-saving antiretroviral treatment.
One much-criticised PEPFAR provision was an anti-prostitution pledge required of recipients, who had to swear that they would not "support" prostitution. This provision was retained when the plan was reauthorised last year, and Mr Obama cannot change it without rewriting the basic law. In any event, many anti-AIDS campaigners found ways of getting round Mr Bush’s restrictions. So beyond sacking the boss of PEPFAR, which he has just done, Mr Obama is unlikely to do much to change a policy that is working well.
Mr Obama brings with him some big figures with strong opinions on one of Africa’s bloodiest conflicts, in the Sudanese region of Darfur. Joe Biden, his vice-president, has called in the past for a threat of military action against the Sudanese government to stop the killings there. Mr Obama’s ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, has backed the threat of force too. Samantha Power, who has joined Mr Obama’s National Security Council, is a historian of genocide who, though she believes in toughening sanctions and divestment from Sudan, opposes military intervention. If the conflict worsens, Mr Obama could face difficult choices.
But here too there may be more continuity than change. The International Criminal Court at The Hague recently indicted Omar al-Bashir, Sudan’s president, for war crimes. Mr Bush vociferously opposed the court. But he could be pragmatic about it if it suited American policy; his ambassador to the UN abstained when the Security Council first referred Sudan to the court. So the Obama administration’s position is not entirely new, though a call from a popular new black president to African leaders, asking them to shun an indicted war criminal, may be harder to ignore.
On Somalia, another of the continent’s nastiest conflicts, Mr Obama is likely to be cautious. Mr Bush backed Ethiopia almost unconditionally when it invaded Somalia to overthrow an Islamist regime. Mr Obama may shift tack a bit, perhaps slightly edging away from the Ethiopian regime, but will be as wary as Mr Bush of getting involved in Somalia.
Kenya has long been one of America’s key African allies. Since a disputed election at the end of 2007, it has been floundering under a shaky coalition government. If violence returns, its people may expect Mr Obama, whose father was Kenyan, to wave his wand. But however strong his family ties, he is unlikely to get deeply embroiled.
Nor, given the parlous state of America’s economy, is he likely to increase aid to Africa much. He is treading softly, knowing that none of the conflicts in Congo, Somalia, Sudan or Zimbabwe has an easy solution. He may urge South Africa to squeeze Robert Mugabe out of power. But America has no particular influence over these places. Besides, Mr Obama has yet to name his assistant secretary of state—the top appointment—for Africa; other assistant secretaries, for apparently higher-priority regions, have already been tipped.