The ascension of Barack Obama to the presidency of the United States in 2008 heralded positive change in the country's Africa policy. But, over the last four years, he failed to deliver on his promises. As the United States prepares for Election Day, one wonders whether or not the next president's Africa policy will break the inertia and revive U.S. interest in the continent. Africa is so disconnected and removed from the rumblings of domestic politics in Washington that it is one of the rare areas where being bipartisan works. Thus, the problems that plague the continent constitute low-hanging fruit for any president who is willing to commit his political capital to Africa.
Ironically, like other non-Americans, Africans see no major foreign policy differences between Republican and Democratic administrations. Gov. Mitt Romney's shift to the center on foreign affairs during this campaign further muddles the horizon and makes it hard to tell how his Africa policy would differ from Obama's.
It is equally unclear how a second-term President Obama would approach Africa. His record, however, allows some insight. In the summer of 2009, he outlined the foundation of his Middle East and Africa policies in two historical speeches he delivered in Cairo and Accra. Given in the halls of the Ghanaian parliament, the Accra speech resonated with political leaders and civil society groups across the continent for two reasons. Ghana embodies the worst and best of the political struggle of Africans. It was the first African country to wrestle independence from a colonial power, leading the 50-year freedom movement that culminated with the demise of South Africa's Apartheid regime in 1994. Ghana also led the continent with a succession of bloody coups d'état, which ended with the transition to democracy in 1993, allowing the country to emerge as a beacon of stability and economic growth.
So when Obama called for the end of the era of strongmen and pledged U.S. support to democratic reforms and institution-building, Africans applauded and saw a partner in the new president. But strongmen across the continent quickly tested Obama's resolve. When the authoritarian leaders of Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo hijacked elections to cement their grip on power, the Obama White House failed to unambiguously stand with the disenfranchised voters. The gap between Obama's rhetoric and actions continued to widen as his administration failed to capitalize on his popularity and tremendous goodwill towards him in Africa. His policy lacked the creativity to adjust engagement to the changing face of the continent and rested on the old Cold War approach that saw Africa primarily as a resource provider and a battleground against enemies of the United States. As a result, democratization and the defense of human rights took a second seat to security concerns. Thus, under Obama, the main interlocutors of the United States in Africa were not the democratically minded leaders of Botswana, Ghana, Namibia, or Zambia, but rather the strongmen of Angola, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Uganda, and Rwanda.
Where democracy and human rights are concerned, the Obama State Department prefers to deal with African leaders behind closed doors, shielding U.S. policy from public oversight and allowing their allies to save face. This approach has exacerbated tensions in conflict-prone areas such as the Great Lakes and Horn of Africa regions.