For four years, Obama faced a formidable opposition from members of the Republican Party in Congress, who sought to block or derail his domestic initiatives. But as a senator, earlier in his career, and member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he worked successfully with Republicans to pass the Democratic Republic of Congo Relief, Security and Democracy Promotion Act that was signed into law by President George W. Bush. As president, Obama distanced himself from this legislation and did not apply it as the Congo crisis worsened during his watch. If the last four years are any indication, one should not expect Obama to change the way he has engaged in Africa.
Still, considering Africa's growing importance on the global market, the next president of the United States should have the courage to turn the current, negative and despondent narrative upside down and learn from Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush. As former governors, neither president had half of Obama's foreign policy experience, but showed great courage and creativity in their Africa policies.
Serving in the height of the Cold War when human rights and democracy were relegated to the periphery of U.S. Africa policy, Jimmy Carter successfully challenged the reasoning behind that approach. He elevated democracy and freedom, two pillars of American political thought, to policy prominence. He became the first Western leader to show that political freedom and military hegemony were not mutually exclusive. For the United States to be successful in its global outreach, the promotion of democracy, civil liberties, and good governance had to be a top priority of U.S. foreign policy. Carter managed to protect American interests across the continent while promoting democracy. In Zaire, he rescued the dictatorial Mobutu Sese Seko regime from two invasions in 1977 and 1978, but never wavered in his push for democratization. This pressure and enthusiasm for political freedom encouraged the emergence of a democracy movement in the 1980s that included Zaire's Etienne Tshisekedi, Ivory Coast's Laurent Gbagbo, and Senegal's Abdoulaye Wade. In 1978, Carter visited Nigeria and pushed for the first transition from military to civilian rule that saw Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo step down and make way for the emergence of President Shehu Shagari in 1979.
During the 2000 campaign, the pundits and the media derided Governor Bush for his apparent lack of foreign policy experience. At the time, he did not know who Pervez Musharraf was. No one expected him to do much with Africa. But as president, Bush for some of the most innovative development initiatives that have made remarkable impact in the lives of millions of Africans, including the Millennium Corporation Account, the Presidential Malaria Initiative, and the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief.
If Obama secured a second term, he would have to gather the courage to recalibrate his Africa policy to reflect his speeches and earlier work in the Senate. He should learn from Jimmy Carter and his predecessor George W. Bush, capitalize on the bipartisanship nature of U.S. Africa policy and turn hope to substance.
During the campaign, Governor Romney struggled to articulate his position, often reversing himself on critical issues. When it comes to Africa, what is required of him is the courage of his conviction. There is a surplus of bipartisanship when it comes to the region. But Obama proved that foreign policy experience does not guarantee success in Africa. Carter and Bush proved that conviction and courage matters as much as experience.