by Bright Simons

The enthusiasm that greeted the election of Barack Obama, the first and only American president with an African name, was palpable across Africa.

Everywhere you travelled you heard and felt a new wave of positive sentiments about the possibility of a great new era for doing business between Africa and America.

One commentator summed up the attitudes of the economic elite in Africa this way: “Many high hopes have rested on the shoulders of President Barack Obama following his historic election. Investors and NGOs hoped that the election of America’s first African-American president would bring a renewed spotlight on the tremendous challenges and opportunities throughout the African continent.”

A Ghanaian pharmaceutical importer mounted Obama’s portrait in the reception of his swanky downtown Africa office. You could taste the excitement in the air.

By and large, those hopes have nearly all fizzled out.

Only a very naive person will argue that the economic impact of US Africa policy, under any American presidency, in the modern African era (roughly, 1960 onwards) has been positive and unproblematic. But it is definitely less contentious to state that few American presidencies in recent memory have been as remarkable for their lack of a signature African initiative as the one currently led by President Obama.

In the turbulent 60s, when Vietnam politics threatened to scorch the soul of the American nation, through the mid-70s when Watergate was exacting its profound toll on America’s political conscience, US engagement in Africa still managed to leave such footprints as the world’s largest manmade lake in Ghana, giant smelters, and major cultural-academic exchange programs.

Even Nixon, long derided for his cynical stance on matters of trade with the racial regimes in Southern Africa, held a long-term economic interest in sub-Saharan Africa, describing it as “the richest continent in the world” in a speech to US governors as far back as 1954, when he was Eisenhower’s vice president.

Nixon’s view that economic betterment of the lives of ordinary Africans should be the foremost strategic consideration in America’s anti-communist policies on the continent was remarkably far-sighted. In fact, it is an insight still applicable today.

It may well be that the current Obama-led political elite in Washington DC considers Africa peripheral to the reconstruction of America’s seemingly declining economic status in the world. But is Africa that marginal to America’s quest for continued global economic leadership?

US trade of about $88-billion with sub-Saharan Africa is more than its trade with South Asia and more than double that of its trade with central America. When one considers that more than three-fourths of the total US trade with the continent involves only three African countries and more than two-thirds of America’s imports involve one commodity (petroleum), it is easy to see why many well-informed observers believe that there is dramatic scope for expansion.

Indeed, considering the sizeable trade surplus enjoyed by Africa in its trade with the United States, enlightened self-interest alone should encourage a greater economic focus on Africa on the part of American foreign policy czars.

A dramatic illustration of what could be at stake is in the area of American automobile imports from South Africa, which in the first half of the last decade shot up nearly tenfold. Who knows what other industries could bloom on the back of greater trade?

Whenever America has pushed its self-interest by fostering genuine economic integration, it has benefited in the short term, leading to charges of exploitation. But in the long term, the country or region on the receiving end of America’s attention gains considerably too. It goes without saying that the more strategic-minded the leaders in that country the more likely the accrual of gains.

Once again, the automotive industry provides good illustrations. Ford Motors’ strong forays into Japan in the post-war era and the wider US auto industry’s strong push into Canada and Mexico have in each case led to the seeding of powerful industrial ecosystems in those countries, leading over time to more balanced trade with the US.

It is not surprising then that the Clinton presidency placed so much emphasis on US-Africa trade, through such landmark initiatives as the Africa Growth & Opportunities Act (Agoa).

In fact, Agoa and the Pepfar initiative by Clinton’s successor George W. Bush both underscore the plausibility of strategic, emblematic, US-Africa engagement in a post-Cold War world in which anti-communist anxiety no longer predetermines America’s foreign policy reflexes.

As was mentioned earlier on, the lacklustre economic relationship between the United States and sub-Saharan Africa has in successive presidencies been punctuated by distinctive developments that have left the hope burning, however dimly, of a transformative era ahead.

The Kennedy-Lyndon years were hallmarked by a new brand of mercantilism that will give rise to such monuments as the aforesaid largest manmade lake in the world, giant smelters and the rollout of American export finance projects across the continent. The Nixon-Ford era saw the cynical but nonetheless noteworthy involvement of America in the intricacies of southern African trade politics. The Carter years saw the rise of the development aid industrial complex. The Reagan-Bush years were the period of IMF-World Bank ascendancy and the dreaded structural adjustment. Clinton, as has already been alluded to, brought to the US-Africa relationship: the African Growth & Opportunity Act (Agoa). The Bush years saw the “infrastructure-for-good-governance” concept, embodied in such programs as the Millennium Challenge Account.

To be very clear, no one is saying that these initiatives and programs were in, of, and by themselves transformative, or even significantly beneficial. Most well-informed analysts and observers will point to serious challenges and problems associated with any and all of the above developments. Some would even argue that US–African economic co-operation has never yielded any benefits to Africa.

But any such reactions to the main thesis of this piece would be missing the central point, which is that Obama has all the benefit of hindsight and a unique historical opportunity afforded both by his personal background and the rhythm of the times to make his presence felt in Africa.

He has had every opportunity to roll out his own signature initiative, but he, more than anyone before him, has both the moral resources and historical insight to ensure that any such initiative would have been genuinely game-changing.

Such an initiative could perhaps have been premised on an economic and business relationship between the United States and sub-Saharan Africa that recognises the weaknesses in Agoa in not emphasising enough the role of entrepreneurship in building private sector capacity. It could even have been aimed at removing the distorting incentives of bureaucratic development aid in Africa’s public sector, which has entrenched a risk-averse, paper-pushing, and anti-innovation culture in more ways than one. Both of the preceding elements are, clearly, absolute prerequisites for trade between Africa and the US to flourish. But President Obama has shown little interest to be remembered for his impact in this and related spheres, much less to be ambitious.

His comments about the role and importance of institutions have not been backed with any major discernible actions on the ground. He has voiced a commendable commitment to reform of the US aid system, and appointed some remarkable individuals, but as far as Africa is concerned, we are yet to see the practical results.

Has he chosen not to push too hard on this front because of “brand integrity” issues? Does he feel obliged not to allow himself to be pressured into a constricting niche – as the emblematic African-American president – as opposed to a more flexible niche – as the competent American president?

I suspect this or a variant of this brand-building logic featured in his calculations. Any closeness to Africa, in the context of such a brand logic, would thus have been problematic by drawing attention to his exoticness, when in a period of economic upheaval and uncertainty, familiarity and sturdiness tend to be the preferred qualities.

This looks like a classic “Google dilemma”. Having built a brand on the back of “innocence” how do you pivot your measuring frame to one of “sophistication”, while seeking at the same time to emphasise technical excellence and a unique pedigree?

The simple answer is that it is a muddled affair. Better to keep fighting to change the marking script than to accept it only to ask to be examined on a different syllabus.

Obama was elected on a platform of radical newness. He needs to embrace some brand new visions to make good some of that promise. Africa, more than anywhere else, affords him the opportunity to do so from a foreign policy perspective. That it is also good business to do this can only remind him of a similar, sweet paradox four years ago: that innocence can actually be good politics.

He has less than five months left to seize this juicy opportunity, whilst saving his African admirers from a broken heart at the same time.

Bright Simons is a social entrepreneur. He is the inventor of the mPedigree pharmaceutical quality assurance system (www.mPedigree.Net) and a fellow of IMANI-Ghana, a think tank based in Accra.


  • Archbishop Tutu Fellows comprise dynamic young African professionals awarded the fellowship in recognition of their leadership qualities and the role they are currently playing in contributing towards the continent’s development. The Tutu Fellows are practitioners spread across various social, political, economic, environmental and activist sectors throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Over the last six years the Tutu fellows have formed a strong alumnus of leaders communicating across country borders with the aim of realising the potential and power of a truly pan-African continent. The opinions shared by the Archbishop Tutu Fellows are not necessarily those of the African Leadership Institute or of our patron, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu.


Tutu Fellows

Archbishop Tutu Fellows comprise dynamic young African professionals awarded the fellowship in recognition of their leadership qualities and the role they are currently playing in contributing towards...

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