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Africa weighs Obama's first year

After one year as president, Obama makes subtle changes to US policy toward Africa.

U.S. President Barack Obama, first lady Michelle Obama and their daughter Sasha are surrounded by dancing Ghanaians as they leave Ghana airport in Accra, July 11, 2009. (Jim Young/Reuters)

NAIROBI, Kenya — Barack Obama’s inauguration was greeted with euphoria in Africa,
perhaps nowhere more than here in Kenya, the country where Obama’s father was born and raised. The response was emotional — a black man, an African, was leader of one of the world's most powerful countries — and there were expectations that his kinship would mean a more attentive approach to the continent.

Yet troop deployments to Afghanistan, domestic health reform and the economic crisis have meant that a year down the line Obama’s Africa policy is just coming into focus.

(Read about the opportunities that awaited Obama in Africa when he took office.)

“Only the basic contours of Obama’s policy towards Africa are becoming visible … and there’s a lot of continuity rather than change,” says Alex Vines, head of the Africa program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs.

That is not a bad thing as Obama has inherited a number of initiatives that have gone down well in Africa. The African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) gives tax-breaks to African exporters, the Millennium Challenge Corporation gives development assistance to well-governed countries and the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR)
gives life-saving drugs to millions.

The clearest indication of what U.S. policy towards Africa will look like was given in Obama’s speech in July during his first visit to sub-Saharan Africa as president. “Africa’s future is up to Africans,” he declared.

To applause from the assembled Ghanaian parliamentarians in the capital Accra he said that, “Development depends on good governance,” indicating that the U.S. will be less willing to throw money at friendly dictators.

And praising Ghana’s 2008 election in which a losing incumbent peacefully handed over power after a closely fought vote, he said, “Africa doesn’t need strongmen it needs strong institutions.”

These pithy soundbites have played well in African media and the speech made for an effective repackaging of the U.S.-Africa relationship but the unsaid was as important.

There was no mention of a “war on terror” and little of the U.S. military’s controversial Africa Command which upset a number of African leaders who saw in it a militarization of U.S. policy towards Africa. Yet fear of Al Qaeda’s rise in the desert regions of West Africa and in Somalia and the Horn of Africa is a powerful force in determining America’s evolving relationship with the continent.