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President Obama’s Engagement with Africa: Managing Complex Relationships By Richard Downie


obama23 Jul 15. President Barack Obama’s meetings this week with the leaders of three of sub-Saharan Africa’s most important countries provide an early opportunity to reflect on his emerging policy legacy on the African continent. In many ways, the story of bilateral relations with Nigeria, Kenya, and Ethiopia during the past six and a half years encapsulates the difficulties the United States has encountered in fashioning more mature, up-to-date, and coherent relationships in Africa at a time when U.S. influence is on the wane.

The Obama administration has tried to steer a path between sticking to its principles on democracy and human rights; pursuing traditional lines of effort such as conflict resolution, poverty alleviation, and health assistance; and grasping the opportunities presented by Africa’s steady economic growth. At the same time, the spread of terrorism in parts of the continent has elevated security concerns and heightened the desire to strengthen the capacities of African partner militaries. Naturally, balancing these priorities leads to imperfect outcomes and accusations of double standards, but such is the challenge of policymaking. Critics who call on the United States to devote itself to the straightforward pursuit of ethical principles in Africa fall into the trap of assuming that Africa is somehow a less complex place than other regions of the world, a continent where the United States does not have interests to safeguard. Just as the Obama administration has had to update its narrative on Africa to reflect the diversity of opportunities as well as the threats, the commercial prospects as well as the enduring conflicts, the single-interest constituencies that assume Africans care as much about conflict minerals and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights as they do should realize that—as important as these issues are—they must be weighed alongside a host of other concerns and interests.

The main criticism that can be leveled at the Obama administration is that it has been insufficiently engaged on Africa and has failed to make the case for its continued relevance in parts of the continent. This accusation is justified when applied to President Obama’s first term, when a lack of imagination and high-profile attention was applied to African affairs. The president’s single trip to sub-Saharan Africa, a brief stopover in Ghana, stuck to previous formulations of U.S. policy toward Africa. A speech to the Ghanaian parliament laid out in eloquent terms the principles on which Africa policy would be pursued: the United States would support democracy and the building of strong institutions. Following through on these messages in concrete ways proved to be a much harder task.

During the second term, the Obama administration has made a bigger play for relevance in Africa by pursuing economic growth strategies that have the capacity to touch the lives of Africans beyond the usual cast of victims covered by the Western media in windswept refugee camps and HIV clinics. The Power Africa initiative, announced by President Obama during a 2013 visit to South Africa, was a welcome intervention into an area—electricity generation, transmission, and distribution—where U.S. technical assistance and capital from both the public and private sectors have the potential to make a real impact. Africa’s trade and investment opportunities were the headline theme of last summer’s inaugural U.S.-Africa Leaders’ Summit in Washington, D.C. The event was a largely successful attempt to present the panoply of U.S. interests in a diverse continent, shoehorning—sometimes awkwardly—conversations about business opportunities, human rights, and conflict resolution onto the same platform. The administration opted for engagement over moral judgment, which mollified complaints about the U.S. penchant for lecturing Africans at the cost of uncomfortable photo opportunities for the Obamas with a number of African leaders who have been in office since the time of President Ronald Reagan.

President Obama’s latest set of discussions—in Washington with Nigeria’s new president, Mohammadu Buhari, followed by visits to Kenya and Ethiopia—encapsulates many of the tensions inherent in U.S.-Africa policymaking while highlighting the redundancy of talking about a single policy toward Africa.

With respect to Nigeria and Kenya, the emphasis of the engagement has been on mending fences with two important allies, both bellwether states whose fortunes mirror each other and are emblematic of the continent’s broader progress and ongoing struggles. Both countries have dynamic, growing economies, have made incomplete but substantial democratic progress, and are experiencing acute security challenges that have prompted abusive responses by the state. That a desire to press the “reset button” in two such important bilateral relationships was the main theme ahead of the discussions says something about the limitations of the U.S. approach to Africa.

President Buhari’s visit should have presented the easier diplomatic opportunities given the goodwill fostered by Nigeria’s successful elections, which saw a peaceful handover of power from one party to another for the first time. During the latter days of the Goodluck Jonathan administration, U.S.-Nigeria relations descended into mutual recriminations over the response to the Boko Haram insurgency in Nigeria’s northeast. The United States limited its security assistance to comply with congressional restrictions on providing support to security forces accused of human rights abuses. The Nigerians accused the United States of failing to help an ally in its hour of need by blocking the sale of combat helicopters.

Both sides have called for a fresh start in the security relationship, and the United States has expressed its desire to expand support for the counterinsurgency effort. But the legal hurdles presented by the so-called Leahy laws cannot easily be overcome, and U.S. support will most likely be confined to training, intelligence sharing, and the provision of nonlethal military equipment. President Buhari made clear his view that this was not sufficient. In blunt language during a speech in Washington, he said that the Leahy laws had unwittingly “aided and abetted Boko Haram.” This was as uncompromising a message as it was possible to deliver and suggests that restoring a working bilateral security relationship will require hard work from both sides. The Nigerians feel that Washington has not shown enough empathy for the existential security threat they face, while Washington is insistent that combat helicopters are not the solution to an insurgency that has endured in part because of the abusive response of Nigeria’s security forces. The United States may frequently talk about Nigeria being the most important country in Africa, but for Nigeria, the U.S. stance on Boko Haram demonstrates the gap between rhetoric and reality. Here, as elsewhere in Africa, the tension between U.S. principles—promoting human rights—and interests—helping an ally combat a serious terrorist threat with international links—is palpable.

In Kenya, bilateral relations hit a low point following the 2013 elections that brought Uhuru Kenyatta to power because of U.S. diplomatic interventions in the process. In an allusion to the International Criminal Court investigation into President Kenyatta (subsequently dropped) and the difficulties it would present for full engagement with the United States, a senior U.S. official said on the eve of the elections that “choices have consequences.” The ill-feeling created by these remarks colored the Kenyatta government’s view of the United States. Relations were further strained by the new government’s crackdown on Kenyan civil society, particularly groups working on governance issues with financial support from the United States and other Western donors.

In Kenya, as in Nigeria, President Obama must walk a tightrope between providing robust support to a key ally that faces a dire domestic security challenge and urging his hosts to refrain from an indiscriminate, counterproductive security response. The two objectives need not be in conflict with each other—professional security forces that abide by the rule of law are more likely to win the support of the Kenyan public without whose cooperation the war against al Shabaab cannot be won. The Kenyan government, however, does not see it that way and will find it easy to accuse the United States of offering rhetorical support to counterterrorism without backing it up with meaningful assistance. President Obama will require considerable diplomatic skill to overcome these tensions. His approach, as with Nigeria, will be to convey the importance of Kenya as a valuable ally, as an economic partner, as a country that has made democratic progress, and—his trump card—as a place that is dear to his heart because of his family connections to the country.

In Ethiopia, the United States must pursue multiple interests, some of which align with those of its partner and others that clearly do not. While Ethiopia performs helpful roles in regional security operations and spends development dollars wisely, it denies basic political freedoms and civil liberties to its 90 million citizens. The timing of President Obama’s visit is unfortunate for those who emphasize the good governance part of the agenda, coming two months after Ethiopia’s ruling party and its allies won every single seat in parliamentary elections. The conversation in the run-up to the trip has been about whether Obama should even go at all. In human rights terms, Ethiopia’s government does not deserve the propaganda boost provided by the president’s visit. It has virtually shut down civil society, hounded the independent press out of the country, and used antiterrorism laws against political opponents and religious leaders.

President Obama should try to extract the maximum benefit from this visit. In the weeks leading up to the trip, Ethiopia has released some of the journalists it had been holding on spurious grounds. These are modest—possibly temporary—victories, but they would not have been possible without any engagement at all. A look at neighboring Sudan, where years of U.S. sanctions have only succeeded in making the United States an irrelevant voice for change, suggests that some engagement is better than none at all. As it considers its relationship with Ethiopia, the United States should ensure that its interests in servicing present-day security contingencies do not come at the cost of consistently pushing for reforms of an authoritarian regime that could become less stable in the long term if it does not provide a legal outlet for dissenting voices.

In each of these three engagements, the United States cannot—and should not—dodge awkward conversations on human rights, good governance, and democracy. If the United States and its African allies are genuine in their desire for partnerships of equals, they should be mature enough to deliver and receive uncomfortable messages. When African leaders demand to be treated with respect by the United States, some of them appear to mean that they should never be criticized. For the United States, more thought should be given to the tone in which it delivers its messages and the most effective means of achieving its objectives. Is it more effective, for example, to browbeat a partner in public on governance or human rights issues or is the message better delivered in private? If the latter, how does President Obama satisfy human rights advocates back home that the message really was delivered, and delivered forcefully? Is the United States even the right messenger on certain subjects, like LGBT rights, or is that message better delivered indirectly and incrementally through intermediaries, preferably African ones? Forceful public denunciations of policies and behavior the United States disapproves of might please constituencies in the United States but can cause a backlash in the places where they are delivered.

President Obama’s week of meetings on Nigeria, Kenya, and Ethiopia illustrate the increasingly complex set of U.S. interests in Africa, which is no longer simply a destination for humanitarian assistance and a parade ground for Hollywood celebrities seeking to display their sensitive sides. Genuine U.S. interests are at stake—encompassing security, diplomatic, and trade dimensions as well as the traditional areas of alleviating poverty, promoting development, and ending conflict. This complex reality reflects the advent of a more mature era of U.S. engagement with Africa and is to be welcomed. It is also more likely to produce policy dilemmas of the kind that the United States experiences in other parts of the world. How to balance short-term contingencies with long-term goals; how to prevent security concerns trumping other policy priorities; how to manage rather than be led by troublesome allies; and how to stand for principles while engaging in actions that do not undermine them in practice? These are difficult balancing acts that are part of the art of diplomacy as practiced by the United States in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Israel, and around the world. Why should Kenya, Ethiopia, and Nigeria be any different?

Richard Downie is a fellow and deputy director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2015 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.


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