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U.S. Finding Its Voice in Africa Again
ArticlesLetter from China

U.S. Finding Its Voice in Africa Again

Published: July 17, 2009

SHANGHAI — For several years, the prevailing winds blowing over the African continent have come from China.

Starting quietly, while the United States and Europe were preoccupied elsewhere, China has built up an impressive head of steam in Africa, winning large new markets in country after country and bringing welcome foreign investment on a scale not seen in many parts of the continent since the end of the superpower competition between the United States and the Soviet Union.

And it takes nothing away from China’s new sense of purpose in an otherwise neglected part of the world to note that making big inroads comes a lot easier when one has the playing field largely to oneself.

With President Barack Obama’s visit to Africa, America’s approach to the continent seems poised to emerge from a long, deep sleep. It is true that the administration of George W. Bush began some experiments worthy of mention, notably conditioning American assistance on economic management and other measures of good governance. But this represents more of a fine-tuning of a longstanding American approach to Africa than it does any truly new departure. Over the past eight years, Washington also emerged as a much more vigorous partner in African health, notably in fighting AIDS.

Otherwise, from Angola and Congo and from Nigeria and Mozambique, the big news in Africa has recently been measured in big business deals, and this story could almost be summed up as all China, all the time.

Mr. Obama’s brief visit to Ghana last weekend put the United States back in the game by playing one of America’s strongest and recently most neglected cards: its soft power. Suddenly, Washington seemed relevant again in a part of the world that, though recently underengaged, had seen some of the fastest economic growth in recent years, and also — troublingly — a population on track to nearly double by midcentury.

Mr. Obama’s visit to Africa derived its stirring resonance across the continent from much more than the president’s origins, as the son of a Kenyan foreigner. In Africa’s independence era, which began in Ghana in 1957, two American presidents, John F. Kennedy and Jimmy Carter, attained heroic stature among Africans. And the language and political symbolism of Mr. Obama’s first African moves suggest his administration has absorbed lessons from this history.

Mr. Kennedy was beloved by many for siding diplomatically with the third world in its struggle against European imperialism. There were plenty of misdeeds by Mr. Kennedy in Africa as well, to be sure, namely Cold War-driven support for a coup against Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, but the creation of the Peace Corps won African goodwill on a large scale.

Mr. Carter, for his part, was beloved by Africans for pushing democracy and human rights onto the American foreign policy agenda in Africa. After reports of debate early in his administration about how much support for democracy to include in America’s foreign policy, Mr. Obama appears to have picked up this baton. But importantly, his appeal to democracy and good governance has been made with deeds as much as with words, and when spoken, is done in a style that avoids most, if not all, of the patronizing American tone in the past on subjects like these.

The sharpest contrast here is with the administration of President Bill Clinton, which sided strongly with a group of unabashed African authoritarians in Uganda, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Eritrea and, briefly, Congo, that it fancied as the continent’s “renaissance leaders.” Many experts say this approach favored the spread of the most costly form of bad governance of all, war, which engulfed much of Africa a decade ago.

Asked about his choice of a first African destination, Mr. Obama asked an interviewer from to “keep in mind that although I’m visiting Ghana on this particular trip, we’ve already had Tsvangirai of Zimbabwe in the Oval Office. We’ve had Kikwete from Tanzania in my office. And in each case, I'm trying to send the same message.” The favored leaders were all democrats, and the message, Obama said, was that “wherever folks want to help themselves, we want to be there as a partner.”

The impact of Mr. Obama’s early diplomatic choices can be seen in the widespread commentary they have generated all over the continent, from Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country and long one of its worst-governed, chagrined to have been bypassed, to Kenya, the home of Mr. Obama’s ancestors, where corruption distorts everything, from the lives of petty traders to the functioning of elections.

This stirring African response could also be heard clearly in a biting editorial in a newspaper, Le Nouveau Réveil, in Ivory Coast, Ghana’s western neighbor. “The true lesson that Ghana provides doesn’t come from having hosted the president of the most powerful and popular country in the world for a brief moment,” it read. The real lesson that Ghana, a former military dictatorship, gives to the African continent “is having drawn the lessons from its past mistakes,” the editorial read.

Africa can certainly use money and know-how from China, which is mostly silent on matters of governance, democracy and human rights. But on stop after stop of a recent trip through Africa, people told me how important it was to them that their countries be held to high standards by the outside world. “We need more criticism, not less,” said a journalist in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. “It helps us demand more of our leaders.”

In one regard, though, Mr. Obama’s Washington will have to emulate China. Beijing sends its top leaders to Africa every year.


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