DAKAR (Reuters) - In the eight months since U.S. President Barack Obama’s first visit to sub-Saharan Africa, the army has seized power in Niger, a power struggle in Nigeria bedevils its government, and Guinea’s then leader stands accused of involvement in a massacre.
Hardly events in line with the goals that Obama, whose father was born in Kenya, spelled out to an overwhelmingly positive response, but the United States says it is undeterred from banging the drum for democracy.
“We are actively implementing the policy priorities that President Obama identified in his historic speech in Ghana. Those priorities are democracy and good governance, economic development public health, conflict prevention and mitigation,” a spokesman for the Bureau of African Affairs at the State Department said in response to e-mailed questions.
The message Africans say they are hearing most clearly from Washington is that corruption is the root of many of Africa’s troubles.
“Since the inauguration of President Obama ... I have not seen anything apart from asking African leaders to fight corruption,” said Patrick Wafula, a businessman from western Kenya, who agreed that governmental corruption was one of the Africa’s biggest problems.
Obama even used this year’s State of the Union address to highlight the effects of corruption in Africa, and his officials have been vocal on the subject.
Visiting Nigeria in January, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton blasted what she called “unbelievable” levels of corruption in that country, one of Africa’s biggest oil exporters, drawing a link between poor governance and the growth of extremism.
“Persistent corruption ... undermines government institutions at all levels and erodes confidence in democratic elections as a way of effectuating real change,” the State Department said, citing other examples of U.S. efforts.
In Niger, the soldiers who took power last month immediately won explicit domestic support, and tacit Western approval, for their anti-graft stance.
In Senegal on the West African coast, for years seen as a rare example of democracy and stability in a historically volatile region, high-level corruption is now near the top of the political agenda.
Aid agency USAID is requesting from Congress $4.4 million this year for its “Governing Justly and Democratically” program in Senegal, almost ten times the amount it spent on the same project two years ago. The overall aid budget is rising too: USAID wants $6.7 billion for Africa this year, up from an estimated spend of $5.7 billion last year.
For some Africans, aid handouts do not adequately create the conditions needed for economic growth and development that Obama, on his visit to Ghana last July, said go hand in hand with good governance and democracy.
“The United States needs to refocus their policy on Africa in a beneficial partnership,” said Abubakar Momoh, professor of politics at Lagos University.
“What Africa needs is to be treated with respect ... and given equitable opportunities to western and American markets that will allow us to grow.”
The African Union complained in January that the United States was denying some African countries access to its markets by withdrawing trade benefits from Madagascar, Guinea and Niger, citing an “undemocratic” transfer of power in each.
On the continent, emotions were high but expectations of Obama were realistically modest. Most Africans never believed Africa was going to shoot up America’s list of policy priorities, given its domestic economic turmoil and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Kwesi Pratt, a Ghanaian newspaper publisher, goes further, saying he believes the Obama administration has distanced itself from Africa. “The Bush administration did much better for Africa than we are seeing under Obama,” he said.
President George W. Bush is highly regarded by many Africans for launching humanitarian initiatives such as the Millennium Challenge Corporation, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, and the President’s Malaria Initiative.
Still, Emmanuel Gyimah-Boadi, executive director at the Center for Democratic Development in Ghana, said the emotional connection Africans felt with Obama would endure.
“For me the Obama presidency is a symbolism associated with direct African heritage and no matter what happens, it is still significant today as it was when he assumed office,” he said.
Additional reporting by Kwasi Kpodo in Accra, Randy Fabi in Abuja, Nairobi Newsroom; Editing by Giles Elgood