The U.S. cannot afford to continue confining Africa to the realm of its lowest priorities.

With the U.S. administration marking its 100 days in office, Barack Obama has raised sky-scraping expectations for his term as president, not only at home in the U.S., but also abroad in Africa. The 44th American President is the first with an African lineage and, not surprisingly, his rise to power has triggered a wave of hope amongst Africans as they look towards the West in anticipation of new beginnings in U.S. foreign policy and diplomatic relations.

Examples of African reverence for Mr. Obama abound. Kenya has declared 5 November a national holiday in recognition of Mr. Obama’s election. Parallels were drawn worldwide between Mr. Obama’s inauguration ceremony in Washington earlier this year, as being eerily reminiscent in scale and scope of Nelson Mandela’s inauguration as South Africa’s first black president in 1994. Will President Barack Obama be able to deliver in accordance with the super-hero status that Africans are bestowing on him?

In the coming months, Mr. Obama will be expected to address Africa’s most pressing crises: Sudan’s six-year conflict in Darfur continues unabated with U.N. forces being woefully understaffed and underfunded, despite former President Bush labelling it as “genocide”; Somalia has now been without a central government for 18 years and has lost more than one million people to civil conflict and famine; and the Democratic Republic of the Congo is struggling to end a five-year conflict with a death toll deemed the world’s highest since World War II. And, of course, there are the longstanding issues across the continent of food security, corruption, access to clean water and basic health care, and the looming threat of climate change.

There will be some tough decisions ahead in deciding on priorities and whether to drill down on development or security. If the President remains true to the objectives identified in his election campaign, then three items could be expected on his African agenda: accelerate Africa’s integration into the global economy; enhance peace and security in Africa; and strengthen relations with African governments to deepen democracy and accountability.

Already, Mr. Obama is making strides towards building good relations with Africa. In recent weeks, the President has surrounded himself with top African advisers — foremost amongst them is the appointment of Susan Rice, former Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs in the Clinton administration, to the post of U.N. Ambassador. Mr. Obama had been in touch with South Africa’s former interim President Kaglema Motlanthe about the ongoing political crisis in Zimbabwe.

But there are a number of factors working against him. No doubt the President’s first loyalty is to serve the needs and heed the priorities of the American people and, as the global financial crisis persists, his ability to deliver on foreign priorities above domestic ones will become increasingly constrained. Some critics even go as far as saying that it would be difficult for Mr. Obama to leave the kind of African legacy that his predecessor did given the many other foreign policy priorities of the day, notably Iraq, Afghanistan and the Middle East crisis among others. With all the domestic failures and foreign policy blunders that undermined his creditability while in office, earning him the lowest approval rating in recent memory, former U.S. President George Bush could confidently point to his widely deserved and often ignored achievements in Africa. The Bush administration devoted major attention in recent years to supporting Africa’s battle to contain the HIV/AIDS epidemic and the devastating effects of malaria. His President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief (Pepfar), described as a revolution, in the sense that it radically altered the administration of healthcare on the continent, has been described as the largest ever global initiative dedicated to tackling a single disease. Since 2003, it provided $15 billion ($10 billion in new money) to fund desperately needed drugs to more than 1.4 million people who would not have been able to afford them. This has had a tremendous impact on increasing access to AIDS treatment on the African continent.

Under the Bush administration, aid to Africa increased to more than $5.6 billion in 2008, from $1.3 billion in 2001. Mr. Bush introduced a less bureaucratic Millennium Challenge Account (MCA), targeted at a select group of countries. Using a 16-point indicator, this bilateral development aid fund is aimed at countries that satisfy various criteria, pertaining to free-market economic policies, democratic governance and anti-corruption reforms. Supporters point out that all of these were instrumental in ushering in a new level in African-U.S. relations, namely one based on investment and trade, rather than on aid alone.

In any event, it is unhelpful to speculate as to whether Mr. Obama will match Bush’s achievements in Africa and meet the enormous expectations of Africans over the coming period. Time will tell as to how Africa will come to judge the Obama administration. What is certain, however, is that Africa is too important to be ignored. The continent is slowly attempting to improve it efforts to govern itself; to resolve internal disputes, distrust, and grievances; to usher in political pluralism; and to integrate economically within the global economy. The U.S. cannot afford to continue confining Africa to the realm of its lowest priorities, while failing to take note of all the progress and achievements of the past decade, which countries such as China and India have either taken full advantage of, or taken part in. There is no better time than the present for the U.S. to assure Africa of its full commitment to playing a more active and constructive role in the continent’s rapid transformation and development.

Hany Besada is Senior Researcher and Programme Leader at The Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) in Waterloo, Canada. Erica Dybenko is Research Information Officer at CIGI.

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