President Obama's Legacy in Africa Is A State of Mind

Barack Obama in Kenya
U.S. President Barack Obama holds a roundtable discussion with civil society leaders in Nairobi, Kenya, on July 26, 2015. Obama has sought to engage African leaders to help themselves during his presidency. Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

As President Barack Obama winds down his time in office, pundits around the globe, not just in Washington, will begin assessing the impact of his administration.

Secretary of State John Kerry's stops in Kenya and Nigeria this week focused attention on the administration's record in Africa. In stark contrast to 2008, when Obama's unique personal history made his campaign for—and ultimate election to—the White House the cause for intense pride and excitement across the continent, many Africans today may well be tempted to shrug off the upcoming transition as they carry on with their lives.

But if the Obama legacy does not include signature initiatives comparable to the enactment of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) under President Bill Clinton or the creation of the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM)—the U.S. military headquarters for the continent—by President George W. Bush, it would be a mistake to discount the change that has occurred during Obama's watch.

The first intimation of the change of tact occurred in the first year of his administration in 2009 when, addressing the Parliament of Ghana during his first post-election foray into sub-Saharan Africa, President Obama affirmed: "Africa's future is up to Africans."

Speaking with a personal authority that perhaps only he could claim among recent U.S. heads of state, Obama went on to tell his audience that they had to take responsibility: "Now, it's easy to point fingers and to pin the blame of these problems on others. Yes, a colonial map that made little sense helped to breed conflict. The West has often approached Africa as a patron or a source of resources, rather than a partner. But the West is not responsible for the destruction of the Zimbabwean economy over the last decade, or wars in which children are enlisted as combatants. In my father's life, it was partly tribalism and patronage and nepotism in an independent Kenya that for a long stretch derailed his career, and we know that this kind of corruption is still a daily fact of life for far too many."

It was four years before the president returned to the continent, when he visited Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania in 2013. But during that trip's major policy address at the University of Cape Town, he reiterated his country's commitment to the continent, emphasizing a new U.S.-Africa partnership that moves beyond assistance and foreign aid and towards supporting African countries and their militaries to increase their capacity to solve problems: "Now America has been involved in Africa for decades. But we are moving beyond the simple provision of assistance, foreign aid, to a new model of partnership between America and Africa—a partnership of equals that focuses on your capacity to solve problems, and your capacity to grow."

The emphasis on partnership in general and, specifically, trade and investment dominated the first-ever U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in 2014, the largest gathering of African heads of state and government ever convened by an American president. An innovative feature of the gathering was the U.S.-Africa Business Forum, a second edition of which will meet in September at the margins of the United Nations General Assembly, bringing together senior African officials with executives of major companies to develop business opportunities.

The fact that this is happening should be no surprise—African nations account for six of the 13 highest compounded annual growth rate (CAGR) countries for 2014-2017—but it is news to a public used to thinking of the continent as the perennial beneficiary of charitable handouts or otherwise identifying it with the need of constant rescue, rather than associating it with the entrepreneurial dynamism that characterizes many of its burgeoning economies.

If the Obama administration deserves credit for its efforts to shift the emphasis in America's engagement with Africa towards partnership and opportunity, it nonetheless has also had to contend with and will bequeath to its successor some very real security, humanitarian and developmental challenges for which its stewardship remains to be judged.

Even if the threat posed by Islamist insurgencies, like Somalia's Al-Shabab and Boko Haram in Nigeria and West Africa, has been reduced in recent years, the extremist groups have proven their resilience time and again as Africa's many poorly-governed spaces continue to be exploited as targets for terrorists, recruits and other agents of violence. The administration's decision to intervene in Libya in early 2011 and the resulting vacuum that opened a space for the so-called Islamic State militant group (ISIS) in that country, as well as the spillover effects across the Sahel, will also continue to affect African security and be the subject of debate for years to come.

Likewise the administration's record on strengthening democratic governance in Africa is a mixed one, despite the emphasis on it in the 2012 U.S. Strategy Toward Sub-Saharan Africa. The historic victory of challenger Muhammadu Buhari over incumbent Goodluck Jonathan in the 2015 presidential contest in Nigeria, Africa's most populous country and (until recently) its biggest economy, and the peaceful transition between the two governments was a policy success for the U.S. administration, as Buhari himself acknowledged.

On the other hand, it has been estimated that funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) for democracy assistance to Africa has declined more than 40 percent since 2009 and autocrats, like Joseph Kabila of the ironically-named Democratic Republic of Congo, seem to be getting away with hijacking the constitutional processes of their countries in the last months of their presidential terms.

On the diplomatic front, one of the administration's most noteworthy achievements, helping shepherd the Comprehensive Peace Agreement negotiated under its predecessor to its fulfilment in the largely peaceful referendum and subsequent secession of South Sudan, quickly turned to ashes as the new country was convulsed in a civil conflict that shows no signs of abating.

Thus, as with other regions and issues, it is probably too soon to fully assess President Obama's legacy in Africa. However, in consistently articulating that the continent is "more important than ever to the security and prosperity of the international community, and to the United States in particular," the president and his administration have shifted the Africa narrative in the minds of American decision makers and the general public who, through their votes as well as their shared ownership of U.S. corporations doing business in Africa, will determine both policy and business decisions for years to come.

J. Peter Pham is director of the Atlantic Council's Africa Center. Follow the Africa Center on Twitter @ACAfricaCenter.