By Harvard professor Calestous Juma
(Forbes) – Euphoria swept across Sub-Saharan Africa when Barack Obama was elected the first black president of the United States in 2008. Kenya, the ancestral home of his father, declared a national holiday to mark his victory.
His re-election in 2012 has generated little celebration. This is mainly because in the last four years Africa has learned to relate to President Obama as a leader of another sovereign state and not as a relative of whom much is expected.
President Obama’s seeming distance from the continent has helped Africa to reflect on its place in the world in a more mature and self-reliant way.
Obama’s first term coincided with major diplomatic events that significantly altered the way Africa views the United States. It was clear to Africa from the outset that Obama had a lot on his plate: a flailing economy; two wars; terrorist threats; and the unraveling of the euro.
In addition, Obama faced major internal domestic challenges and opposition. It was clear from these events that Africa had to define a new path that did not require classical foreign assistance. In a way, this period helped Africa quickly learn to chart its own future.
Indeed, Obama’s strategy on Africa, released in June 2012, reflects the changed times and will continue to guide his relations with Africa during his second term. The strategy “sets forth four strategic objectives for U.S. engagement in Africa: (1) strengthen democratic institutions; (2) spur economic growth, trade, and investment; (3) advance peace and security; and (4) promote opportunity and development.”
This shift has positive implications for Africa and would help to reinforce the continent’s own aspirations to increase its participation in the global economy based on a diversified product base. The United States will be focusing in the coming years on strengthening its manufacturing base.
Similarly, Africa should see the United States as a role model and shift its policy attention toward industrial development, starting with adding value to agricultural and mineral resources through aggressive industrial policy. Programs such as the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act offer starting points for expanding trade relations.
This shift also has significant implications for Africa’s diplomatic relations in general. Traditional bilateral relations that focused on aid need to be replaced by new approaches that focus on economic diplomacy. Several African countries including Kenya and Rwanda have already started using the principles of economic diplomacy in their choice of diplomats.
Obama’s tenure has coincided with the rise of China as Africa’s leading trading partner. So far China is viewed largely- and wrongly as merely being interested in raw materials. To the contrary, China is building long-term trade relations with Africa that should help open up opportunities for trilateral cooperation, especially at a time when both Africa and the United States will be seeking to improve trade cooperation with Asia.
Africa’s national diversity is becoming a burden for diplomatic interaction. It is more efficient for the United States to work with regional groups in Africa than with individual states. This means that efforts to foster regional integration by creating larger markets, simplifying trading rules, reducing corruption, and investing in regional infrastructure to promote movement of goods will go a long way toward strengthening US-Africa relations.
It should be expected that Obama will push hard on democracy in his second term. Two obvious areas stand out. The first is supporting democratic transition in African countries engulfed by the Arab Spring. The second will be working to help support democratic transition in countries where autocrats are still clinging to power.
Probably the biggest challenge for the Obama administration is to go beyond elections and support the creation of genuine political party structures. In many parts of Africa tribalism has hijacked democracy because it is the only forum for political organization. More will need to be done to foster political competition based on ideas rather than tribal affiliation, which has now emerged as a threat to democracy across Africa.
The United States will continue its efforts to protect itself against extremists around the world. The rise of Islamic extremists in Africa will unfold as a major area of cooperation between the continent and the United States. But unlike in other parts of the world, the U.S. will most likely engage by providing technical and logical support while expecting the continent to deploy soldiers. An example of this type of cooperation can be seen in Somalia. The next test case is northern Mali.
As the United States seeks to expand international trade it will also be looking to offer more maritime security. It is estimated that over 40% of the world’s trade involves transit through Africa’s territorial waters. However, the continent has weak maritime security capacity. It is possible that future U.S.-Africa security cooperation will involve maritime security development. But much of this will be done through smart use of technology and not classical presence of sailors.
On the whole, what may have appeared as President Obama’s neglect of Africa in his first term may have been exactly what Africa needed: a moment to learn to look inward. International diplomacy is largely about articulating one’s own interests. President Obama’s most important contribution to Africa’s international stature may just have been his ability to signal to the continent the urgency of working to stand on its own feet. It takes a good relative to say what others will not.
Originally published on Forbes.com