In 1958, eminent Africanist scholars including David Apter, Elliot Berg, Rupert Emerson, Ruth Schachter and Emmanuel Wallerstein, among others, wrote “A New American Policy Toward Africa”. The document became the blueprint of the Kennedy Administration’s policy for an Africa then struggling to unyoke itself from European colonialism. Unfortunately, its principal recommendation–that America should support elite rule in Africa—may be the source of the West’s eagerness to set a very low bar for African governance; today, poor governance by successive elite regimes is par for the course in Africa, universally acceptable by western governments and the inter-governmental institutions they control and direct. To uplift Africa, the Obama Administration must jettison this policy, as acceptance is a restatement of the view that non-Caucasoid are incapable of self-government.
Following Kennedy’s assassination, his popularity in Africa escaped all boundaries; Africa felt the presumed dream of Kennedy commitment to uplift Africa unrealized is partially reflected in the response to his assassination by elite rulers. For example, Liberia’s William Tubman cabled that the “urn of grief has been opened and our tears are pouring in”. The diminutive but regal Haile Selassie showed in his appearance in the Capitol Rotunda, his irretrievable loss.
In contrast, African youth demonstrated their affection for Kennedy and the presumed, short-lived promise of his administration by copying the ‘real’ behavior of the ‘beautiful’ American, portrayed by Peace Corps personnel. It therefore became Kennedy’s most enduring legacy. Unlike the “ugly” Americans (diplomats and officials) who were barricaded in fortresses even before 9/11 to imbibe wine and eat cake with the uncaring ruling elites, villagers got to know youthful, energetic and caring humans who, although mainly white, shared their discomforts in isolated villages. The peace corps did not patronize nor condescend, not even to villagers
It seems obvious that, as Steinberg has observed, “Nowhere in the world is Barack Obama’s entry into the White House more anticipated than in Africa. Throughout the continent, the elevation of a son of Africa to the world’s most powerful position is a source of pride and validation, and a promise of a more mature, robust, and sympathetic relationship between Africa and America.” Will Obama’s Africa policy uplift Africa? There is evidence that since Jimmy Carter at least, Republican administrations provide more aid to Africa than their Democrat counterparts, although American among G7 remains the lowest aid givers relative to national output. For Obama’s Africa policy to uplift Africa, it needs to develop a framework committed to enshrining democratic governance, the rule of law and equality of persons before the law—the indispensable contours of the relationship with Africa.
Whether it was Kennedy’s early death or the flaws of “A New American Policy Toward Africa” that killed the dream, the sustained failure of African leadership is arguably due to many factors. It seems that since those promising days, the failure of elite keeps a continent that is far being resource poor undeveloped and marginalized. That “…American policymakers empowered African ‘big men’ who talked the talk but did not walk the walk” is a major obstacle requiring removal if Africa is to be uplifted.
An Obama Africa policy needs to understand the many forces which explain Africa’s interminable conflicts. The forces include prevalent elite rulers’ disavowal of the presumption that elections are necessary, but not sufficient, for democratic governance. When elites who are our fellow alumni win possibly manipulated elections, America ought not to consider the election or the winner a contributor to better governance. “Democratic elections” in Africa, largely bought by elites with stolen wealth and tend to become caricatures of tenets of democratic governance; they usually tend to create conditions to abuse the doctrine of separation of powers.
Obama’s Africa policy would wisely reject what even the dictator Ahmed Sekou Toure described circa 1979 as a “trade union of heads of state”. What else, if not the Toure observation, explains the consistent unwillingness of fellow elite rulers to condemn Uganda’s Musseveni, Cameroon/s Biya and Gabon’s Omar Bongo undeclared, “life presidents”, but even eyesores such as Mugabe? What rational explanation toward improving governance can one find for Mbeki’s disgraceful mediation in Zimbabwe? What explains Liberian support for Libya’s call for United States of Africa?
A desirable policy framework would emphasize the problems of citizens over those of rulers. Obama would do well to carefully weigh elite adulation of African elite rulers. By their praise, African elite rulers acknowledge Obama as the chief of all chiefs. African rulers, minor chiefs in Obama’s firmament, wish to be allowed to do as they wish constitutions and statues notwithstanding. The cost to international peace and security of continuing elite domination is the persistent undermining of respect or rule of law arising from inequality of persons before the law. That is what keeps the Mano River Basin unstable. Excluding from among acceptable policy contours those issues that eternally degrade democracy and replace respect for legitimate governments with cynicism is a cost and a risk not worth taking. Pre-occupation with elite concerns expresses the view that Eurocentric ideas are always superior. Imperial presidents continue the forte colonial Europeans created; the tug of war between traditionalist and modern elites; it is a zero sum game with no possibility of resolution if root causes of conflict are merely terminated.
The Obama Administration must remind itself constantly that America acts when it elects to sit on the sidelines, as was the case during the Liberian civil war. Inaction expresses solidarity with the elite.
A desirable Obama policy would de-emphasize poverty reduction as a missionary adventure, and embrace the call for wealth creation instead. This means transforming the policy of the World Bank and IMF to less experimentation in Africa. It means, in William Easterly terminology, defrocking the planners or at least allowing the searchers a place around the sacristy. It also means effectively giving concepts such as commitment to partnership and treaties such as the Paris Declaration a boost.
An Obama policy blueprint, unlike Kennedy’s, would desist from undervaluing then patronizing African expertise and opinions on how to develop the continent. Traditional—patronizing; assumes inequality, no partnership: superior technology; governance differentiated. American leadership under Obama discontinue the tyranny of low expectation from African governments, for it is a restatement of black incapacity for self rule.