President Obama operates by variable foreign policy standards, as his July 10 visit to Ghana illustrates: It is the last leg of a trip on which he has visited Russia for talks with Medvedev and Putin, and Italy for the G-8 conference. Given Obama’s own African heritage, his first visit as President to sub-Saharan Africa has been much anticipated by Africans of many nationalities. The choice of Ghana, according to Obama and his spokesmen, is intended to show support to one of the most successfully democratized African nations — but also, and less justifiably, to rebuke the much larger African nations of Nigeria and Kenya (both of them with longstanding ties to the U.S.), for their democratic shortcomings.
A single-nation stop in Africa could hardly encompass every aspect of U.S. policy for the region. Obama’s own comments, however, make clear his priority in selecting Ghana:
Well, part of the reason is because Ghana has now undergone a couple of successful elections in which power was transferred peacefully, even a very close election. I think that the new president, President Mills, has shown himself committed to the rule of law, to the kinds of democratic commitments that ensure stability in a country. And I think that there is a direct correlation between governance and prosperity. Countries that are governed well, that are stable, where the leadership recognizes that they are accountable to the people and that institutions are stronger than any one person have a track record of producing results for the people. And we want to highlight that.
We have seen progress [in other African nations] over the last several years; in some cases, though, we’re also seeing some backsliding. In my father’s own country of Kenya, I’m concerned about how the political parties do not seem to be moving into a permanent reconciliation that would allow the country to move forward. And Kenya is not alone in some of the problems that we’ve seen of late, post-election or pre-election…
There is a very practical, pragmatic consequence to political instability and corruption when it comes to whether people can feed their families, educate their children, and we think that Africa – the African continent is a place of extraordinary promise as well as challenges. We’re not going to be able to fulfill those promises unless we see better governance.
Obama’s endorsement of the rule of law and democratic commitments in Ghana, and his concern over Kenya’s failures in that regard, make an interesting contrast with the absence of any such endorsement regarding Iraq in 2009, and with his careful neutrality on the outcome of the disputed June election in Iran, regarding which, his policy was to avoid the appearance of “meddling.” Indeed, the Obama administration’s posture on Kenya, which is currently the subject of an International Criminal Court probe over election-related violence, stands in pointed contrast to its Iran policy: for Kenya, “throwing its weight behind” Kofi Annan’s ICC campaign to identify and try the perpetrators of violence; for Iran, commending the G-8’s condemnation of the post-election violence, but pursuing no tightening of sanctions or other concrete actions. Kofi Annan probably will not be handing the ICC a list of election-violence perpetrators from Iran any time soon, as he did July 9 with a list from Kenya.
We should perhaps not make too much of a single African visit. And there are good reasons to highlight the genuine successes of Ghana in building and maintaining a democratic tradition. But the importance Obama has attached to not choosing Nigeria or Kenya throws two of his emerging trends into stronger relief.
One is that Obama’s application of principle is situational and selective. We need look no further than the African continent to note that Obama eschews Kenya and Nigeria for electoral irregularities and violence, though he was quite willing to make his seminal speech to the Arab Muslim world — with explicit attention to the location’s symbolism — from Cairo, where Hosni Mubarak has routinely “won” reelection, as he did in 2005. Obama’s priority of effective democratization for Africa stands in further contrast to his recurring displays of respect for the politics and leadership of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, the theocratic monarch of one of the least-democratic nations in the Middle East.
If this pattern is fundamentally one of pragmatic — we might even say cynical — “realism,” it seems to be a realism that prizes symbolism over significant aspects of reality. Kenya has been a key partner in combating transnational Sunni terrorism in Africa, for example, as well as in the multinational effort to suppress piracy off Somalia. The common object of both of these efforts — Somalia itself — is under attack from a major guerrilla campaign against the UN-backed Transitional Federal Government (TFG), waged since May by the Al Qaeda-affiliated terror group Al-Shabaab. The TFG president, Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, visited neighboring nations this week to drum up greater material support for the African Union’s Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), a Bush-era peacekeeping force currently numbering about 4,300 in the country. Sharif Sheikh Ahmed in fact called on June 20 for armed intervention by his neighbors against the Al-Shabaab guerrillas.
That a crucial, game-changing fight is underway in Somalia is evident from further reporting that Eritrea, an emerging client of Iran, has been providing direct support to the Al-Shabaab terrorists, who also acknowledged their link to al Qaeda back in March. It is encouraging that UN Ambassador Susan Rice is requesting an increased UN commitment to AMISOM, as well as UN efforts in Somalia. But Obama’s overriding interest in the history of electoral violence in Kenya, and his invocation of Nairobi’s internal politics as a tiebreaker for his choice of African visits, appear disjointed in the overall context of U.S. security concerns in the Horn of Africa. A president cannot visit every nation; but the diplomatic utility of giving negative reasons for not visiting a long-time partner is questionable, particularly when the partner is the most stable nation in the region.
Obama, of course, was involved in 2006 in campaigning for one of the candidates in that year’s Kenyan election, Raila Odinga (and therefore campaigning against the current president, Mwai Kibaki). Understandably, Obama has unique ties to his father’s homeland. But it is a good question whether they justify emphasizing internal Kenyan politics over regional security issues.
Looking west across Africa, meanwhile, we can at least note that the President’s personal ties are not at issue in Nigeria. Nigeria has endured a renewed assault since mid-spring by the guerrillas of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), whose depredations against oil and gas infrastructure are considered by analysts to be the driver behind steadily-increasing world oil prices. Chevron, Shell, and Italy’s Agip have all had to close facilities, evacuate personnel, and increase security in the Niger Delta, where daily national production has been down by more than a fifth from 2008’s, as of mid-June.
Perhaps more ominous, this week saw the report of Nigerian guerrillas seizing a Philippines-flagged tanker off the Niger Delta’s coast, portending an expansion of MEND’s (and other groups’) hostage-taking and extortion activities, which have heretofore occurred ashore. While plagued by numerous problems, Nigeria is not likely to collapse into ungovernable turmoil like Somalia. But neither has the troubled government of President Umaru Yar’Adua had any notable success in suppressing MEND militancy in the Delta region. It is not encouraging that the at-sea tanker seizure this week unfolded nearly concurrently with an unconditional amnesty agreement accorded to MEND’s long-time leader.
We may hope that Obama’s policies will evolve to emphasize the kinds of practical engagement George W. Bush arranged with the nations of Africa. The new administration is to be commended for continuing the suite of Bush-era initiatives outlined in U.S. Africa Command’s command briefing, which include measures like the Africa Partnership Station, a Navy-centered effort to improve maritime security through bilateral and multilateral projects and exercises. Indeed, USS Nashville (LPD-13), an amphibious assault ship, worked with Nigeria and other nations in the Gulf of Guinea in March and April 2009, as the Aegis destroyer USS Arleigh Burke (DDG-51) did with Kenya’s navy in June.
That Obama has not dismantled or repudiated the Africa Command initiatives is a positive sign. Less so is his initial approach to sub-Saharan Africa, of implying that he is withholding state visits as a rebuke to nations that have not gotten their democratic mechanisms in order. This approach forms a notable contrast with his outreaches to demonstrably undemocratic (and electorally violent) regimes from Venezuela to Egypt to Iran. It also seems to emphasize a focus on the internal politics of some African nations, over pragmatic, and strategically comprehensive, attention to emerging threats in the region. Support for Ghana’s exemplary record of consensual government is laudable — but will have little impact on the looming future of Somalia as a failed state overrun by transnational terrorists, or on crime, terrorism, and the control of oil in the Niger Delta.