A Nigerian friend once said to me, “Since the political decisions in your country impact us so greatly, you ought to let us have at least a partial vote.” With this truism in mind, it is understandable that our November presidential election was followed closely in Africa.
As the election progressed, I regularly got emails. One I received near the end said, “forget about the LME (the projects I work with in Africa) get Obama re-elected”!
Since the election, I have had the opportunity to attend a meeting of one of those projects with Africans from a number of countries. So while this is not a scientific survey it is broad-based.
The election’s results were on everyone’s mind and it cost me my Obama T-shirt and button. The latter was given to a Kenyan and the pride with which he wore it was worth the loss!
Prior to the election, comments about President Obama were similar to those from his original supporters in the U.S. There was a disappointment between the high hopes at his election and the achievements. Persons were disappointed in seeing only one trip to Africa, and except for Ghanaians, disappointment that their country was not visited.
People would cite President’s Bush’s AIDs initiative (continued under President Obama), asking “what has this president initiated?” The president’s Feed the Future initiative is not yet well known and it has a longer time horizon for achievement than distributing medicine. Severer critics worry about issues such as militarization through Africom, (the Defense Department’s Africa command), drones, the accusation of Rwanda’s (a US ally) involvement in the Congo and foot dragging on climate change, and hoped for a complete revision of U.S. past African policy.
However, as the campaign got into full swing the mood shifted from criticism to concern. People became to look at President Obama’s administration in a contextual rather than an idealistic sense. They began to hear from the opposition in the campaign. The debate on foreign policy was a disappointment as it focused almost completely on the Middle East (an indication of how little foreign policy is involved in the election except in a small number of areas with a strong constituency).
As the media reported on an increasing possibility of President Obama being defeated, the attention and open support for President Obama increased. As in the U.S., the election became personal.
After the election, friends I talked to from Morocco to Kenya, from Francophone Senegal and Benin to Anglophone Ghana and Nigeria and numerous others in between, cheered the results.
However as in the U.S., the election was greeted more with relief than the excitement in 2008 of the election of our first black president. Now there is a sense of realism as to what President Obama can achieve and the hope that in a second term there will be more attention paid to Africa. The likelihood of that happening increases with efforts on the part of U.S. voters to push for this result.
I was told during the 2008 campaign by a foreign policy advisor that “Obama wakes up every morning with an awareness of Africa and a concern about the impact of U.S. actions.” Advocates need to realize that it is not so much the president who must be convinced. We must create the climate which can enable him to move effectively in the direction of improved policies and their implementation in Africa.