Mr. President, Let Enhanced U.S.-African Relations Be Part of Your Legacy

Dear President Obama,

Congratulations on your election for a second term as president of the United States of America.

As millions of Americans celebrated your re-election, they were joined by many more people all over the world. But it is in Africa where your re-election was received with the greatest excitement. In Kenya, the country of your father, the announcement that you had won again triggered widespread jubilation. They are still dancing in your father’s village of Kogelo.

You now have four more years to create a legacy that will be remembered by generations to come. Even with the burden of reviving the U.S. economy, I hope that you will focus on what your legacy on Africa will be. You have a great opportunity to shape U.S.-African relations more than any other president. You must not squander this opportunity. You must be bold and make it known to your staff that Africa is a priority. You must go a step beyond what Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush did in advancing the U.S.-African relations.

The effort by your administration to define a “New Strategy on Africa,” released in June, was welcome, but, for the most part, Africa has been on the radar of your administration like a distant star in the sky. It has been difficult for many analysts to identify what is “new” and “strategic” in that policy document. To many, the strategy largely “restates, recycles and renames” existing approaches and strategies. It does not lay a foundation for creative engagement with an emerging Africa. It will not form a basis for building a legacy. So, as a starting point, shelve this strategy and start fresh.

Understandably, a focus on Africa during your first term would not have been politically rewarding. U.S. foreign policy toward Africa does not have a well-organized constituency in the United States to mobilize for votes. A concentrated focus on Africa has low political returns and high risks. It is conceivable that, had your administration taken a major interest on Africa, this move could have been used against you during your re-election bid. Thus, it is apparent that your administration’s new strategy takes a very cautious approach to engaging Africa. It is informed more by political calculus rather than what is really best for both United States and Africa. The strategy seems to take the position that Africa has little to offer the U.S. in terms of economic and national security interests. This is a misguided starting point that your administration should seek to dispel. For you to leave an enduring legacy on how U.S. should engage with Africa, your administration must shift away from the mindset of a “hopeless continent” to that of a “rising Africa.”

Mr. President, your message to Africans during your visit there early in your first term generated great expectations as to how the United States viewed Africa. There were expectations that with one of their “own” in the White House, the United States would enter into more mutually beneficial partnerships with Africa countries than had been the case before. Africans expected that the U.S. would now view Africa as an opportunity rather than a problem. This, Mr. President, does not appear to have happened: Africa has remained at the periphery of U.S. foreign policy, a continent largely ignored and often seen as a nuisance. The opportunities that would have otherwise been realized from deeper engagement with the continent have been missed. In addition, Africans increasingly consider the speech you made in Ghana as largely rhetoric, not backed by substantive actions or actual change.

Your re-election provides you with a great opportunity to articulate a visionary approach to engaging Africa in line with the new realities. America has largely ignored the great potential that Africa has, and it will require bold and visionary leadership to change how America engages with Africa. Mr. President, you are this leader, and Africa awaits your action. Such an engagement is an economic, security and moral imperative.

Mr. President, Africans are also eagerly waiting for you to make a more extensive trip to the continent in the near future. At that time, I hope you will be pinpointing specific examples of enhanced U.S.-African cooperation under your leadership.

Yours sincerely,
Mwangi S. Kimenyi