Obama Should Meet African Ministers Before G20 Summit

Richard Joseph
Richard Joseph
Richard Joseph Professor Emeritus - Northwestern University, Former Brookings Expert

March 16, 2009

President Barack Obama’s election held an implicit promise for Africa, the continent of his father’s birth. Yet the global financial meltdown, two wars and numerous interstate tensions might leave little room for addressing the breadth of African concerns.

Moreover, the arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court for President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan over Darfur war crimes has added to an ever-growing inbox. Complex humanitarian emergencies in Sudan, Somalia, and Eastern Congo, and persistent cruelties in Zimbabwe, risk consuming whatever time and energies may be available for Africa.

How, we must ask, can the rest of Africa be brought onto the Obama agenda?

The global financial crisis brings into sharp relief the urgency of this question. As President Jakaya Kikwete of Tanzania recently said in an economic meeting in Dar es Salaam: “Africa’s voice on this unnerving situation has been muted.” On April 2, President Obama will participate in the G20 London Summit, representing the 20 nations with the largest economies. Only one African country, South Africa, belongs to this gathering. A side meeting in London with several African finance ministers on the impact of the global crisis on their countries would send a clear signal of the administration’s concern. It could also yield concrete suggestions for urgent action.

In recent years, Nigeria, the most populous African country, has been sidelined in American foreign policy. Yet one of every five sub-Saharan Africans is a Nigerian, while Nigeria is fifth on the list of oil exporters to the United States. Nigeria and its neighbors will account for steadily increasing shares of western oil and gas imports.

As a democratic federation with near equal numbers of Muslims and Christians, Nigeria can be an important American ally in helping bridge this global religious schism. Despite governance deficiencies, reformist governments are emerging among Nigeria’s 36 states. One of them, led by Governor Babatunde Fashola of the economic powerhouse, Lagos State, is Obama-like in promoting transparency, dramatically improved public services and a fairer and more efficient tax system. He has also prodded the Nigerian federal government to be more active in confronting the global financial crisis.

Despite its large landmass and abundant though declining forest reserves, Africa has been on the periphery of policy discussions on climate change. Now that the Obama administration is moving aggressively to reduce carbon emissions, Africa should be brought to the center of global action on energy and the environment. Cap-and-trade systems and energy-efficient and carbon-trapping technologies can provide investment flows to Africa and protect forests and water systems.

Most African countries are oil importers. Even Nigeria meets most of its petroleum and kerosene needs through imports because of the dilapidated state of its refineries. Oil-gulping, smoke-spewing, generators are evident everywhere because power grids are so dysfunctional. Yet the capacity for solar energy is vast in the midst of abundant sunshine.

The birthplace of President Obama’s father, Kenya, illustrates the need to fast-track support for democratic and anti-corruption institutions. Michaela Wrong, in a forthcoming book, speaks of “the explosion of corruption” and the “ruthless pillaging” of Kenya under the unwieldy and costly coalition government.

During his visit to Kenya in August 2006, the President spoke out boldly against the corruption that was “robbing honest people of the opportunities they fought for.” He further stated: “Corruption erodes the state from the inside out, sickening the justice system until there is no justice to be found, poisoning the police forces until their presence becomes a source of insecurity rather than a source of security.” These words apply acutely to the recent assassination of human rights activists, Oscar Kamau King’ara and George Paul Oulu, and a student close to the University of Nairobi where President Obama had spoken.

With determined leadership, Africa can turn around and be part of President Obama’s “new foundation for prosperity”. Agriculture has perhaps the greatest unrealized potential in the continent. The Obama proposal to limit federal subsidies to American farmers can have a positive impact on African economies if enacted into law. Cotton farmers in Africa have been particularly harmed by these subsidies.

While responding to the urgent need to bring an end to extreme suffering in Africa’s failed states, President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton can promote transformative leadership, improved governance and sustainable development throughout the continent. Several hundred million Africans await the fulfillment of this implied promise.