Daniel Friedman
3 minute read
17 Jul 2018
1:46 pm

Many Africans love Barack Obama. Does he deserve it?

Daniel Friedman

While some would say Obama is the perfect person to lecture us on Nelson Mandela's legacy, others would strongly disagree.

President Barack Obama wipes away tears while speaking during his farewell address at McCormick Place in Chicago, Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

As America’s first black president, with a Kenyan father, it’s easy to see why some Africans adore Barack Obama.

Whether or not he was good for the continent, though, is a matter of debate.

His supporters would bring up the fact that he visited the continent seven times during his term – more than any of his predecessors. They may mention that he was the first US president to visit Ethiopia. They could bring up the military support his administration lent to Somalia, Cameroon and Chad to fight al-Shabaab and Boko Haram (although depending on your political views, this could be seen as him doing more harm than good).

Obama’s detractors have plenty of ammunition too – particularly the disastrous ousting and execution of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, and the aftermath that was hugely damaging for the country, which the politician has admitted was the “worst mistake” of his presidency.

In his approach to Africa, Obama did do a great job of saying the right thing. During his historic first trip to Ghana, he said: “I have the blood of Africa within me. My family’s story encompasses both the tragedies and triumphs of the larger African story.”

READ MORE: Obama set for ‘most important speech since leaving White House’

But some would argue that, ironically considering Obama’s African roots – and George W Bush’s overall reputation – his predecessor actually did more for Africa.

While Bush’s invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan mean he had an abysmal foreign policy record, and while at home he presided over a recession and was told he “doesn’t care about black people” by Kanye West due to his handling of Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath in New Orleans, when it comes to the African continent he is generally considered to have done pretty well.

According to Sudanese-British billionaire businessman Mo Ibrahim, George Bush is “a hero in Africa”. Ibrahim said: “It is funny: In his last trip to Africa I think he was absolutely struck by the warmth of people and how he was treated as a hero when things were really going wrong in Iraq. And here was a place he did wonderful stuff and people were grateful. And I think it was probably the happiest of his trips abroad.”

Bush met with 25 African leaders in the first term of his presidency, was the first US president to visit the continent during his first term, increased assistance to the continent to levels before unseen, helped end conflicts and combated HIV/Aids and malaria.

READ MORE: Dali Mpofu suggests EFF will boycott Obama’s Mandela lecture

Obama’s African policies by contrast got off to a slow start. It was only in his second term, in 2013, that he initiated the US-Africa Leaders Summit.

According to Foreign Affairs, Obama’s personal biography “actually made him less likely to focus on Africa, not more so, since he and his advisers viewed it as a liability”.

But Obama’s supporters could argue that his policy of “trade, not aid” sought to empower the continent, as opposed to Bush’s old-school aid-based model. These supporters lauded his attempts at allowing Africans to reach their full potential rather than keep them indebted.

As he told the BBC, people are “not interested in just being patrons or being patronised and being given aid – they’re interested in building capacity”.

Obama’s overall strategy in Africa “was a shift of US policy moving away from being particularly focused on humanitarianism and counterterrorism to emphasising that Africa was a continent of the future and it was also about trade and growth”, said Alex Vines of Chatham House, a British institute for international affairs.

Whether or not that shift in policy was a good or bad thing would depend on where you stand.

But it’s worth remembering that while some would argue he is the perfect person to speak on Mandela’s legacy, others would beg to differ.