[dehai-news] (Chicago Tribune) A continent the U.S. cannot ignore


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From: Biniam Tekle (biniamt@dehai.org)
Date: Thu Dec 04 2008 - 08:52:57 EST


A continent the U.S. cannot ignore By Christian Hennemeyer December 4, 2008

*By Christian Hennemeyer*

On hearing the news that Barack Obama had been elected president of the
U.S., residents of Nairobi, Kenya, took to the streets shouting "We won!"
Meanwhile, hundreds of miles to the south, bushmen in the Kalahari Desert
prepared cattle for slaughter to honor Obama's victory. Africans were of a
single mind: One of theirs was now leader of the world's most powerful
nation.

In U.S. political circles, the reaction has been restrained. The skeptical
majority of Washington insiders insists Africa will get short shrift from a
new administration inheriting the grave problems of Iraq, Afghanistan and a
global financial crisis. On the other hand, there's a loudly hopeful
minority, comprising advocates and scholars, who believe thatObama will pay
special attention to the continent, an optimism apparently based on his
Kenyan heritage, and not on anything Obama has said or written. Indeed, in
his book "Dreams from My Father," Obama reveals a keen eye not just for the
beauty but also for the blemishes of Africa. Our new president is no dreamy
afrocentrist.

The truth, as usual, lies somewhere between the extremes. To believe Africa
will be near the top of the foreign policy agenda is naive, but the days are
long past when a U.S. president could afford to ignore the continent. The
political backwater of 20 years ago is now a major source of oil, raw
materials and immigrants for the U.S., as well as a stark reminder of the
chasm between the world's rich and poor, brown and white. Africa makes great
claims upon our virtue and venality.

 An exhaustive list of African priorities is far beyond the scope of an
op-ed, but Obama will certainly have to confront the challenges emanating
from Africa's giants. Four nations—Congo, Nigeria, Ethiopia and South
Africa—make up about half of sub-Saharan Africa's population and are the
principal sources of its problems and promise. If we can help fix them, the
entire continent will benefit.

Congo remains the sick man of Africa. Although the elected government of
Joseph Kabila has been in power for 2˝ years, the country has yet to begin
shedding the ingrained habits of the long era of kleptocratic dictator
Mobutu Sese Seko: corruption, incompetence and ethnic conflict. Allowing
Congo to fester means continued decay in the entire central African
region—Rwanda, Burundi, Congo and the Central African Republic. One
significant step for the Obama administration will be to immediately help
the UN reinforce its undermanned peacekeeping mission in the Congo's violent
east, in part by contributing a symbolic contingent of U.S. troops.

Africa's most populous country, Nigeria, has long been a poor example to the
rest of the region; bad elections in 2007 have been followed by bad
governance. The U.S. needs to hold its friend and ally to much higher
standards, despite our thirst for Nigeria's abundant petroleum.

The Horn of Africa is a laboratory for political pathogens. Autocratic
Ethiopia, a key U.S. ally, is sandwiched between its arch enemies Eritrea
and Somalia, a bubbling cauldron of chaos and violence. U.S. policy in the
Horn should shift from its obsessive focus on anti-terrorism to broader
economic and social development.

Nevertheless, there is real hope to be found in Africa. For example, the
continent's economic powerhouse, South Africa, is transitioning from the
post-apartheid domination of the African National Congress to something that
looks a lot like a real multiparty system. Recognition of and support for
this democratic progress will be applauded by Africans.

Obama came to power by appealing to a deep hunger for change. Nowhere is
change more desperately needed than in the land of his father's birth.

*Christian Hennemeyer is a vice president of the International Foundation
for Electoral Systems and has lived and worked in Africa for more than 20
years.*

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