Obama's many challenges overshadow Africa

NAIROBI (Reuters) – Despite the joy and high expectations inspired across Africa by Barack Obama's election, issues on the world's poorest continent have hardly featured at all on the new U.S. president's agenda in his first 100 days.

Many Africans hoped Obama’s inauguration in January as Washington’s first African-American leader would mark the start of a new U.S. drive to end the poverty, disease, corruption and conflicts that plague many of their countries.

But a tidal wave of domestic priorities ranging from the worst financial crisis for decades to floods and now a public health emergency triggered by swine flu, plus a series of foreign policy challenges, have left little time for Africa.

The commander-in-chief’s father may have hailed from Kenya, but most on the continent are realistic about where they rank.

"We in Senegal do not expect much from Obama because America has a lot of problems that he has to take care of," said Hadi Diouf N’diaye, the 32-year-old manager of a Dakar internet cafe.

Top of the list for the new president has been the global economic slowdown. It has dominated major summits overseas and driven him to push Congress for a budget at home that would see him spend and borrow more than any U.S. leader in history.

With early forecasts that Africa would escape the worst of the financial meltdown now looking hopeful at best, many on the continent have been watching the response in Washington keenly.

Akwasi Osei-Adjei, Ghana’s former foreign minister, said the first 100 days suggested Obama could do a lot to help the world. 

POVERTY GOALS

"But I must say he needs to do more through inclusiveness to get around the recession which is taking a toll on Africa," he said, adding that the poorest countries needed more assistance now to meet the U.N. Millennium Development Goals by 2015.

"I want him to do more than he’s doing now to provide the right environment for the continent to achieve this target and integrate into the world economy," Osei-Adjei told Reuters.

Former U.S. President George W. Bush oversaw significant aid increases to Africa during his administration — winning fans on the continent as his popularity plunged almost everywhere else.

During last year’s election campaign, Obama went further: he would prioritise ending the war in Sudan’s western Darfur region that he has called genocide, he would cut poverty and help the neediest Africans get access to doctors, nurses and teachers.

His appointment of Susan Rice, a former assistant secretary of state for African affairs during Clinton’s second term, as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations was seen by many as a sign that he wanted more attention on the continent’s woes.

Obama has proposed doubling annual U.S. overseas aid to $50 billion within four years, rooting out graft and strengthening the African Growth and Opportunity Act trade agreement.

But beyond the economic challenges at home, Obama has faced a staggering array of foreign policy issues.

Finessing plans to draw down troop numbers in Iraq while ramping up U.S. military deployment in pre-election Afghanistan have fought for his time alongside a North Korean rocket test and attempted rapprochements with Cuba and Iran. 

Mounting chaos in Pakistan, drug-fuelled violence on the Mexican border and a renewed focus on the legality of Central Intelligence Agency detention and interrogation techniques used under the Bush administration have all added to his in-box.

KERRY IN KHARTOUM

There has been some progress on Africa.

John Kerry, chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, visited Sudan earlier this month in a sign that tense relations between Washington and Khartoum might be thawing.

In a Reuters interview, the former U.S. presidential candidate suggested that diplomacy could eventually result in a lifting of sanctions and the removal of Sudan from a U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism.

Otherwise, the only time Africa forced its way up the White House agenda was the hijacking by Somali pirates of a U.S. container ship and the five-day hostage ordeal of its captain.

The end of the saga — U.S. snipers killed three pirates and arrested a fourth far out in the Indian Ocean — was hailed by some commentators who said it proved Obama was not afraid to use the U.S. military’s "hard power" when warranted.

Such heightened U.S. interest in a long-running African tragedy like Somalia is unlikely to be repeated anytime soon.

Out of 41 international analysts asked to grade Obama’s first 100 days in office by Foreign Policy magazine this week, just four mentioned the continent at all, and three of those only did so in connection with the piracy incident. 

David Rothkopf, visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said many of the thorniest foreign policy problems Washington faces are found in Africa.

"Sadly, it only ever takes maintaining the unhappy status quo there for American presidents not to be graded there on their performance at all," Rothkopf wrote.

"Bush probably did better there than most recent presidents and it didn’t help his grade one bit."