Barack Obama: an enduring legacy for advocates of democracy in Africa?
- John J Stremlau
Donald Trump’s February 13 calls to Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari and South Africa’s Jacob Zuma are his first signals of interest in sub-Sahara Africa.
Trump reportedly raised two US priorities: terrorism and trade. We don’t know if his counterparts found his assertions to be credible or even accurate. What we do know is that mutual confidence is essential in successful international relations. And confidence in Trump appears to be rapidly waning at home and abroad amid the chaos, divisiveness and alarming decisions that have marked his first month in office.
Africa’s democrats fear Trump’s autocratic leadership traits will give political cover, comfort and confidence to the continent’s remaining strongmen. It remains unclear whether this will in fact be the case. But it is a safe bet his leadership will not inspire the confidence of Africans that his predecessor Barack Obama enjoyed throughout his two terms.
In a survey of nine sub-Sahara African countries in 2015 the Pew Research Centre found that 74% had confidence in Obama to “do the right thing regarding world affairs”. Racial identity may be one explanation. But Obama also scored high or higher in predominantly white, Western Europe, Canada and Australia.
Moreover, his high standing in sub-Sahara Africa persisted despite grumbling that he never delivered American largess to the degree many initially expected. Nor did his use of the US military in Africa, including his support for the NATO-led 2011 overthrow of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, appear to dent his standing. This, despite the fact that he had many critics on the continent. Among them were prominent pundits and professors in South Africa.
In Kenya, the country of his father, his popularity remained high despite slipping from 94% in 2009 to 80% in 2015.
Beyond the numbers, Obama’s most lasting legacy may be his leadership traits. These were rooted in a commitment to sustainable democracy, no less than his hero, Nelson Mandela.
Pillars of Obama’s approach
Obama spent his political career building and benefiting from diverse coalitions, identifying with three civilisations through his own family: America, Africa and Islam. He advocated civic nationalism as an essential part of sustaining pluralistic democracy, and rejected the divisiveness of ethnic nationalism.
Obama is also an accomplished constitutional lawyer, whose respect for due process marked his presidency. Unlike Trump, Obama criticised court rulings against his policies but never the authority behind those rulings. Facts and evidence were essential to Obama and abetted confidence in his leadership at home and abroad. False news and repeated lying by Trump, or any elected leader, are among the most egregious threats to sustainable democracy. This is true in both America and Africa.
Obama also demonstrated a commitment to multilateralism. It was qualified, however, in a way that advocates of the African Renaissance and a more effective AU can appreciate. Regional and global order requires agreement to respect sovereign rights – as well as sovereign obligations. This is now reflected in the growing willingness of the African Union to engage in the internal affairs of its member states.
Obama’s most notable multilateral efforts all reflect this dual responsibility. These included the nuclear agreement with Iran and, most importantly for Africa, his leadership in advancing the agreement on shared sovereign obligations in addressing climate change.
Obama was also exceptionally respectful of constitutional due process and limited unilateral use of force in reprisal for terrorist and other hostile acts against the US. The same applied to his partnership with other nations that sought US military assistance in their counter-terrorist operations.
Criticisms and failures
Obama made a number of decisions that led to military assistance being given to African governments, including authoritarian regimes. Even though the assistance was limited, critics complained that it contradicted his democratic rhetoric and polices.
But in my view such assistance is legitimate, with two provisos. That it is proportionate to the threat to innocent civilians. And that it is provided at the request of a recognised sovereign government.
That Africa has faced a growing threat from terrorism is beyond dispute. According to the UN’s conflict prevention specialist Mohamed Yahya 33,000 people have died in terrorism-related violence in Africa over the past five years. The worst civilian losses occurred in the conflict prone countries of Nigeria, Kenya and Somalia.
One particularly controversial aspect of Obama’s policy was his willingness to deploy drone weapons to combat the scourge. Most deaths from drones occurred in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia. In 2016 US drone attacks killed around 2,000 in those countries, including about 100 civilians.
But Obama’s most controversial use of force was in Libya.
In March 2011 the UN Security Council approved collective intervention under a new doctrine, the Responsibility to Protect. As the civil war escalated the NATO-led coalition of 19 states also escalated their airstrikes. This led to the overthrow of the government, and eventual capture and killing of Qaddafi by rebel forces.
Obama admitted later that not providing adequate state building assistance to Libya was among his greatest failures. Whether the use of military force violated international law or was to the long-term detriment of the Libyan people is less clear. A 2016 Brookings study by Shadi Hamid makes a convincing defence for the intervention despite the continuing chaos and conflict.
Few leaders – whether in America or Africa – leave office with Obama’s record of public service unblemished by scandal, accusations of lying, defying or circumventing laws, or actions of self-enrichment. Leaders that eschew these traits are easily discernible and their behaviour adds authority and endurance to their legacies.
Obama no longer holds office but his voice is bound to resonate, especially when his leadership traits are compared with the reckless, bigoted and uniformed actions of his successor. Obama’s approval rating among Americans remains high lending strength to those resisting Trump’s executive actions. His Africa legacy will be harder to measure but should be of enduring inspiration to advocates of sustainable democracy.