Why Africa is off-limits in the US presidential debates

The US cannot afford another presidential cycle where more than 15% of the world’s population remains on the periphery of foreign affairs.

Matthew Carotenuto
19 October 2016
PA Images/AP Photo/Patrick Semansky. All rights reserved.

PA Images/AP Photo/Patrick Semansky. All rights reserved.With over one billion people, 54 countries and some of the fastest growing economies in the world, Africa should feature prominently in any foreign policy discussion. But in the 2016 US election season, African affairs have been deliberately marginalised. During the first two US presidential debates, the world’s second largest continent was barely mentioned, and filtered only through the racial and religious politics of ‘birther’ and Benghazi sound bites. The reason for this marginalisation is intimately linked to the legacy of the search terms “Obama and Kenya” and the clickbait of conspiracy theories which have proliferated about African affairs since 2008.

Africa has been historically marginalised in US foreign policy and dominated by American idioms of crisis. Obama’s political rise fueled a new nativist ‘crisis’, which reimagined racist tropes from the past through right-wing critiques and conspiracies about the first African American president. Since 2008, Obama’s paternal ties to Kenya have been transformed into a political commodity. Dismissed by the far left and embraced by the far right, revisionist debates about Kenyan heritage and history have plagued the Obama presidency and impacted crucial foreign policy initiatives.

Fueling Trump’s political rise at home, and impacting Obama’s legacy abroad, scholars and pundits will undoubtedly engage in lengthy debates about the intertwined histories of Trump-style nativism and the first African American presidency. We should not wait for these future books to be written. Africa is a crucial part of the world and the US cannot afford another presidential cycle where more than 15% of the world’s population remains on the periphery of foreign affairs.

Africa’s marginalisation: from Cold War engagement to racist revisionism

When African states emerged from colonial rule in the 1960s, US engagement with the continent increased dramatically. African countries were seen as potential allies during the height of the Cold War, but foreign interventions often perpetuated colonial tropes of saving African societies through western aid or helped prop up dictatorial regimes to fight ‘communism’. In the absence of Cold War geopolitics in the 1990s, foreign aid was replaced by disastrous neoliberal economic policies, and Africa’s global plight fell from strategic partnership to economic pariah.   

After 2001, US initiatives in Africa became intertwined again with a new idiom of crisis, the global ‘war on terror’. Under the Bush administration, a militarisation of foreign policy culminated in the launch of a special Africa command in 2007, AFRICOM (based, paradoxically, in Europe). However by 2006, the Department of Defense was also playing an increasingly important role as a source of foreign aid, with USAID managing less than one half of all official development assistance. Obama inherited this contested history of US engagement with Africa, but many hoped his heritage would signal a real change for the continent.

In 2008, Obama-mania swept across the U.S. and much of the world. In Kenya, Obama’s rise and local Luo heritage made him a celebrity abroad even before his star rose to national fame at home. When the then senator Obama visited Kenya in 2006, his paternal homecoming was a moment of national celebration. African support went beyond toasts of the renamed “Senator” beer. Filtered through their own complex history of regionalism and ethnic patronage dating back to the colonial era, Kenyan frustrations were immediately projected onto Obama. As one western Kenyan resident noted to the local press in 2004, “Now that our son has won, we can look forward to better roads, improved health and educational facilities since we know he can provide us all that.”

Obama did not promise any preferential benefits nor did he shy away from publically criticising African politics. Perceived as a fellow Kenyan in many circles, his heritage gave senator Obama a unique political platform and his actions reflected a nascent skill in African affairs. In 2006, his message resonated with many Kenyans as he argued forcefully against the corrupt politics of patronage and need for inclusive policies and institutions. His African policy rhetoric has remained consistent from senator to president and balanced between local needs and global interests while incorporating historic acknowledgment of the crippling legacy of the colonial past.

Since 2008, Obama’s nuanced approach to African diplomacy was swallowed up by politicised stories of the “son of a goat herder” from Kenya.  For his supporters, Obama’s cosmopolitan identity was something to celebrate. East Africans most boldly claimed him as “Kenya’s gift to America,” declaring a national holiday for all in November 2008. These boisterous claims also fueled bizarre assertions about a Kenyan birth. Combined with Obama’s perceived family connections to Islam, anti-colonial rebellion and Africa more broadly, these tropes proved too much of a tempting political exploit to ignore.

Donald Trump began to ride the ‘birther’ wave to political stardom in 2011. The origins of Obama and Kenya conspiracy theories, have a deeper history in the racial and religious politics of post-9/11 America. The ‘birther’ political canon went beyond citizenship claims and converged with bigoted readings of African history. These tales wove the Obama and Kenya story perilously into political debates about foreign policy, which were used by many Republican politicians to advance their political careers.

Right-wing pundits such as Jerome Corsi and Dinesh D’Souza were the first to widely paint Obama’s African heritage as “un-American.” Outlandish historical interpretations which implicated Obama in Kenya’s anti-colonial rebellion, corrupt politics and 2008 post-election violence reworked a US president into racist readings of Africa’s colonial past as benevolent, and a Kenyan political landscape defined dangerously through irrational US fears of Islam. The most inexplicable of these claims portrayed Obama as anti-British (read anti-white), simply because his father grew up during Kenya’s violent Mau Mau colonial rebellion of the 1950s.

Weaving Obama directly into Kenya’s historical struggle for independence a decade before his Hawaiian birth is an argument scholars find “stir fry crazy.” But as quasi-intellectuals like Corsi packaged their vitriol with footnotes and Ph.D. credentialing on their book covers, politicians such as Newt Gingrich and Mike Huckabee used these revisionist histories to describe Obama’s foreign policy as shaped by Kenyan “anti-colonial behavior”, or claim more crudely that the US was being governed by “a Luo tribesman from the 1950s.” 

Through best-sellers and documentary films, pundits introduced partisan readings of African history to American audiences. These claims promote common stereotypes of Africa through a “single story” of endemic “tribalism,” violence and despair, and fail to recognise the innovation and sustained growth of many African states.

Conspiracy theories like those wielded by ‘birthers’ have shown to have great staying power in American politics. For instance, even as Obama publically mocked Trump’s ‘birther’ claims at the 2011 White House correspondence dinner, a national poll found that 45% of Republicans still asserted his foreign birth. With polls in 2016 revealing similar results, even dismissive liberal humour could not ignore how this discourse actually influenced US foreign policy.

Nativism and foreign policy

In his first term, during the height of ‘birther’ attacks, Obama spent just one night in sub-Saharan Africa. He visited the continent more frequently in the second term, but his policies were marked by more continuity than change. Inheriting commercial diplomacy programs like AGOA from Clinton and a large HIV/AIDS initiative from Bush, Obama’s rhetoric may have offered what one scholar notes as “hope with little change.”

Obama’s Power Africa and Young African Leaders initiatives have ambitious goals to expand the energy sector and promote youth-centred development. While these programmes embrace Africa’s recent economic growth, Obama’s most notable engagements with Africa could be described as neocolonial. Through the US backed coup in Libya and drone strikes in Somalia, Obama has increased the US trend of waging the global ‘war on terror’ in Africa by proxy.

Constrained initially by the economic limitations of the great recession, once the lame duck period settled in there was even public acknowledgement that the ‘birther’ canon had taken its toll. On the eve of Obama’s 2015 historic visit to Kenya, former chief strategist David Axelrod noted in the New York Times that while he did not recall any direct discussions about ‘birther’ debates and African policy, he did relent that “maybe nobody needed to have that discussion.”

Obama’s foreign policy goals for Africa may have to wait until after 2016, and will continue to be threatened by ‘birther’ style arguments which have even resonated beyond US borders. Across the Atlantic, former London mayor Boris Johnson’s political rise was marked by a nativist style similar to Trump. Johnson once argued in 2002 that the root of African problems were because “we are not in charge any more” and in 2016 he referred to Obama as the “part-Kenyan president” with an “ancestral dislike of the British empire.” Johnson, one of the chief architects of Brexit, who recently referred to Africa as a “country” was appointed Britain’s foreign secretary in July. 

Why Africa matters

The US cannot afford to keep African affairs on the periphery of foreign policy debates. World Bank metrics have consistently shown Africa’s sustained growth since 2000. With lucrative commodities markets and global innovations like Kenya’s revolutionary mobile money system, the stability and growth of Africa is playing an increasingly larger role in the global economy.  Even as entrepreneurs like Mark Zuckerberg claim “Africa will build the future,” US business interests and foreign policy debates are lagging behind the “Africa rising” narrative while growing global powers are outpacing western investment and influence.
China-Africa trade is now three times greater than US-Africa trade. India has also surpassed the US as one of Africa’s growing trade partners. Chinese engagement is helping prop up dictatorial regimes from Sudan to Zimbabwe and eroding local efforts to push for political reform. As the infamous autocrat Robert Mugabe noted in 2005, “we have turned east, where the sun rises, and given our back to the west, where the sun sets." American diplomatic might is increasingly losing ground to Chinese investments. This economic shift in power also influences political debates about stability and security.
Billions have been spent during the Obama administrations fighting African proxy wars to combat terrorism and extremism. Fighting extremism has closely tied the security concerns of a number of African states with US interests, seemingly at the expense of diplomatic efforts in promoting political stability. Recent Afrobarometer data suggests there is still great support for democratisation and political reform across the continent, and presidential candidates should see this as a mutually beneficial opportunity to promote good governance and inclusive economic growth while also appealing to a growing population at home.

Since 1970, the population of African immigrants to the US has nearly doubled every decade. There are likely close to two million African born immigrants in the US today, and second generation African-Americans like Obama are also growing in number and influence. These populations remain intimately connected to their African heritage and contribute a large percentage of the estimated 36 billion in global remittances annually to the continent. This global flow of people and capital is expected to rise in the coming years and should not be ignored, nor tainted by the nativist discourse of contemporary US politics.   

Historians are beginning to take stock of Obama’s global legacy as the first African American president. Trump’s rise from birther billionaire to Republican nominee offers some of the best evidence to examine the African origins of contemporary far-right discontent and the danger that racist historical revisionism can inject into US policy. While pundits may view Barack Obama’s political rise as a historic anomaly in American identity politics, his cosmopolitan background is becoming an increasingly familiar demographic in the US, just as Africa’s place in the world rises in influence and significance.  

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