A lasting legacy for Obama in Africa ought not to be defined by a single issue or set of issues, but by the arrival of Africa as an equal partner and important player in global affairs.
As the son of an African, President Obama could have a truly transformative effect on the lives of ordinary Africans. His administration will of course work assiduously to address urgent crises in Sudan, DRC, Somalia, Zimbabwe, and elsewhere. However, given the extraordinary popularity that President Obama already enjoys in Africa, the Obama administration is in a position to press for meaningful progress toward more democratic and transparent governance. If the administration seizes this opportunity, President Obama's legacy will be to have positioned Africa in the mainstream of U.S. foreign policy by replacing recycled and hollow platitudes about governance, democracy, development, and stability with nuanced policies to improve the everyday lives of people across the continent.
Seizing this opportunity begins with an investment in people. Africa is currently an afterthought for most U.S. policymakers--either a diplomatic backwater or a stepping-stone toward a diplomatic career in regions of the world with greater prestige. There are few career Africanists in the bureaucracy, and the result has often been a cookie cutter approach to policy that has seldom yielded the desired results. President Obama can change that by elevating Africa's significance in his foreign policy, by helping Americans understand how the well-being of Africa and our own well-being are interconnected, by developing a roster of talented and committed Americans to staff embassies and offices that deal with Africa, and by demanding nothing short of the most rigorous analysis and careful consideration in developing policy.
Seizing this opportunity requires investment in bilateral relationships. Africans (particularly sub-Saharan Africans) are natural allies and friends of the United States. We represent values that many Africans admire without the colonial baggage that weighs down France, the UK, and others. Rather than the traditional East/West or Global North/Global South lens through which U.S. relations with Africa have been traditionally filtered, President Obama can shift U.S. engagement toward deeper and more permanent alliances with African governments that share our commitment to core principals of democracy, the rule of law, fiscal probity, religious freedom, and human rights. As important, investment in relationships will help develop a block of countries that will support the U.S. leadership on the global challenges that will define Obama's legacy: economic meltdown, global warming, arms proliferation, global health pandemics, and the threat posed by transnational criminal and terrorist networks.
Finally, seizing this opportunity demands an investment in multilateral institutions that work in Africa and developing new partnerships with the private sector to tackle the most pressing problems. The problems facing the continent will not be overcome without sustained commitment from U.N. agencies, better coordination among major donors, smart investment by international financial institutions and private donors, and a credible and robust African Union. Africans themselves have established the architecture to assert greater leadership in tackling shared challenges. President Obama can use his global influence to help nurture and strengthen nascent African institutions, the U.N., and the Bretton Woods institutions, and to press for the necessary reforms to make them work better for the people they were created to assist.