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The Black President’s Burden

One of the most insightful—and devastating—descriptions of the Western World’s influence on Africa is Walter Rodney’s 1972 How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. Rodney’s searing accusations against Western governmental and corporate greed, and their role in keeping the resource-rich continent of Africa and its people firmly stuck in the third world, according to Nigel Westmaas, “led to a veritable revolution in the teaching of African history in the universities and schools in Africa, the Caribbean and North America.”

But whether or not Rodney’s treatise changed the teaching of African history, it seems to have had little or no impact upon the policies of the West. No knowledgeable person believes that the Africa described by Rodney ended when the African nations gained independence in the sixties, nor that, today, Western countries are not still using Africa for their own ends while giving no heed to the welfare of the African people.

Both Europe and the US stood by during virtually all of the major  non-Arab country African upheavals of the last two decades, including genocidal wars in Rwanda, Darfur  and Congo at the same time that NATO was  intervening directly in Kosovo and Libya to protect civilians from slaughter. After suffering catastrophic losses following  relief operations in Somalia in 1993, the US appeared to take a hands-off policy with regard to African conflicts.

With new fundamentalist Islamic threats in Mali as well as other areas of sub-saharan Africa, the US is now beefing up its military presence on the continent, with advisors and technology such as drone aircraft. France has troops on the ground in Mali. The US  instituted an official Africa Command, AFRICOM, one of six Commands worldwide, in 2007. Recently it was revealed that the US will station drone aircraft in Niger and already has several other drone bases up and running in Africa.

What this means is that the American foreign policy toward Africa, having been weak on the economic and humanitarian sides in the first place, is becoming increasingly a military policy because of the threat of Al Queda—a development that failed to materialize in response to millions of Africans being killed in genocidal wars only a few years ago. What is the difference? When Africans were killing Africans the outcome was deemed not vital to US interests. But Al Queda poses a different threat. Unlike the various factions involved in the genocidal wars of the past, Al Queda is hostile to the West and to the US in particular. If they overthrew some of the African governments we would lose our access to vital resources.

In a recent interview, Emira Woods, co-director of Foreign Policy at the Focus Think Tank in Washington, pointed this out. Speaking of the militarization of US African policy she said, “It coincides with Africa increasing its significance as a supplier of oil to the United States. AFRICOM stood up in October 2008 just as Africa was actually reaching … 25 percent of the oil input that comes to the US from [abroad] so Africa was increasing its significance not only for oil [and] natural gas but for other vital resources so we have seen the steady increase in the militarization.”

It is a shame that our policies toward Africa are still being dictated by the same underlying agenda that prevailed during the colonial era. The African continent has contributed both natural and human resources to fuel the economies of the West for centuries. The US record with regard to using slave labor before the Civil War and with giant American corporations such as Firestone, which used Liberian rubber, Unilever, which made soap and other products from African raw materials, and Shell, which extracted oil from the colonial period until now, should make us, as a country, particularly eager to help struggling African nations develop, not just become military bases to protect our interests.

We have a President who is half African, whose father was born and lived in Kenya. Yet, Barack Obama has shown no inclination to pursue a new or enlightened policy toward Africa and, in fact, appears committed to heading down the road of further militarization of our African policy. Instead, he should be reexamining that policy to make it benefit Africans, not just America.

The Editor


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