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January 23, 2019

Could Obama be the hope for Africa?

 This week the world is focusing on Kenya as we host the Global Entrepreneurship Summit, President Obama, his entourage of policy makers, business people and security detail. 

The visit is in sharp contrast with his first in 1988 when he was seeking a sense of identity and belonging at the defining age of 26. This time he comes in a grand entry to his father’s homeland, with the power and influence of the largest superpower, the world’s media on trail to capture every moment. As Kenyans we receive him with a sense of great pride regarding his accomplishment, the coming weekend a historical moment.

In a magical turn of events in 2008, the US voted President Obama, as its 44th President and its fourth youngest President at 47 years. The youngest President to assume office in US was Theodore Roosevelt at 42 years (1858) followed by John F. Kennedy at 43 years (1917) and thirdly Bill Clinton at 46 years (1993).

President Obama’s election appears to have been won on a platform of hope for an economy that was in recession, ailing amidst a financial crisis and escalating unemployment. Internationally, the US was at war, and its relative influence on the world scene was less than impressive and declining.   

In the circumstances, The “Yes We Can” campaign rallying call of  “I, we and you” are in this together was both a message of hope and empowering. In this message, he recognises that the needs of the electorate were larger than him, an acknowledgement that any political promises needed a unity of purpose to be achieved. So he took the road less travelled by many politicians and included everyone in the solution. 

"We can do this." "We can do that." "If we come together, we can achieve ...".  He was deploying the skills he had gained earlier on as a young community mobiliser as detailed in his memoir, "Dreams From My Father” at a federal scale to great effect. As someone clearly pointed out, Obama was asking people to join him, implying that he would listen, hear them and include them in solutions that rely on the best in them and in the society, and not the worst. 

For obvious reasons, his election was received with near ecstasy in Kenya and great excitement in Africa in general, the wave of Obama-mania palpable. Optimism was high that Africa was headed for better days, not least because in President Obama many saw that the word impossible was after all irreverent. Former President Kibaki, who once worked with Obama Senior at Treasury, declared a national holiday to allow many to celebrate with family and friends. Finally, the pundits had the answer to their question, “can anything good come from Africa?

As the term of President Obama comes to a close in the next 18 months, making this perhaps the final visit as president to Africa, many may ask what legacy he will leave for the continent and Kenya.

His predecessor President George Bush is credited with the 2004 launch of President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief and the Malaria Initiative both of which have made a significant difference in health sector funding in Kenya. President Clinton is credited with signing of the African Growth and Opportunities Act in 2000. These were major pre-development initiatives by the US in the last two decades that continue to date.

However, President Obama’s policy on Africa appears to have built on his predecessor’s achievement and moved a notch higher, with the potential to be truly transformative. Guided by the principles of partnership, President Obama’s administration has taken a catalytic position in regard to the development of Africa, with trade and investment rather than aid taking the centre stage.

In his broad-based initiatives, he seeks to mobilise partner countries, civil society organisations, the US Congress, other donors and governments, private sector partners, and multilateral and international institutions to drive development in Africa. This is uniquely different from prior administrations and the core of sustainability beyond his term in office.

First, he has embraced and continued with key initiatives made by his predecessors. He launched the Global Health Initiative to build on PEPFAR, and its funding more than doubled in 2008. In fact, Kenya was selected as one of the GHI plus countries in phase one of the project with a significant portion of the health sector budget in Kenya funded by the US. 

Recognising that health is at the heart of human progress, almost 80 per cent of US assistance to Africa is directed at the health sector. As highlighted in its strategy document, health determines whether parents can work and support their families, children can attend school and build their future foundation, women can survive childbirth to nurse and nurture their children and infants can grow and thrive. Then there is the recent renewal of AGOA, seeking to provide an opportunity for Africa to build its export potential. 

Secondly, the Feed the Future initiative was born in 2009 on the belief that global hunger is solvable.This global hunger and food security initiative geared at the agricultural sector where the vast majority of the population in Africa derive their livelihood has the potential to significantly reduce poverty and increase food security for more than 50 million people. Working along food value chains, it works from farms to markets to tables to improve incomes and nutrition for majority of people aimed at making chronic food shortages a thing of the past. 

Thirdly, Power Africa was launched in 2013 aimed at leveraging partnership to increase access to electricity to the vast population in Africa that is largely without reliable electricity. Power statistics in Africa are dismal; and even where power is available like in Nairobi, the quality is low and expensive. The term “black-out” is such a frequent vocabulary that it could as well be Nairobi’s contribution to the English dictionary. The combined population of 800 million people in sub-Saharan Africa produces roughly the same amount as Spain, which has a population of just 46 million. This lack of access to power constrains economic growth and confined hundreds of millions to generational poverty. Power Africa, initially a five year project will improve quality of life for many and bring access to more affordable power for business growth.

Fourthly, Trade Africa announced in July 2013 recognises Africa as the next global growth frontier home to seven of the ten fastest growing economies. The programme seeks to increase internal and regional trade within Africa and expand trade and economic ties between Africa, the United States, as well as other global markets. The programme encourages US companies to be leaders in engaging Africa for trade and investment and its initial focus is East Africa.   

Fifth, and perhaps of most long term importance is the Young African Leaders Initiative that seeks to develop the next generation of leaders. In a show that is reminiscent of the American Airlift that saw Obama Senior further his studies in America and pave way for the opportunities that moulded President Obama, the Young African Leaders Initiative will perhaps have the longest impact on the US- Kenya-Africa relations. The programme provides young people between 25 and 35 years of age the opportunity to hone their skills at a US higher education institution with support for professional development after they return home.

And finally, the inspiration of “Yes, We Can” is what Kenya and Africa needs most, because African solutions for African challenges are more resilient. The challenges of Africa are many and complex key among them youth unemployment, poverty, and terrorism.  We have the opportunity to leverage on the partnership with US and the visit of President Obama to address them, as part of the solution.

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