Azubuike Ishiekwene: In Africa, Obama’s Tasks Are Huge

By Azubuike Ishiekwene

President Barack Obama is stepping up to a full plate. With nearly three million Americans out of jobs in 2008 alone, his priority must be to put the United States back to work again. Yet, there’s so much else in the world crying out desperately for attention.

It is a striking irony that Africa, which has given the United States its forty-fourth president, is the same continent that produced the two ranking Al-Qaeda members killed by U.S. drones in a New Year strike in Pakistan. Usama al Kini and Sheikh Ahmed Salim Swedan, the two Kenyans killed in the strike, could have been just like the men next door, raised on the basic African mores of communal harmony, respect for life, and the love of one’s neighbor. But these fellows were not; they were a different breed—masterminds of deadly terror attacks (from the East African bombings in 1998, which left 212 dead, to the Islamabad Marriott hotel bombing last September, which left 55 people dead).

The increasingly active role played by sub-Saharan Africans in the operations of Islamic fundamentalist networks is one of the challenges that the Obama administration will have to grapple with in the coming years. These challenges raise important questions: How many more al Kinis are being nurtured in terror cells in a continent festering with wars, narco-trade, corruption, and failed governments? What factors are responsible for the ascendancy of sub-Saharan Africans in a terror network once dominated by Middle Easterners?

The conditions that produced al Kini and Swedan abound in many parts of Africa today, even though the continent was only a footnote during the U.S. presidential election. Obama and John McCain made a few stray comments about Darfur, but neither spoke with clarity about what the continent should expect on their watch. Africa was a curiosity.

The global press followed Obama to his Luo roots in Kenya. But it had a hard time explaining how it was that while one Luo, Raila Odinga, could never hope to make it to his country’s top job, another Luo, 8,000 miles away, was about to make history as the first black president of the United States.

If the Obama odyssey demonstrates what is possible when grit and preparation meet in a land of opportunity, the misadventure of al Kini and Swedan speak to the dangers that the increasing number of failing and failed states pose to the world.

This, then, is the reality that confronts Obama from today forward. About half the population of Africa lives mainly in four countries: Nigeria (140 million), Ethiopia (82 million), the Democratic Republic of Congo (62 million), and South Africa (44 million). In the case of the first three, political instability, corruption, and devastating resource conflicts have combined to uproot millions and worsen poverty and misery among large swathes of the population.

South Africa may have fared better than the rest, but the unraveling of Zimbabwe and the ongoing battle for the soul of the ruling African National Congress have left many on edge about what the future holds. For every small state like Botswana (population 2 million) or Mauritius (population 1 million) that is held up as a bright example, there a dozen more—from Somalia to Guinea and from Equatorial Guinea to Mauritania—that have become potential recruiting grounds for terror gangs, drug cartels, and military adventurism. After what looked like a spirited effort to overcome its demons at the turn of this decade, Africa is falling behind again. The farcical elections in Zimbabwe, Nigeria, and Kenya, and the party coup in South Africa, have sent pundits back to the lab.

In the days of the Cold War, the devil would have found jobs in communist workshops for millions of young and idealistic Africans either anxious to gain power or frustrated by failing leaderships in many of the countries. Today, the vacancy for many of such youths has shifted from communism to crime and religious zealotry. Faith remains the essential credential for signing up, but the recruits can also look toward instant fame, thanks to the ubiquitous power of the media.

President Bill Clinton tried to deal with the continent’s underlying economic problems by passing the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which opened the U.S. market to more trade from Africa. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, under his leadership of the G-8, set up the Commission for Africa which focused on helping the continent achieve the Millennium Development Goals and a peer review mechanism.

Obama’s call must first be to reverse the disastrous bumbling of the George Bush years. Bushism has not only isolated major U.S. allies in the continent, it has also given a strong impression that all America ever cared about was access to Africa’s mineral wealth. The crevices between a diminished American moral authority in the last eight years and China’s rapid economic advances on the continent have been filled by all sorts of vermin. Al Kini and Swedan are troubling manifestations.

I’m not suggesting that Africans should abdicate responsibility for their own problems. Not at all. What I’m saying is that if globalization has taught us any lessons at all, it is that what happens in one part of the world, however distant it may seem, may just resonate in our backyard, or worse, at our own doorsteps. By unilateralism shall no nation prevail: a lesson lost on Bush for eight years. I hope Obama won’t have to learn it on the job.

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Azu Ishiekwene has been an investigative reporter, a features writer, a member of the editorial board, and the editor of Punch Titles, Nigeria’s highest selling newspapers. He is currently the executive publications director of Punch and writes a weekly Tuesday column in the newspaper. He is the author of Nuhu Ribadu, a book on Nigeria’s stalled anti-corruption war, the chair of the CNN/MultiChoice African Journalist of the Year Award panel, and a member of the board of the World Editors Forum.

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