HONOLULU – President Barack Obama is quietly but strategically stepping up his outreach to Africa, using this year to increase his engagement with a continent that is personally meaningful to him and important to U.S. interests. He will focus in Africa on good governance and supporting nations with strong democratic institutions.
Obama delivered that message on his only trip to Africa since taking office, an overnight stop in Ghana in 2009, where he was mobbed by cheering crowds. In a blunt speech before the Ghanaian parliament, Obama said democracy is the key to Africa’s long-term development.
“That is the ingredient which has been missing in far too many places, for far too long,” Obama said. “That is the change that can unlock Africa’s potential. And that is a responsibility that can only be met by Africans.”
White House officials believe the postelection standoff in Ivory Coast could be the model for Obama’s stepped-up engagement in Africa.
The president tried to call incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo twice last month, from Air Force One as Obama returned from Afghanistan and then a week later. Neither call reached Gbagbo; administration officials believe the Ivorian leader sought to avoid contact. So Obama wrote Gbagbo a letter, offering him an international role if he stopped clinging to power and stepped down.
U.S. President Barack Obama was one of the first Western president to directly ask to Gbagbo to step down, in what clearly seems to be a diplomatic “première” from the United States in Côte d’Ivoire. Never has the commitment from the U.S. seemed so intense.
More than being just about Côte d’Ivoire, the general feeling is that the election now stands as a credibility test for elections in Africa in general, but also ECOWAS (which was (too?) fast to react and threaten with military action) and United Nations operations in Africa .
The international diplomatic offensive seems to go in pair with the need for a fast resolution of the issue: presidential elections are planned in 2011 in Central Africa, Cameroon, Niger, Zimbabwe, Benin, Djibouti, Nigeria, Madagascar, Tchad, Democratic republic of Congo and Angola. A bad example in Côte d’Ivoire will surely strengthen the “illegal regimes” and weaken the international community and African institutions in their ability to contest fraudulent elections.