Some in Africa Expect Miracles from Obama

November 10, 2008 at 10:25 am Leave a comment

barack-michelle-obama-7.jpgTwo years ago, Barack and Michelle Obama were tested for AIDS before an
audience of thousands here in an effort to remove the public stigma
from the disease.

After the election of a man many Kenyans
consider a native son, the question has become: What else will Barack
Obama be able to accomplish for Africa once he becomes president?

As in much of the world, hopes for his
presidency are high — perhaps unreasonably so. William Kioko, 35, a bus
driver in Nairobi’s Kibera slum, said Obama’s victory was “like a
miracle.”

“If this change is possible in the United States,” Kioko said, “then curing the African wars is easy.”

Africa experts are optimistic but much more
subdued. They say the global economic crisis and the United States’
considerable military commitments overseas may stymie Obama if he tries
to intervene in conflicts in Darfur, build on President Bush’s
groundbreaking AIDS programs or take on Islamic extremists in the Horn
of Africa.

“These are clearly issues that President-elect
Obama is passionate about and serious about,” said John Norris,
executive director of the Washington-based Enough Project, which
campaigns against crimes against humanity.

“There’s a lot of goodwill and a sense of
optimism. But that new approach is being tempered by a lot of realism
about the magnitude of the problems that he has to deal with,” Norris
said.

Expectations have been high in Africa ever since
Obama, whose father was from Kenya, traveled to the continent as a
senator in 2006 and proclaimed, “You are all my brothers and sisters.”
He visited Kenya, South Africa, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Chad and told
cheering crowds that he would lobby for help back in the USA to solve
their problems.

Aware of the limitations now that Obama is
president-elect, African leaders have tried to tamp down their own
people’s hopes. “Africans must not ask extraordinary things from
(Obama), must not expect … that through the miracle of his election,
America will drain money on Africa to change our continent,” Senegalese
President Abdoulaye Wade warned last week, according to Reuters. “I
don’t think that’s going to happen, and it wouldn’t be a good thing.”

AIDS and HIV, which infect about 22 million
people in sub-Saharan Africa, is an issue where the money crunch could
be particularly acute.

The U.S. Congress has passed legislation that
would triple funding for the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS
Relief, or PEPFAR, which provides drugs to about 1.2 million
HIV-positive Africans. Because of the economic crisis, paying out that
projected $48 billion bill over the next five years could force cuts in
other critical foreign aid programs, says Laurie A. Garrett, a senior
fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“If they cut the rest of foreign assistance by
50% or more, we’re going to be running a U.S. foreign assistance that
is just basically three things: Iraq, Afghanistan and AIDS,” Garrett
said. “Lord help you if you are a child with diarrhea, Lord help you if
you are a woman in need of a C-section.”

Peter Piot, the executive director of the United
Nations’ AIDS program, warned last month that even if foreign aid stays
at current levels, AIDS deaths worldwide could reach 3 million per year
by 2011, up from 2 million in 2007.

Treating those enrolled in programs such as
PEPFAR is getting more expensive. Many patients develop resistance to
first-line drugs and require pricier second-line medications. Africa
also experiences the same problems seen elsewhere in the world.

“The dollar has declined so much in value,”
Garrett said. “There is the food crisis, the economic crisis and energy
crisis, and when you put it together, the cost of doing anything is far
greater today than it was a year ago.”

Garrett said she does expect one instant benefit
from an Obama administration: a step away from the Bush
administration’s emphasis on abstinence programs. In practice, that has
resulted in a greater emphasis on AIDS treatment than on prevention,
she said. “People have been more comfortable with money going out the
door to buy drugs than to buy condoms,” she said.

Other African issues that could command Obama’s
attention when he takes office in January are violence in the
Democratic Republic of the Congo, where 250,000 have been displaced
this year, and the economic crisis in Zimbabwe, where President Robert
Mugabe’s government has seen inflation rise to 11.2 million%. During
his campaign, Obama condemned Mugabe’s intimidation of the opposition.

In Kenya, tensions have subsided since December,
when violence after a disputed election resulted in more than 1,000
deaths. On a dusty plot where an open-air market used to stand before
it was razed during the bloodshed, young Kenyans took a break from a
game of soccer to dream about what having Obama in the White House
might mean for them.

“People will come from America to see where he
is from,” said Graphine Okinda, 16. “The tourist industry will improve.
Maybe, when I finish school, I can be employed in a big hotel.”

Source: USA Today

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