Interviewed by Ngum Ngafor
"... the politics of division, demonization and fear which was promoted with religious zeal in the last eight years has been an abysmal and tragic failure... It is time for a fresh, inclusive, innovative and forward-looking approach to national and international politics"
What issue(s) matters most to you in these elections and who do you think can deliver on these issues?
The economic crisis is the most significant issue at this time because of its potential to spillover into every facet of life here in the US and beyond. I would like to see a new political climate in Washington because the politics of division, demonization and fear which was promoted with religious zeal in the last eight years has been an abysmal and tragic failure. I am also interested in the turn and tone that US foreign policy will take under a new administration. I believe that a less doctrinaire US foreign policy will make this world a much safer place for everyone. It is time for a fresh, inclusive, innovative and forward-looking approach to national and international politics. It is my contention that Barack Obama is best placed to deliver on this score. So he has my vote.
How do you think Cameroon could benefit from the next American presidency?
I don’t think that there is any specific benefit that Cameroon will derive from either a McCain or Obama presidency. America’s “Cameroon Policy” is fairly middle-of-the-road, and has not changed fundamentally since the first Bush presidency of the late 1980s and early 90s. The most common theme among US ambassadors to Cameroon, from Frances Cook in the 1990s to Janet Garvey today, has been the regular calls for more political freedoms in the country, for less corrupt and more accountable state institutions, and for the establishment of a truly democratic system that all Cameroonians can identify with.
Cameroon has so far failed to live up to these expectations but is still the beneficiary of substantial US aid because of realpolitik calculations that make her a key American partner in the region. For example, Cameroon’s strategic importance to the US has increased considerably in recent times thanks to its strategic location on the Oil-rich Gulf of Guinea. Those vital oil routes along the Atlantic coast must be kept safe even if it means giving suspect African regimes a wink and a nod or even a free pass…
Barack Obama clearly stated his plans for tackling the Israel-Palestine situation when he addressed AIPAC. Does it worry you that neither he nor his opponent has paid Africa much attention on the campaign trail?
Africa does not have same influence on, or significance to, US politics as Israel; neither is the continent as important to US geo-strategic interests as the oil-rich Middle East. Since the end of the cold war, Africa in general has lost most of its erstwhile strategic importance to the US; therefore, it is not strange that Africa has not featured on the campaign trail at all, except when there is a reference to Obama’s Kenyan roots or the rare guilty reference to Darfur. So while it is virtually required of US presidential candidates to clearly define their Middle East/Israeli policy before getting into office, the need for an “Africa policy” is low on the totem pole.
Africans may well play a significant role in getting Obama elected. Could we become as powerful as the Jewish or Cuban lobbies?
Individually, Africans have definitely played a role in the Obama campaign, and they will continue to do so through Election Day. However, a credible, recognizable and influential African political bloc or an “African lobby” is not for tomorrow. The African community in the US is still fragmented along national and ethnic lines and there are no truly nationwide or even region wide Pan-African organizations that bring “continental Africans” (for lack of a better term) together for purposes of political activism and group mobilization. The African community will therefore remain a marginal player on the American political scene until such a time when it will resolve its problems of unity and organizational capacity and discipline.
President Bush sees Africa as the new frontier in the fight against terror. Do you see his successor – especially Obama – going ahead with the idea of AFRICOM (US Africa Command)?
Yes, the next president, whoever he is, will go ahead with AFRICOM. AFRICOM has become a cornerstone of US military, strategic and commercial policy in Africa, so it is here to stay. Let us not forget that American commercial, strategic and security interests are constant irrespective of the administration in office. It is worth noting that there has so far been no disagreement within US political or military circles over the need for the African Command whose ultimate goal is to protect US security and commercial interests in the region. All the hand-wringing and soul-searching about AFRICOM has occurred only in Africa where many people view it as part of US imperialist designs on Africa.
Do you believe the next US president will challenge China's growing presence in Africa?
The US will always seek to be the dominant and most influential political power in Africa. That is what being a superpower is all about. The real question in my mind is whether the US will be able to contain the growing Chinese presence in Africa as much as it would like. I am afraid the answer is No for a variety of reasons.
First, the Chinese are willing to work with any country or regime in Africa, including those that the US and the West consider pariah nations and rogue regimes. This gives China more room for maneuver on the continent.
Second, in this modern-day scramble for Africa, Chinese penetration of Africa is occurring at the grassroots level. Where China beats the US hands down is in its ability to flood the African market with cheap goods that anyone can afford. Add to this the burgeoning Chinese community in Africa whose enterprising members are quickly controlling key sectors of the local economy in many countries (from industrial fishing to street-side vending) and you have an economic and political model which the US will never be able to replicate.
In spite of increasing resentment against the Chinese in many African countries, they are slowly making themselves and their products indispensable. I believe that the loser in this situation is not really the US which will always be an influential player on the African scene, but African industrial commercial and economic operators who are being priced out of business and rendered bankrupt by the cheap goods flooding in from China. As the controversy over Chinese fishing off the coast of Limbe in Cameroon has shown, Chinese presence in Africa is primarily an African problem and not an American one. In this battle of foreign “elephants”, it is the poor African “grass” which is suffering.
How do you think the next US president's ideas will differ from the current government's?
Well, it depends on who wins. If McCain becomes the next president, then it is obvious that there will be very little ideological change since he and Bush share the same core republican values. So while their styles may be different, their national and foreign policies would be essentially the same – from the economic recession to Iraq.
It goes without saying that there will be a major ideological shift in Washington if Obama wins on November 4. If the ongoing campaign rhetoric is anything to go by, then we will witness major policy shifts in key areas such as the economy, health care, the environment, energy and foreign policy.
Could Cameroonians learn anything from American politics, especially the recent elections?
Yes, Cameroonians have a lot to learn from American politics especially with regards to establishing a legitimate, fair and transparent electoral process. Unlike the Cameroonian electoral system which has only a veneer of transparency, accountability and fairness, and is heavily skewed in favor of the incumbent and/or the party in power, the American system is a truly inclusive, transparent and democratic system at the service of its people.
True, the American electoral system has its own share of problems as the 2000 presidential elections clearly showed, but it remains the most open system in the world. Here is a system, (unlike the Cameroonian situation) where the civil service stays above the fray during elections, where the military keeps its distance, where the rules and regulations severely reduce the ability of those in power to use or divert state resources to promote the candidate(s) of their choice, and where there are never-ending efforts to improve the system and make it even more representative, etc. So the American political and/or electoral system is replete with lessons for any country, not just Cameroon, which aspires to create a viable and vibrant and legitimate democratic system.
Ngum Ngafor is a Cameroonian blogger who blogs at Dulce Camer.