Barack  Obama and Africa’s Agricultural Revolution: A Dubious Prospect?

Barack Obama and Africa’s Agricultural Revolution: A Dubious Prospect?

By James Kariuki*
In May this year, US President Barack Obama launched the New Alliance for Food and Nutrition Security (NAFNS.) It is a public-private international initiative intended to eradicate poverty in sub-Saharan Africa within a decade by adopting modern agricultural methods and technology.

Rich G-8 countries are to contribute US$3 billion to NAFNS’ kitty while African and international private companies are to pitch in an equal amount. Presumably, the relevant parties, plus some African governments, will work together harmoniously in an atmosphere where handshakes replace handouts. Should this be celebrated as Obama’s lasting legacy for Africa?
As a concept, the NAFNS may be above reproach, but in practice it poses devastating risks. Will the undertaking be Afro-centric or the domain of ‘external actors’? How will it be shielded from the curse of Africa: corruption? Finally and most importantly, if successful, how will NAFNS be protected from itself: from the temptation to convert into a tool of penetration and abuse of Africa by the non-African partners?

Potentially, NAFNS does have the capacity to boost our continent towards a bona fide agricultural Revolution. Probably, this is what President Obama had in mind. But, behold, Obama will not be US President forever. Indeed we dread that, come January 20, 2013, Mitt Romney could be the man sitting in the White House. Would Romney use NAFNS for a different purpose from Obama? After all, the US does use freely its economic muscle to arm-twist and bully other nations.
In recent months, post-apartheid SA has been under immense American pressure to desist from importing Iranian crude oil or face US economic reprisals. In conjunction with the European Union, the US has targeted Iran for economic sanctions because of its ‘unauthorized’ nuclear program. SA is under unrelenting American psychological siege to do likewise. The ultimate outcome of economic sanctions is that ordinary Iranians will go hungry.

If the RSA yields, it will incur substantial financial costs of transforming its oil refineries to process crude oil from non-Iranian sources. Conversely, if SA does not oblige, a standing command is in place to evict it from the US banking system.
This is a dismal prospect for SA, a country steeped in a deep economic crunch of its own. Thus, thanks to the US recalcitrance, SA finds itself in the unenviable position of ‘I am damned if I do, and I am damned if I don’t.’

It makes logical sense that in this matter SA feels unduly compromised. Despite legitimate concerns over potential proliferation of nuclear weapons in the volatile Middle East, SA does not have a direct quarrel with Iran. Additionally, unlike the US, SA is the only country in the world to ever have ‘de-nuclearized’ voluntarily. Why is it being called upon to pay an economical price by a nuclear USA against Iran in support of a Middle East nuclear Israel? Is this not an unwarranted case of economic bullying? Would the US dare threaten contemporary China with economic sanctions for any reason?

Therein lies the answer. Against the US, SA negotiates from a position of relative weakness. What is the moral of the story? An alliance between weak and strong parties is not tenable or advisable, even if such ‘alliance’ is based on food, as in the case of NAFNS. Already, we know that the US is not above using food in pursuit of political objectives. The American economic sanctions against little Cuba since 1962 is a case in point. That policy is now being pursued elsewhere.

In February this year, the US pledged to supply North Korea with food aid if the impoverished country would desist from its nuclear pursuits. Awhile later, the food offer was revoked on the grounds that North Korea missile launch of April 2012 contravened the food aid offer. The West, including the US, was convinced that the rocket launch was a veiled missile test, not a communication satellite as alleged by North Korea.

Was it political naïveté on the American part to expect political behavior change of an unelected regime on the grounds of a promise for food? Where was the link? The food was never intended for the employees of the regime; it was mainly for children and pregnant women. Further, food is a human right akin to the air that we breathe. It is an aspect of human existence that should be above politics. Even by American standards, to convert food into a political tool was a measure of moral decline.
Given the significance of food, African approach to the African Agricultural Revolution should be self-reliant, an African-driven project. We indeed can and should accept help here and there on condition that it remains ad hoc and subordinate to African will. Is Obama’s NAFNS sensitive to those provisos?

We may not know for certain why NAFNS was created. What is clear, however, is its clear and present danger: its enormous potential to do harm. Given our history, there is something inherently questionable in forming a Western alliance of governments and private enterprises to ‘help’ Africa. It is reminiscent of Otto von Bismarck’s Berlin Conference of 1885 in which Africa was partitioned among Western powers. Additionally, help and private enterprise are conceptually inconsistent, a contradiction in terms. Private businesses are not designed for helping; their raison d’être is profit-making.

President Obama welcomes  four freely-elected African leaders to the White House
President Obama welcomes four freely-elected African leaders to the White House

Issues become alarming when the matter at hand is food. In a situation of unequal power, NAFNS assigns overwhelming advantage to the stronger party. In the case of NAFNS, the ‘alliance’ amounts to Africa mortgaging its very existence. As Henry Kissinger once said, “If you control the food supply, you control the people.” The former US Secretary of State fully understood that, for a purpose no higher than profit-making, whoever controls food can suddenly bring the other parties to their knees without firing a shot.

The most prominent player among the US private partners with direct links to NAFNS is Monsanto. This is not just another big business it is a giant US-based multinational corporation, the world’s leader in genetically modified crops. Its reach is global: it has its tentacles all over the world, including SA where it has ten offices. It also has claim to a dubious distinction of a scandalous history of legal suits and other controversies in the US and globally. We can survive all that.

What is disconcerting and truly unsettling, however, is the charge that NAFNS is Obama’s conscious design to open doors for “corporate take-over of Africa.” Allegations of his association with Monsato suggest precisely that. Indeed, within the US, the Obama administration has been publicly condemned as having transformed the US Department of Agriculture to the Department of Agribusiness.

* James N. Kariuki is Professor of International Relations (Emeritus) and an independent writer. He is based in South Africa.The views expressed in this blog are those of the author.

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