Barack Obama’s African legacy debated by UJ’s Pan-African Institute

The intense friction between African expectation placed on Barack Obama, as the first black elected president of the United States, and what he actually changed for the continent, were debated on Tuesday, 7 February 2017 at the University of Johannesburg’s Kingsway Campus. At the event, students, academics, researchers and policy-makers grappled with the topic: “Obama’s Africa Legacy: A Triumph of Symbolism?”

Barack Obama’s eight- year presidency ended on 20 January 2017. When the Kenyan-Kansan was first elected the first black president of the United States (US) in 2008, a wave of “Obamamania” swept across Africa and its Diaspora. By the time Obama visited South Africa, Senegal, and Tanzania in 2013, the unrealistic expectations that the US president would transform Africa’s fortunes had not even come close to fruition. American policy towards Africa continued to lack consistent Congressional support, while the continent remained at the bottom of US policy priorities.

Obama was described as a conflicted leader who supported strong democratic institutions for sub-Saharan Africa while preferring autocratic leadership for the Arab world said, UJ’s Prof Adekeye Adebajo, Director of the Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation.

Prof Adebajo said the greatest disappointment for Africa was that Africans saw Obama as a Messiah. He also disapproved the Nobel Committee’s decision to award him the Nobel Peace Prize because it was awarded only after nine months before he had done anything , and mentioned that the former president not only failed to remake Africa, he also failed to change America and the world.

Wits University visiting professor John Stremlau admired Obama’s administration. He admitted to having a lot of confidence in Obama, who he described as a “careful decision-maker”. Stremlau said “Obama was a leader who respected the rule of law.”

However, Prof Adebajo was able to commend Obama’s support for UN peacekeeping missions in Africa, and mediation efforts in South Sudan and the Great Lakes region. In the area of health, “Obama increased the number of people receiving treatment for HIV/AIDS from 1.7 million in 2008 to 6.7 million by 2013. His administration also actively supported victims of Ebola in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea and he was able to regulate the Young African Leaders Initiative.”

Other speakers included Prof Chris Landsberg, Director: SARChi Chair of African Diplomacy and Foreign Policy, who moderated the dialogue series.

Former South African first lady Zanele Mbeki and officials from the embassies of the US, Sweden and Nigeria attended the event.

The debate was a collaboration between The University of Johannesburg Institute for Pan African Thought and Conversation with the University’s Library.

“Obama’s policies failed to uplift Africa”, written by Prof Adebajo and published in Business Day, 9 January 2017 and on Dispatch Live on 10 January 2017 available here.

Some of Prof Adebajo’s publications here.


Prof Adekeye Adebajo
Wits University visiting Prof John Stremlau (left) and Prof Adekeye Adebajo (right), the Director of the Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation (Right), debated the topic: ‘Obama’s Africa Legacy: A Triumph of Symbolism?’
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