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Obama’s approval rating soars in sub-Saharan Africa

Official White House photo by Pete Souza

With financial woes, environmental disasters and a faltering approval rating in the United States, the Obama administration can take comfort in an improved international image. On Tuesday, Gallup released the results of a poll conducted across 110 countries in 2009 showing that median worldwide approval of U.S. leadership has jumped to 51 percent, up from 34 percent in 2008. Support is particularly strong in sub-Saharan Africa, where President Obama’s approval rating during the first year of his term reached 87 percent.

Given his Kenyan father and American mother, Obama’s mixed heritage likely contributes to his popularity in the region.

“His ability to connect with various audiences and his connection with African people is of a very special nature,” said Richard Joseph, a professor at Northwestern University who focuses on the study of politics and governance in Africa. “In addition to being the president of the United States and leader of the Western world, in the case of Africa he will be considered the leading African world figure.”

The popularity of the United States may extend beyond that of its president, however. As democratic principles have started to gain traction in Africa, the U.S. has been seen as a model of success.

“Essentially, the United States as a society tends to be seen as highly attractive in Africa,” said John Campbell, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria. Although Africans may not be aware of specific policies, “what they do know is personal freedom, freedom of speech, rule of law, [and] a police that is not corrupt.”

Even when adopted by African countries, these rights, which are among the core afforded by the U.S. Constitution, are not always enforced. Although Ethiopia’s 1995 constitution includes provisions outlining universal elections, for example, controversy persists. Ethiopia went to the polls on May 23, and the landslide victory of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has since been contested.

Still, Africans may be encouraged that U.S. leaders promote the spread of democracy abroad.

“President Obama and the secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, have been quite outspoken on the subject of good governance and fair, free and credible elections,” said Campbell. “The administration as a whole has been quite outspoken on that point.”

Northwestern University Professor William Reno, a specialist in African politics, said proximity could influence opinion.

“Because the U.S. is more distant and its impact is more generalized in most cases, the U.S. is seen as not a negative,” said Reno. He cited more inclusive immigration policies in the U.S. versus Europe and the popular culture idea that “successful people go off and make their fortune in the U.S” as additional reasons for the strong approval rating.

Direct humanitarian support from the U.S. may also enhance goodwill from sub-Saharan Africa.

The U.S. has increased aid to Africa in recent years, with health issues including HIV/AIDS and malaria being a main priority. In 2003, President George W. Bush launched a $15 billion plan entitled the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. Originally implemented as an emergency response plan for treating and preventing AIDS, the focus is now on ensuring sustainability for the programs in place. U.S. funding for the program increased from $2.3 billion in 2004 to $6.8 billion this year and Obama has requested a $7 billion budget for the program for 2011. In 2005, President Bush also committed $1.2 billion in funding to a malaria initiative targeting the 15 hardest-hit African countries, all of which are located below the Sahara.

Sub-Saharan nations may also be responding to direct diplomatic assistance from the U.S. Earlier this week, Obama signed a law pledging U.S. assistance to Uganda in terms of helping to develop strategies to oppose the increasingly violent Lord’s Resistance Army. Agence France-Presse reported that the rebel group has intensified attacks in neighboring countries including Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Central African Republic.

Obama’s 87 percent approval rating in sub-Saharan Africa contrasts with a 34 percent approval rating in the Middle East and North Africa, where anti-U.S. sentiment is more pronounced and where Islam is the predominant religion.



  • Melissa C.

    Is it disturbing to anyone else that the president of The United States is called,” in the case of Africa he will be considered the leading African world figure.” Should an actual African leader have this title? Maybe our president needs to be more concerned about being the leading American world figure and not seeking the approval of so many other nations around the world.

  • Phyllia Morrelli

    Why don’t we let him have his moment. I’m sure he’s tired of getting kicked in the kidneys by USA. This will help him build his self-esteem. Let him lead all that want to be lead.

  • Will Rogers

    The president of the United States becomes a symbol for people everywhere. For some, like a jihadist, the president becomes a symbol of something that must be fought against; if for some Africans President Obama has become an ideal toward which they can aspire, then that is all for the good.

  • Ruben Gudu

    44 is many things to many people. President Obama’s messages resonate more with people of distant lands.

    In his July 11, 2009 speech in Accra, Ghana, President Obama addressed the Africans, by saying, among other things that: ” … This is the simple truth of a time when the boundaries between people are overwhelmed by our connections. Your prosperity can expand America’s. Your health and security can contribute to the world’s. And the strength of your democracy can help advance human rights for people everywhere”.

    “So I do not see the countries and peoples of Africa as a world apart; I see Africa as a fundamental part of our interconnected world – as partners with America on behalf of the future that we want for all our children. That partnership must be grounded in mutual responsibility, and that is what I want to speak with you about today”.
    “We must start from the simple premise that Africa’s future is up to Africans.”

    President Obama does have the courage to point out the truth when appropriate. Is it then appropriate to resort to that old cliché of no one is a prophet at home?