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THE INDEX — November 18, 2009

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Azubuike Ishiekwene: In Africa, Obama's Tasks Are Huge

President Barack Obama is stepping up to a full plate. With nearly three million Americans out of job in 2008 alone, his priority must be to put the United States back to work again. Yet, there’s so much else in the world crying out desperately for attention. It is a striking irony that Africa, which has given the United States its forty-fourth president, is the same continent that produced the two ranking Al-Qaeda members killed by U.S. drones in a New Year strike in Pakistan. Usama al Kini and Sheikh Ahmed Salim Swedan, the two Kenyans killed in the strike, could have been just like the men next door, raised on the basic African mores of communal harmony, respect for life, and the love of one’s neighbor. But these fellows were not; they were a different breed—masterminds of deadly terror attacks (from the East African bombings in 1998, which left 212 dead, to the Islamabad Marriott hotel bombing last September, which left 55 people dead). The increasingly active role played by sub-Saharan Africans in the operations of Islamic fundamentalist networks is one of the challenges that the Obama administration will have to grapple with in the coming years. These challenges raise important questions: How many more al Kinis are being nurtured in terror cells in a continent festering with wars, narco-trade, corruption, and failed governments? What factors are responsible for the ascendancy of sub-Saharan Africans in a terror network once dominated by Middle Easterners? The conditions that produced al Kini and Swedan abound in many parts of Africa today, even though the continent was only a footnote during the U.S. presidential election. Obama and John McCain made a few stray comments about Darfur, but neither spoke with clarity about what the continent should expect on their watch. Africa was a curiosity. The global press followed Obama to his Luo roots in Kenya. But it had a hard time explaining how it was that while one Luo, Raila Odinga, could never hope to make it to his country’s top job, another Luo, 8,000 miles away, was about to make history as the first black president of the United States. If the Obama odyssey demonstrates what is possible when grit and preparation meet in a land of opportunity, the misadventure of al Kini and Swedan speak to the dangers that the increasing number of failing and failed states pose to the world.

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