Mali’s civilian leader; President Dioncounda Traore (left) with Prime Minister Diarra BBC News/Getty Images

The idea that Mali is a snap shot of what goes on in Africa is a crazy one.  It’s a crazy idea because Mali is the newest impression when talk of Africa comes up at any moment. At least that’s what happens when Americans continue to see Africa from the lens of one fractured African nation.

Problem is, there are not many fractured or disintegrated African nations left in 2012.

By contract, most African nations today, two-thirds of which lie below the Sahara, are fully functional entities, with legitimate and stable governments and institutions in place. And by most accounts, these countries have met and surpassed the minimum threshold of twenty century democratic practices. These include the organization of free and fair elections, the rule of law, respect for human rights, freedom of speech and much more.

But what we saw and heard at the last presidential debate, which focused on foreign policy, was just how disjointed a talk about Africa can be. Such disjointedness comes in big sound bites aimed at gaining political advantage or in many cases, media power and economics.

The Africa we heard of from Mitt Romney and Barack Obama was mostly about Libya and Egypt. Besides Libya and the Benghazi attack which resulted in the death of U.S. ambassador Chris Stephens, and bordering on Gaddafi, Mubarak, much was left to be desired in a 90 minutes debate about U.S. foreign policy.

Lisa Vives, Executive Director of the Global Information Network (GIN) in New York was clearly disappointed. “Sub-Saharan Africa, inexplicably, was bumped from the guest list,”Vives wrote on October 23.  A GIN headline on the subject read, “AFRICA DROPPED FROM FOREIGN POLICY DEBATE.”

“Mali was mentioned for a hot second by Republican hopeful Mitt Romney where this year soldiers trained in the U.S. pulled off a coup and ousted the President. This opened the way for a takeover by the indigenous Tuareg people in the North who were soon sidelined by a fundamentalist group that desecrated ancient tombs and installed “sharia” justice.”

What is the matter with Mali?

“Mali has been taken over, the northern part of Mali by al-Qaeda type individuals. We have in — in Egypt, a Muslim Brotherhood president. And so what we’re seeing is a pretty dramatic reversal in the kind of hopes we had for that region,” Romney said in the discussion about the “Middle East and the new face of terrorism.”

As if to say the killing of Osama Bin Laden has not helped much, Romney stayed on the subject and later added, “But we can’t kill our way out of this mess.” To Romney and his foreign policy advisers, Mali is a mess.

On the same subject, and hitting even harder, Romney used the name Mali in the same sentence with Syria, the two separated with a slight pause.

“With Mali now having North Mali taken over by Al Qaida; with Syria having Assad continuing to — to kill, to murder his own people, this is a region in tumult.”

When it was Obama’s chance to respond on the same subject, the president was differential and spoke mostly about what he has accomplished in a post-cold-war ear and new threats from Al-Qaida.

On the subject of America’s role in the world, Obama generalized, and quickly lumped “Africa”, Asia, Europe and Israel into the same sentence.

“And Governor Romney, our alliances have never been stronger, in Asia, in Europe, in Africa, with Israel, where we have unprecedented military and intelligence cooperation, including dealing with the Iranian threat,” Obama said.

Next was the mention of South Africa. How did this happen? Let’s take a look.

If elected president, Romney said he would work to indict Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for crimes against humanity. He would also make sure Iranian diplomats are treated the way South African diplomats were treated during the days of Apartheid in South Africa.

“I’d make sure that Ahmadinejad is indicted under the Genocide Convention. His words amount to genocide incitation. I would indict him for it. I would also make sure that their diplomats are treated like the pariah they are around the world. The same way we treated the apartheid diplomats of South Africa,”Romney said.

On the question of U.S. responsibility for turning over security in Afghanistan to the Afghans in 2014, the discussion quickly moved to other subjects and countries, including Pakistan and the use of drones in fighting terrorism.

The shift prompted Obama to say this about Somalia.

“Well, keep in mind our strategy wasn’t just going after bin Laden. We created partnerships throughout the region to deal with extremism in Somalia, in Yemen, in Pakistan,”Obama said.

What lessons did we learn from a presidential debate focused on foreign policy?

The number one lesson is that in a U.S. presidential race and debate, much talk about Africa won’t translate into votes compared to talk about say China, Israel, or Russia.

References to China were used 32 times throughout the debate, Pakistan 25 times, the Middle East 23 times, Israel 34 times, Russia 10 times, Libya 12 times, Egypt 11 times, Mali four times and Somalia once . The word jobs came up 32 times and America or the United States of America, more than 95 times.

While sub Saharan African may be the new frontier in world markets and investments, it is probably still less of a factor that could tilt the outcome of a U.S. presidential race in either direction. At least, that is what we are seeing in 2012.


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