A Special MGV Report
By Obi. O. Akwani
Posted August 4, 2009
Africans regard the American president very much as one of their own. That much has been evident ever since Barack Obama, the American son of a Kenyan, emerged as a presidential candidate in 2007. And President Obama, to his credit, has a good feel for the Africans. He should. This son of an American-trained African academic spent a lot of vacation time visiting with his Kenyan family long before it became clear that he had eyes for the American presidency. Those visits enabled Obama’s African relatives to adjudge him a fine human being for his down-to-earth ways and how easily he adapted to their simple ways.
It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that Africans hung so much of their hopes on Obama and greeted his election, in November 2008, as the first African-American president of the United States of America, with pride and euphoria and great expectations. A continent blighted, since the middle of the 20th century, by repeated setbacks resulting from poor governance, corruption and underdevelopment saw possibilities of rescue in the election of President Obama.
In a newspaper piece published in the Washington Times on November 23, 2008 and attributed to Atiku Abubakar, the former vice president of Nigeria seemed to be urging the new US president to intervene and rescue Nigeria and Africa from fraudulent elections.
Justifiably or not, a lot of Africans, including leaders like Atiku, invested huge hopes on the Obama presidency. They expect Obama, somehow, to wield his power and influence as leader of the most powerful country in the world to cure them of an apparent addiction to corruption, poverty and bad governments.
On July 11, 2009 President Obama responded with a visit to Ghana. In an address to that West African nation’s parliament, the president responded to Africa’s hopes and expectations by mapping out his plans for the continent. Had the American president delivered? Did what he had to say on that day match what the Africans really expected from him?
Looking back on that opinion piece attributed to Atiku back in November last year, the former Nigerian VP appears to have anticipated the American president’s Africa policy trust. What the Atiku article stated in November 2008 mirrors the speech delivered by President Barack Obama in Ghana in July 2009.
In his Ghana Africa Policy speech, President Obama pledged support for those African countries that showed commitment to the rule of law and democratic practice. Countries that demonstrated the fundamentals of good governance — defined in the policy as stability and leadership accountability — would also be supported by the US government. African governments that are successful in these directions will be supported with better trade opportunities, given help in strengthening their internal development capacity and engaged in stronger bilateral and multilateral relations.
Obama’s visit to Ghana was his Africa policy in practice. Ghana, which had just successfully elected a new president from the opposition party, was being rewarded for the apparent progress that this represented in democratic practice. Obama was also show-casing Ghana as a country well in the practice of the rule of law with commendable anti-corruption efforts. The US president pointedly avoided visiting Kenya, his father’s home country, and Nigeria, a country that lays claim to regional leadership. The message was that these two countries, because of electoral malpractices and rampant corruption in government, had failed the Obama policy test.
In substance, the Obama Africa policy does not differ from his predecessors’. His immediate predecessor, George W. Bush, initiated the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) in 2003. Through that program Bush funneled $18 billion into the HIV/AID fight in Africa. The Bush Malaria initiative is reputed to have helped cut in half malaria cases in 15 African countries. The Bush administration also backed programs to cancel $34bn in debt for 27 African countries, at the same time pumping $5.7 billion a year in aid to the continent.
By all indications, President Obama will continue in the same Africa Policy direction. He acknowledged the “strong efforts of President Bush” and plans to spend more on health — $63 billion on a comprehensive global health strategy to combat disease in Africa. But he has also indicated that his Foreign Aid Policy will be more focused and less dependent on ideology. Obama says his Foreign Aid policy is aimed at reducing donor footprint and increasing the ability of recipients to be self-reliant. He told the Africans that America will support programs that promote investment in people – developing a skilled workforce, creating more employment through small and medium businesses.
“By cutting costs that go to Western consultants and administration, we will put more resources in the hands of those who need it, while training people to do more for themselves. That is why our $3.5 billion food security initiative is focused on new methods and technologies for farmers – not simply sending American producers or goods to Africa. Aid is not an end in itself. The purpose of foreign assistance must be creating the conditions where it is no longer needed.”
The US president told the Africans that “the true sign of success [in the aid the West gives to Africa] is not whether we are a source of aid that helps people scrape by – it is whether we are partners in building the capacity for transformational change.”
How this will pan out in practice is yet to be seen. But if rhetoric is anything to go by, Obama clearly intends to help Africa move from dependency to sustainable self-reliance, and that would be a departure from his predecessors.
On energy, Obama promised that America will partner with Africa to develop clean energy that can be exported to other parts. This plan will only work if his ambition for America in domestic clean energy development succeeds.
In the area of leadership in Africa, it appears the era of giving support to American-allied despots is over. If obama is to be taken by his words, America is no more going to support corrupt and repressive leaders — like the former Zairian president General Mobutu — who nevertheless serve and protect American interests in their countries. Obama says his administration will support those leaders who act responsibly — respect human rights, combat corruption and obey the rule of law — and will isolate those who don’t.
Obama talks about a mutual responsibility between Africa and the developed world. African people’s responsibility is to ensure good governance, while the developed world has the responsibility to make themselves “partners in building the capacity for transformational change.”
If these ideas survive the reality of international politics to come to fruition, it would indeed be revolutionary.
As part of this “mutual responsibility” that President Obama talked about in Ghana, it must be recognized that the problems of corruption and repression have roots that go beyond leaders with bad character. The deposed Liberian leader, Charles Taylor, who is now on trial by the International Court, did not rise of his own accord to become Liberian leader. Someone or interest outside Liberia sponsored him to become, first warlord and then leader of Liberia. The evidence of this emerged in testimony during the ICJ trial. To curb corruption and repression in Africa, the balkanization impulses that produce corrupt and repressive leaders must also be held in check. Otherwise the efforts of ordinary people fighting for democracy will continue to yield tragic results.
There is a recognition in Obama’s speech of the critical importance of Africa’s development and wellbeing to the development of America and other “developed” countries. This is something that has not been properly recognized or publicly acknowledged in this way before now. I think that an indication of the change that has taken place, since at least the turn of the century, is the fact that while the impact of the global melt-down has been strong in the United States and Europe, Africa has gone relatively unscathed. In the past when recession hit Europe and America, the impact had always been worse for Africa (when they sneezed we went into an ague). By limiting the spread of recessionary contagion, it seems the world is ensuring a quicker recovery than would be the case otherwise.
That’s a sign of positive change and a reason to hope that president Obama might succeed where his predecessors did not.