Obama to Africa: Tough Love or Tough Luck?

Africans are wading knee-deep in world financial institutions and leaders advising “good governance,” “transparency,” “accountability,” and the ever-elusive “democracy.” We did not need to hear these catchphrases that laced Obama’s Ghana speech. They are so benign that even Africa’s dictators, such as Kenya’s former dictator Daniel Arap Moi, promised them with each stolen election.

We didn’t need to be told that “Africa’s future is up to Africans.” We have been taking responsibility for our future since the days of colonialism, efforts often frustrated by the United States. As Jeffrey Gettleman notes in his July 11 New York Times article, the United States supported Congo’s dictator, Mobuto Sese Seko, for years. In Somalia, Washington “bungled a huge relief mission in the 1990s” and then watched, intervention-weary, from the sidelines as the Rwanda genocide unfolded.

What we needed to hear from the new U.S. president was how, if we kept our end of the bargain, the United States would in turn meet its obligations in a “partnership…grounded in mutual responsibility.” Instead, Obama met each of the most pertinent issues facing the continent with a generality.

Take the issue of corruption. African leaders have stashed billions of dollars in European and American banks. Patrick Bond, a South African political economist, estimates that the African elite had, as of 2003, $80 billion sitting in Western banks. Mobutu Sese Seko is said to have been so rich that he personally could have cleared Congo’s debt. In the same way that the Obama administration has gone after Swiss banks, might he not also have promised to help Africans retrieve this money? This tidy sum has after all been siphoned out of the continent through the same corrupt channels Obama was speaking against.

According to Oxfam, Africa loses more money through unequal trade than it gets in foreign aid. To the Africans looking for an equal partnership through equal trade, Obama has said that “wealthy nations must open our doors to goods and services from Africa in a meaningful way.” But will this even be possible, at a time when U.S. citizens need more manufacturing jobs and Americans firms are barely competing with those from China and Japan? And how will the Obama administration tackle U.S. farm subsidies that cost African farmers millions of dollars in lost revenue due to depressed markets?
It is well and good to give more aid to combat AIDS. But surely, how about giving support so that we can manufacture cheap generic drugs, like India does? This would mean breaking patent laws in cases of emergencies, something the WTO allows. We can use a powerful friend and partner here.

Obama says that “we have seen countless examples of people taking control of their destiny, and making change from the bottom up,” and gives the example of Kenya following the electoral violence last year. But he doesn’t mention that civil society organizations and social movements are generally underfunded and unrecognized. In Kenya, human rights defenders continue to be killed and exiled even in times of “peace.” What “these brave Africans” need to hear is not what they know already — that destiny is in their hands — but rather what Obama can do to help them break away from the isolation that makes them so vulnerable.

In relation to Darfur and Somalia, Obama promises that “we stand ready to partner through diplomacy, technical assistance, and logistical support, and will stand behind efforts to hold war criminals accountable.” But how is this different from Reagan’s low-intensity warfare and cold war proxy wars in Angola and Mozambique? Instead of promising the obvious support of bringing war criminals to book, as an African aware of what past American logistical support meant, Obama should have explained how and why the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) he defends and supports is going to be different.

Obama was most original, though equally general, when it came to the question of climate control and green energy: “Africa’s boundless natural gifts can generate its own power, while exporting profitable, clean energy abroad.” That will certainly sound familiar to the American reader who listened to his campaign promises. Can the U.S. export and import clean energy at the same time? A question pertinent to Africans, yet not answered.

Africa has 53 countries and a population of 780 million people. Africa can fit the United States three times over and leave room for China. Child mortality is on the rise, and half the population lives in dire poverty. Throw the possibility of swine flu into the myriad problems facing Africa and Obama’s speech is no longer one of tough love, but tough luck.

Africans did not need Africa sold to them. They needed a new and friendlier U.S. foreign policy sold to them.

Foreign Policy In Focus contributor Mukoma wa Ngugi is a political columnist for the BBC Focus on Africa magazine. He is also the author of Hurling Words at Consciousness and the forthcoming Nairobi Heat (Penguin Group South Africa, 2009).