Barack Obama was well received in his first visit as president of the United States to sub-Saharan Africa. In less than 24 hours, he met with Ghanaian dignitaries and traveled to a Cape Coast Castle, the location from which thousands or maybe millions of slaves were forcibly transported to the Americas. Overall, his speech in Accra, Ghana was poignant and congratulatory of Ghana's democratic successes, using it as an example of the possibilities for other African governments. Obama's speech was very good and reinforced much of the beliefs many Africans have of what is necessary to create a better continent for Africa's people. But, despite the positive message to Africa, Obama omitted much of the reality of America's historical relationship with the African continent.
Early on in his speech, Obama clarified that he believed that Africans must stop blaming others for the continent's malaise. This writer, like many others, has preached a similar message and the attitude of self-help or 'boot strapping' continues to grow amongst many Africans. It is clear that too many of Africa's 'leaders' have failed to live up to their responsibilities and Africans are working to determine the means by which Africans themselves will effect change irregardless of the current status quo. However, as Obama chastised Africa by correctly stating that "it 's easy to point fingers and to pin the blame [for Africa's woes] on others," he himself neglected to acknowledge his nation's part in Africa's problems. Maybe that was because of the criticism he received from some of his fellow Americans for being too apologetic for America's sins when he speaks abroad. Or maybe, this omission was a result of the added pressure of being a Black President speaking on the Black continent. Regardless, the omission was a glaring one.
Some of America's interaction with various African countries has been of benefit to Africans - what with foreign direct investment that has brought jobs to some, educational scholarships that have allowed others to attend some of the world's best institutions of learning and much more. Yet, Obama's speech completely ignored the fact that much of America's conduct on the African continent has bred distrust and discontent. Various American administrations have deliberately interfered in the politics of many an African country and unfortunately, the result has been detrimental to millions. The recent Halliburton/KBR scandal is a reflection of the complicity some Western organizations have in the fracturing of certain African countries as well. Furthermore, the overwhelming criticism former president Bush received for his AFRICOM aspirations only goes to cement the distrust many Africans have of America's ambitions and goals on the continent. Consequently, simply referring to the problematic colonial creation of artificial nations and the unbalanced relationship between the West and Africa, as a source of Africa's problems is a lie by omission on America's role in the creation of the Africa that currently exists and that does a disservice to the history of Africa and those who lost their lives fighting to improve its future. It ignores the incredible complexity of the relationship between Africa's many countries and the United States.
WHAT DOES THE FUTURE HOLD?
This omission in his speech calls into question Obama's commitment to the vision of Africa and American-African relations he so eloquently spoke of. His choice to neglect to even slightly reference the controversial role America has sometimes played in Africa, raises the question of whether Obama's approach to the continent will equally be full of omissions. Far too often Africa is dictated to and the 'solutions' thrust upon her are not subject to discussion or modification that reflects the voice of the continent. Former President George W. Bush is lauded by many for the millions he committed to the African continent in aid and investment. Nevertheless, that money came with conditions reflective of his political affiliations and conservative attitude to HIV/AIDS, an attitude that practically demonized condom usage for abstinence, a throwback, though important, to conservative American religious values. Bush also backed the entry of Ethiopia into Somalia in 2007, an act that many now consider to have been solely for America's benefit as it has contributed somewhat to the growing instability in Somalia and indeed the Horn of Africa region. There is much illustration of America's contemporary influence on the African continent and some of the questionable results. A repeat of these missteps will only compound the hardships of ordinary Africans worsening their lot at the hands of both ineffective governments and misguided foreign ambitions.
So, how exactly will Obama's administration, which has pledged to support good governance, anti-corruption efforts and responsibility, work with Africa to obtain a better continent? How will this be any different from the promises of his predecessors? Regardless of what choices the Obama administration makes, the reality is that, just as Obama said, "Africa's future is up to Africans." As such, any attempt to work with Africa in effecting positive change must continue to rely on individual Africans, not the government structures that have proven to be ineffective and unwilling to take the necessary steps to create better African countries. Obama spoke of a partnership "grounded in mutual responsibility and mutual respect". But, that will not be possible until America acknowledges, publicly or not, its role in Africa's present, and Africa acknowledges its need to overcome its position in the current global economic and political system. Africa will rise above its forced role as the "dark continent" when the various parties necessary for African development - civil society, average individuals, governments et. al.- work with the people's interest, and not their egos or grand ideals, in mind. Some acknowledgment of the imperfection in America's relationship to Africa would be nice, but it might not be necessary, as long as enough Africans can take the future of their continent into their hands.
UPDATE: After reading some of the frank and enlightening comments in response to this post, it appears that I must make some clarifications.
This post is not in anyway an attempt to argue for apologies or the sort. It was however, an expression of my observation, that while Obama could freely 'scold' Africa, he neglected to acknowledge the historical role played by American government and even certain businesses in creating some of the problems Africa now faces. More than one reader has asked if it would have made a difference. In respone, I must borrow the very eloquent response of reader and fellow blogger GuerreiraNigeriana who stated, "at the end of the day...perhaps his acknowledgment would indeed change nothing...but there is something powerful about acknowledging wrongs and opening/creating the opportunity for a genuine and honest path forward..." Plus, Obama has previously been 'apologetic' for America's role in distancing its European allies in many a European speech. I cannot help but note that he distinctly chose to 'not go there' when he visited Ghana and in a speech where he spoke of "partnership", "mutual respect" and "mutual responsibility". I have never advocated that Africa wait for an apology from anyone, and most likely never will. I have always argued that Africans must 'wake up' and effect the change it seeks without waiting for any savior be they of divine or Western origin. I hope this clarifies things for those who might misinterpret this article. If it does not, please feel free to express your concerns so we may discuss and learn from one another. Thank you.
Thoughts from others on the Obama speech in Ghana:
- "It wasn't me..." says Obama on behalf of the West (Pyoowata)
- Obama Talks Shallow Simplistic Rubbish, Scolds & Lectured Africans as Expected" (Paul I. Adujie)
- Blowback From Obama In Ghana (Don Thieme)
- Ghana - No Antibodies For This Virus (Akin)
- Obama in Ghana (Beauty)
- Who Will Fight For Nigeria? (AFRICOM PT 1)
- AFRICOM: The Dotted Line Has Been Signed
- A Bush In Africa
- A Liberian's Thoughts on AFRICOM