Ideas & Debate

American policy on Africa in focus

Ghanaians cheer and wave during US President
Ghanaians cheer and wave during US President Obama’s recent visit. /Reuters 

It is time for Africans to practice some tough love on President Obama.

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 catch phrases that laced Obama’s recent speech in Ghana. They are so benign that even Africa’s leaders promised them with each stolen election.

We did not 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 US.  

As Jeffrey Gettleman notes in his July 11, 2009 New York Times article, the US supported Congo’s dictator, Mobuto Sese Seko for years, and in Somalia, “bungled a huge relief mission in the 1990s” leading eventually to an intervention weary US watching the Rwanda genocide unfold from the sidelines.


What we needed to hear was precisely what Obama did not say - how, if we kept our end of the bargain, the US would in turn meets its obligations in a “partnership…grounded in mutual responsibility.” 

Instead, he 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’s answer is to be found in the statement “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 US citizens need more manufacturing jobs and Americans firms are barely competing with those from China and Japan? 

And how will the Obama administration tackle US farmer 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.

When 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, he does not mention that civil society organizations and social movements are generally under-funded, and unrecognized. 

In Kenya human rights defenders continue to be killed and exiled even in these 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, I would have liked to know how and why the US-African command Centre 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 US export and import clean energy at the same time? 
A question pertinent to Africans, yet not answered.

Africa has a population of 780 million people, and houses 52 countries. Africa can fit the US three times over and leave room for China. 

Child mortality is on the rise, and half the population lives in dire poverty. Into the myriad of problems facing Africa, throw in the possibility of swine flu 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 US foreign policy sold to them.

Mukoma wa Ngugi is a political columnist for the BBC Focus on Africa Magazine, the author of Hurling Words at Consciousness and the forthcoming, Nairobi Heat (Penguin Group South Africa, 2009).