Obama in Africa: A Major Disappointment | The Nation


Obama in Africa: A Major Disappointment

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This article is based on a piece which originally ran on The Globe and Mail.

About the Author

Gerald Caplan
Gerald Caplan, a Toronto-based researcher-writer and activist with a Ph.D. in African history, is the author of Rwanda...

As expected, President Obama used his twenty-four-hour trip to Ghana to send messages about his thinking and his priorities for Africa. This was a moment that progressives involved in Africa have been waiting for, hoping for some clear thinking about Africa's many challenges and the American role in addressing them. On the basis of his interviews and speeches, they will be sorely disappointed. Once we get beneath the eloquence and style, it's hard to point to anything in any of his remarks that couldn't have been said, however inarticulately, by George Bush.

In one interview, Obama, with no false humility, stated that "I'm probably as knowledgeable about African history as anybody who's occupied my office". No question that's true. Still, the bar in that particular competition was not exactly set very high. And as his various comments demonstrated, he's not nearly as knowledgeable as he thinks he is. Much of what he believes about Africa and how it can meet its many challenges is simply wrong.

At every opportunity, the President emphasized internal African causes for the continent's woes, highlighting especially the need for good governance and ending corruption. So he argued, for example, that "you're not going to get investment without good governance." That's just wrong. For decades most foreign investment in Africa has gone to South Africa first, even under apartheid, and then to such oil-rich nations as Angola and Nigeria. First and foremost, western companies, backed energetically by their embassies, are after Africa's resources--oil, gas and to a lesser extent minerals. These are the very sectors where we find vast corruption, environmental degradation, the vicious exploitation of African labor, and, often enough, Africa's wars. In no case does good governance play a role in investment decisions. Often enough venal leaders are precisely what investors look for.

Similarly, Obama insisted that business won't invest where "government officials are asking for 10, 15, 25 percent off the top." That's an illogical assertion. If foreign businessmen weren't only too eager to play the bribery game, those African officials couldn't get away with demanding a cut off the top. Nigeria, Angola, South Africa, Kenya, Cameroon, Congo--everyone knows how to get a contract in these and other countries. Which also should remind us that high-level corruption in Africa could not and does not happen without intimate western collaboration.

Obama's repeated insistence on this theme of good governance and corruption is somewhere between ironic and farcical, given the eight African leaders who were invited to last week's G-8 summit. Five were from sub-Saharan Africa, three from North Africa. Every one of them is ranked poorly or abysmally in Transparency International's 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index. Seven of the eight are considered only partly free or not free by Freedom House in 2009; only one (South Africa, led by the deeply corrupt Jacob Zuma) is deemed free. It was an important if inadvertent lesson: Corruption and poor governance are indeed widespread, if not quite ubiquitous, across Africa, and the west cheerfully plays footsies with all those governments.

Obama says there is "a direct correlation between governance and prosperity." That's why he chose democratic Ghana for his first official state visit, rather than his father's country, Kenya. Heaven knows that the ruling parties in Kenya are brazenly corrupt and dedicated to little beyond enriching themselves and their supporters. Ghana, on the other hand, after years of bad governments following the CIA-backed coup that overthrew its first president, Kwame Nkrumah, can now be said to be fairly stable and democratic (though hardly free of corruption). Obama knows lots of interesting things. When his father left Kenya in the early 1960s to study in the USA, he noted, the GDP of Kenya was higher than that of South Korea; today, Korea is one of the world's great economic success stories, while Kenya languishes.

The UN's Human Development Index backs this up. In 2008, of 179 countries listed, Korea was ranked an impressive twenty-fifth while Kenya was 144. But the President should look at these ratings more closely. Despite good governance, and though some real progress is being made, Ghana was ranked 142, virtually tied with Kenya among the bottom 20 percent of the world's nations. Something else must be going on here that accounts for this depressing situation because Obama's analysis can't.

Here's the heart of his diagnosis,: While the international community "has not always been as strategic as it should have been [regarding Africa]...ultimately I'm a big believer that Africans are responsible for Africa...for many years we've made excuses about corruption or poor governance, that this was somehow the consequence of neocolonialism, or the West has been oppressive, or racist. I'm not a believer in excuses."

This is really a startling argument for the head of a country whose great political battles still rage around the meaning of its Constitution, adopted in 1787 while the slave trade still raged, and whose personal inspiration comes from a predecessor who was murdered in 1865, twenty years before formal colonialism began in Africa. To dismiss the slave trade and a century or more of colonial rule, to minimize the impact of neocolonialism by France and the US, to ignore the incalculable decades-long damage done to Africa as a pawn in the cold war--all of this seems to requite willful blindness in order to peddle a particular agenda.

Of course Obama's obsession about appalling governance is not wrong; I share it completely. Africans have for decades been betrayed by a veritable pageant of monstrous leaders, one more egregious than the other. But another truth is that the United States actively backed almost all of them, and if the US didn't, France did; that's part of the neocolonial record. The west also supplied many of the arms that were used in the appalling internal conflicts that have roiled Africa for so long. Even today, the US, Britain and France continue to remain close to many African leaders whose democratic credentials leave much to be desired, as the G-8 meeting underlined.

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