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