Obama in Africa: A Major Disappointment | The Nation


Obama in Africa: A Major Disappointment

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The President raised Zimbabwe to make his case. The West, he is not responsible for the destruction caused by Robert Mugabe and his government. The destruction is only too true. The West's innocence is not.

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...

Had Britain fulfilled its clear obligations and ended white minority rule in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe in a timely fashion, fifteen years of vicious civil war would have been avoided. Instead, the final African victory left the country in the hands of an embittered, vengeful Mugabe. America and Britain were collaborating with the apartheid regime in South Africa at the very moment it was actively working worked to sabotage Mugabe's new government. The IMF forced structural adjustment programs on an unwilling Zimbabwean government, helping to undermine its economy. All this is well known. So is the fact that for the first twenty years of his reign, "Good old Bob" Mugabe was one of the west's favorite "Big Men", blithely ignoring his ferocious oppression of his opponents. Not until he began expropriating the vast holdings of white farmers ten years ago--all of whose land was stolen from Africans during the twentieth century (though not necessarily by the current owners)--did western media and western governments decide he was Enemy Number One. Can Obama know nothing of this record?

"Development depends on good governance," Obama lectured Ghana's Parliament. "That is the change that can unlock Africa's potential." With all due respect to the President, this is malarkey. The reality, which surely Obama grasps, is that for centuries, year in and year out, far more of Africa's wealth and resources pour out of the continent to the rich world than the west provides Africa through all sources, from aid to investment to trade. Good governance will not end this perverse truth.

Beyond that, even if every African country was led by a saint, they could do nothing about the severe environmental and economic damage that global warming--for which Africa has no responsibility whatever--is inflicting across the continent. Obama actually mentioned this in his speech, yet ignores it with his obsessive fixation on Africa's sole responsibility for its problems.

Even the most exemplary African leaders could do nothing about the destructive impact on African development of the present worldwide economic crisis, for which Africa has no responsibility whatever.

No African leader has the slightest influence on the drastic increase in food prices that is causing such suffering, including outright starvation, to millions of Africans.

Even a continent of Mandelas couldn't change the massive subsidies that western governments provide to their agribusinesses. When they're in Ghana, the Obamas should do some comparison shopping. They may be taken aback to find that it costs more to buy a locally-bred chicken than a subsidized one that's been shipped frozen all the way from Europe. To this, Obama reassured his Ghanaian hosts, "America can do more to promote trade and investment."

And nothing can be done about the enormous damage already done to Africa by the destructive neoliberal policies that were imposed on African governments by the World Bank and IMF over the past thirty years. Even today, while their rhetoric has changed, these institutions, deeply American-influenced, continue to insist on discredited policies that have failed to promote growth while vastly increasing inequality.

None of this was tackled by Obama. For him, the relationship between Africa and the rich world is a one-way street. Africans are screwing up, and if they want more American aid, they've got to get their act together. This is the Obama analysis--simplistic, myopic, patronizing, implicitly threatening, just what we expected and got from George Bush. Like Bush, evidence based-reality takes a back seat to whatever reality a president chooses to concoct.

For the past decade, it's been widely agreed that the US has three overriding interests in Africa: exploiting natural resources, above all oil and gas; fighting Islamists; and competing with China. In all cases, Africa is merely a pawn, something to be used to pursue America's interests, not Africa's. African development and everything related to it are secondary matters. Substantively, nothing Obama has committed himself to alters these priorities, especially his strong endorsement of the suspiciously vague new US military command structure for Africa, called AFRICOM. But the Americans have been unable to persuade a single African country except ever-cooperative Liberia to host the base for this structure, all fearing the increasing militarization of US-African relations. Given that they're a gang of corrupt leaders who govern poorly, this should surely send Obama a pretty clear message.

I documented the case against the Obama analysis of Africa in a book published last year, The Betrayal of Africa. It demonstrates the twin burdens that actually account for Africa's condition--their own wretched leaders combined with destructive western policies and practices. I know the President is a pretty busy guy, but it's a short book and he clearly enjoys reading and learning. Unless he learns what's really going on in Africa, his administration will become yet another in an endless line that has caused Africa more grief than good. Hard to credit, but yes it can.

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