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Acknowledge America's role in African affairs

Disappointed by Barack Obama's Ghana speech, Tendai Marima says the US president's failure to acknowledge the role America has played in African affairs reflects its 'political historical aphasia'. By glossing over 'how African wars and dictatorships are made', Obama reinforces the image of Africa as the 'black hole of war and corruption', Marima argues. The US media may have hailed the speech as a turning point in US–Africa relations, but says Marima, so far 'Obama's foreign policy has not reflected a politics of change but more of the same'.

Tendai Marima


Barack Obama's recent overnight visit to Ghana is one, as media coverage has shown, that generated enormous excitement for Africans across the world. However for me, as an African, his message of hope and imagined possibility of change in US-Africa relations did not live up to the expectations I had for a man who on 4 November 2008, as President-elect, promised a new way of doing things. His interview with before his departure and subsequent speech to the Ghanaian parliament echoed a historical amnesia of the West's role in African affairs which disappointingly does not detract from the traditional inability of past American governments to acknowledge their role in the affairs of other nations. I explore, below how America’s political historical aphasia was reinforced while simultaneously intersecting with questions of cultural heritage and Western support of African dictators.

Firstly while it heartened me to see Obama acknowledging his Kenyan heritage, I wondered why now? Why is his African identity so important standing before a Ghanaian parliament? When he has been taken to task about his race-less modus operandae in the US, he has continually said its not a raced agenda, but an American one. Yet, in differing and complex ways, race is inextricably linked to American issues in the everyday. How does he, the son of a Kenyan migrant-cum-African American President, expect African Americans who come from a slave heritage to feel now that race and heritage are important when he is in Africa but not in the United States? Where is this side of him when dealing with everyday issues of poverty, education, poor social housing, unfair justice system and police brutality all of which are conditions specific to black and other ethnic minority people in their respective racial categories? While it might be argued that race politics is different nowadays, America is ‘not yet there’ in terms of proclaiming a post-race era, given the continued reports of race-motivated police brutality in Philadephia, Oaklahoma, for example and the upsurge of alarming white supremacist derogatory comments that the Obamas have been subject to during their tenure as First Family.

Secondly, it is more complex than simply African draconian nationalist governments springing up one after another, unshaped by history or foreign influence. For too long Africa has been portrayed as the 'black hole of war and corruption' and Barack Obama in both his interview and speech, continued to construct that image without critically exploring just how African wars and dictatorships are made.

Perhaps I'm speaking from an emotional – although no less valid – perspective as an African, but I feel the construction and maintenance of the African 'strongman' is through 'strong institutions' that come from a culture of tolerance of despotism from both within and outside Africa. If Obama had paused in his speech, he might have remembered meeting Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia, invited as the non-member Africa representative at the G20 summit in April 2009 in London. Or he might have looked down from his pulpit to see that sitting right there opposite him Ghana’s former head of state Jerry Rawlings, a man who fiercely held onto power, with the support of the World Bank for as long as promises to transform Ghana into a democracy and free market economy were maintained. Or, seeing as Zimbabwe was his choice example in these words:
'The West is not responsible for the destruction of the Zimbabwean economy over the last decade or wars in which children are enlisted as combatants.'

The position of the West in relation to Zimbabwe is an extremely complex one. While on the one hand Western condemnation of Robert Mugabe only came in 2000 when the farm invasions began, all the while America gave financial support to the totalitarian state Zimbabwe had slowly become. On the other hand post-2000, US and EU sanctions against Zimbabwe have negatively affected the economy and have been part of the reason why Zimbabwe is in economic ruin, though the larger part of the blame lies with Mugabe’s damaging fiscal and repressive social policies.

Thirdly, in his impassioned chiding of African leaders, Obama also constructs the image of a new leader of a democratic America willing to give Africans a ‘helping hand’ out of this political mess. This is the pinnacle of America’s civilising mission of the world, prescribing its handbook on democratic ideals, as though democracy were a political feel-good pill every nation needed in order to self-actualise. For those wayward nations that reject this medication, sanctions and no aid is the response, as in the case of Cuba and Zimbabwe, which have recently been relaxed but with limitations – a welcome move that Obama can be credited with.

However his preaching of democracy in Africa, with all its personal anecdotes and touching metaphors, is, in reality, no different from past seemingly benevolent approaches of George W Bush, Bill Clinton or the UK’s Tony Blair or Gordon Brown. Bush and Blair who, in acting in the interests of ‘democracy for African people’, also openly criticised African leaders, resulting in a war of words between the US, UK and the outraged Mummar Gadaffi of Libya and Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, respectively.

I find it questionable and almost contemptuous that Obama's speech should be hailed as a 'turning point' in Africa-US affairs, as the New York Times, CNN and AP News have all described it. In some instances they came across as patronising and at other times almost gleeful that Obama was given a platform to scold African heads of state that no white Western leader would ever have been given. Is it a ‘turning point’ because it is a leader of African-heritage speaking to other African leaders with an invocation of Bennedict Anderson's ‘imagined community’ at every turn?

This ‘tuning point’ remains to be seen more concretely in his actions, through his approach in his dealings with African dictatorships, be it Libya or Zimbabwe. However, so far Obama's foreign policy has not reflected a politics of change but more of the same, exercised in silence and diplomacy rather than open vindication as the situations dictated to Obama’s procrastinated responses to Iran, Israel or Honduras in the last 30 days. It took Obama 10 long days to speak out against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's persecution of Iranians after civilians took to the streets in protest to the re-election of Ahmadinejad. Obama again remained silent when Israel captured, imprisoned then eventually deported the passengers of a ship on a peacekeeping mission to Gaza, among whom was former US Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney and twenty other human rights activists en route to Gaza to provide medical assistance and relief to civilians there. He refused to call the incident in Honduras a coup; instead he chose his language very carefully knowing what implications the word coup might have for US troops stationed there. In these instances he has acted in American interests, not in the pursuit of good governance and global humanity as he preached in Accra. Why the hypocrisy? If – as his speech and interview rightly convey to a certain extent – Africa is a hotbed of dictatorships sorely in need of adopting good democratic principles, then why were these same principles not put to practice in Obama’s dealings with Israel, Iran and Honduras?

In full superpower mode, the US has not always practiced the democratic values it preaches and the description of America in Vietnam by the late Dr Martin Luther King Jnr, '[it is] the greatest purveyor of violence' still rings true of the US even today in the age of its waning political influence. Renowned political critic and academic, John Pilger in his insightful criticism of US foreign policy notes that: 'Since 1945, by deed and by example, the US has overthrown 50 governments, including democracies, crushed some 30 liberation movements and supported tyrannies from Egypt to Guatemala…Bombing is apple pie [for America][1]'.

I concur with Pilger, as the dark side of America’s involvement in Africa in the last 50 years has been nothing short of this. It has been a policy of 'assassinate our threats and install our favourites' as exemplified in the installation of Jomo Kenyatta in Kenya in 1963, the CIA assassination of Patrice Lumumba in 1961 and the subsequent installation of Mobuto Seseko in Zaire and the US-supported killing of Laurent Kabila in the DRC in 2001. When not ‘assassinating threats and installing favourites’, America has bombed or turned a blind eye to atrocities as exemplified in Bill Clinton's ignoring of the ethnic genocide in Rwanda in 1994 and knee-jerk reaction of removing troops, (sent by his predecessor Bush Senior at the UN’s request), to Somalia in 1992, while his hyper-fear of Al-Qaeda’s terror attacks resulted in the bombing of a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan in 2000.

The pursuit of commercial interests of both US corporations and African governments at the expense of local people is another case in point Obama persistently avoided mentioning in his address, yet the history of Shell in Nigeria lurks right next door. Ghana itself is no stranger to exploitation as it is the dumping ground of toxic computer waste from rich countries. According to the BBC, 'Abgoloshie dump site in Ghana’s capital, Accra is a computer graveyard[2]' where the hazardous materials of computers run a serious risk of contaminating water sources, including rivers and eventually the sea.

Intended as the wisdom of hindsight, Obama cautiously advised parliament 'oil is not the new cocoa' in reference to the recent discovery of oil in Ghana. However, ‘oil might just become the new cocoa’ as a symbol of both economic prosperity and ruin for Ghana if indeed the US is to increase its supplies of oil from Africa from its current 15 per cent to 25 per cent by 2015.

Given the US track-record on the Continent, outlined above, I am suspicious of what this mission was truly about. Obama's Africa policy will become clearer as time goes on. For it to live up to the expectations of good governance and democracy promised in his rhetoric, it has to be subject to continual, rigorous political scrutiny and intellectually sustained criticism. It also requires, on both sides, a dialogue of mutual respect that is free from historical amnesia, finger-pointing and hidden capitalist interests. These are essentials for the foundation of new relations between African governments and US, if the Obama administration’s promises and pledges made in the interest of the African Continent as a whole and its individual nations, are to be realised.  

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