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Comment & analysis

President Obama needs a refresher course on Africa

Gerald Caplan

2009-07-16, Issue 442

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There are 4 comments on this article.

Following Barack Obama's visit to Ghana last week, Gerald Caplan questions the US president's grasp of African affairs. Obama's comments around good governance as a pre-condition for foreign investment are simply false Caplan points out, as any glance at apartheid-era South Africa or contemporary Nigeria and Angola would confirm. If Obama is serious about supporting Africa, he should seek to break with the entrenched twin burdens of self-interested leaders and exploitative Western policies holding back the continent, Caplan concludes, and not merely perpetuate them.

The American president made his first official trip to Africa last week when he visited Ghana for two days. In an interview Obama, with no false humility, stated that 'I'm probably as knowledgeable about African history as anybody who's occupied my office.' I'd say two things. First, the bar in that particular competition was not exactly set very high. Second, as the rest of the interview demonstrated, he's not nearly as knowledgeable as he thinks he is. Much of what he believes about Africa, and how it can get out of the many messes it's in, are simply wrong.

In his interview with, the president focused on internal African causes for the continent's woes, highlighting especially the need for good governance and ending widespread corruption. So, for example, he argues that 'you're not going to get investment without good governance.' That's simply 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. In all cases, good governance played no role in investment decisions. Making an assured profit, regardless of the governance system, was the only criterion.

Similarly, Obama insisted that business won't invest where 'government officials are asking for 10, 15, 25 per cent off the top'. That too is wrong. Nigeria, Angola and South Africa show that, as do Kenya, Cameroon and the DR Congo, just to name obvious exceptions to his statement. In all cases, foreign businessmen have shown themselves only too eager to play the bribery card. If they didn't, those African government officials couldn't get away with demanding a cut off the top, which also means that high-level corruption in Africa couldn't – and doesn't – happen without Western complicity.

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 show little interest in anything other than enriching themselves and their supporters. Ghana, on the other hand, after years of bad governments following the CIA-instigated coup that overthrew the first president, Kwame Nkrumah, can now be said to be fairly stable and politically democratic. Obama knows lots of things. As he observed, when his father left Kenya in the early 1960s to study in the USA, the GDP (gross domestic product) of Kenya was higher than that of South Korea; today, South Korea is one of the world's great success stories, while Kenya languishes.

The UN's Human Development Index backs this up. In 2008, of 179 countries, Korea was ranked 25th, placing it among the rich developed nations of the world, while Kenya was 144th. But the president should look at these ratings more closely. Despite good governance, Ghana was ranked 142nd, virtually tied with Kenya among the bottom 20 per cent of the world's nations. Something else must be going on here that accounts for this situation, because Obama's analysis can't.

Here's the heart of his diagnosis, as his interview made explicit: 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.'

Well, this is partially true. Africans have for decades been betrayed by a veritable pageant of monstrous leaders. But another truth is that the United States actively supported the very worst of these African tyrants, and if the US didn't, France did; that's called neocolonialism. This included, by the way, the apartheid government of South Africa, which, with the quiet backing of Britain and the US, only stopped destabilising much of the continent 15 years ago. The West also supplied many of the arms that were used in the terrible internal conflicts that have roiled Africa for so long. Even today, the US, Britain and France continue to remain close allies with many African leaders whose democratic credentials leave much to be desired.

The little-grasped reality is that year after year far more of Africa's wealth and resources pour out of the continent to the rich world than the West provides through all possible sources, from aid to investment to trade.

Beyond that, even if every African country was led by a saint, they could do nothing about the severe environmental damage that global warming – for which Africa has no responsibility whatever – is inflicting across the continent.

Even the best 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's worth of Mandelas couldn't change the massive subsidies 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 one that's been shipped all the way from Europe, thanks to subsidies to European chicken farmers.

And nothing will now change the vast damage already done to Africa by the destructive neoliberal policies that were imposed on African governments by the World Bank and IMF (International Monetary Fund) over the past 30 years. Even today, while their rhetoric has changed, these institutions, deeply American-influenced, continue to insist on discredited policies that fail to promote growth while vastly increasing inequality.

At the risk of being pushy, I recommend that President Obama reads my little book, The Betrayal of Africa, which documents the twin burdens that actually account for Africa's situation – the continent's own wretched leaders combined with exploitative Western policies and practices. Unless he grasps this truth, his administration will become yet another in an endless line that has caused Africa more grief than good. And I'm confident that's not what he intends.

* Gerald Caplan is the author of The Betrayal of Africa.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at

Readers' Comments

Let your voice be heard. Comment on this article.

In Moelsti Mbeki's book "Architects of Poverty" he thinks that the problem with Africa is the absent of a class of entrepreneurs. Most Africans government selling their natural resources like they did during slavery very cheap to take care of the ruling elite. The Asians are becoming entrepreneurs and Africans try to use politic to advance themselves. This has led to wide spread corruption, break down in the rules of law, failed states and highly educated blacks leaving the country. President Obama said that only Africans can change these conditions in African.


A very good analysis. I offer a few reservations:

1. Assertion

"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..."

1a. Response

"pageant of monstrous leaders" strikes me overreaching. if accurate, the author would have to agree that virtually every american president is also monstrous, but i rarely see scholars use such a strong term as a general descriptive for white leaders.

2. Assertion

"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"...

2a. Response

so "wretched" african leaders = bad western policies? but should not wretched african leaders be paired with wretched white leaders? and how is it that Barack Obama is merely a "busy guy" with a poor analysis? these sorts of statements reflect a subtle form of racism that is worrisome.

kwame, harvard university

"At the risk of being pushy, I recommend that President Obama reads my little book," so we are all selling something after all. Buy my book, learn something. Here is President Obama, he did not have to think about being labeled racist but gave it as it is with obvious omissions but to suggest that he needed a refresher course on Africa is naive.

If we all knew the good but chose to do evil is not so different as to be on a diet but end up eating that double choc chip cake. How Obama is going to help stop those that benefit from extreme poverty is the only point here.


Concise, focused and very good summary of where Obama gets it wrong. May I say that it is too nice to say that he commented on his historical knowledge with no false humility. His was a quite arrogant statement, made with the confidence that nobody at the news conference would publicly challenge it (for example by asking his opinion on Vansina or Lemarchand, given his expertise). This is too bad, as so much of his life story and ideals cry out for sympathy and support.


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