Comment & analysis
Deconstructing Obama’s speech in Ghana
2009-07-23, Issue 443
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As a son of Africa, the first African-American president of the empire of the United States delivered a speech to Africans from a European would easily have been described as imperialist lecturing. But the on grounds of blood solidarity, Africans have lauded his 33-minute address at the Accra Conference Center on 11 July. The world, and Africans in particular, continue to be infatuated with what William Blum pertinently calls Obama’s 'toothpaste advertisement smile'. However, it is necessary for us to deconstruct Obama’s Ghana speech and charming smile. Did his speech indicate a new determination to engage with Africa in a different way from his predecessors? Were there sagacious insights in the understanding of the complexities and history of the African reality? To what extent did our African brother change the discourse beyond listing the faults of Africa against the yardstick of America? Should we have expected Obama to have thought differently about Africa simply because he is partly of African origin? How will his speech inform future US–Africa relations?
Firstly, the tone, contents and vision of Obama’s lecture would have been different if someone had given him, even if a day before, Walter Rodney’s classic ‘How Europe Underdeveloped Africa’, with Kwame Nkrumah’s ‘Neo-colonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialism’ thrown in for good measure. Such texts would have given him the ideological and historical lens with which to have viewed Africa’s present economic and political predicament. Instead, the commander in chief of the empire 'deployed his impressive oratorical skills to frame a false historical and current reality about Africa', as Solomon Comissiong pointed out.
But even before the president of the United States set foot on the African continent, his interview with AllAfrica.com at the White House in advance of his meeting featured disturbing views. He bemoaned the decline of Kenya’s GDP (gross domestic product) in the early 1960s, equivalent at the time to that of South Korea’s, and the 'steady application of some of these models over time in Africa', but when asked if that was the failure of US policy or a failure of governance in Africa, Obama replied: 'I think part of what’s hampered advancement in Africa is that for many years we’ve made excuses about corruption or poor governance; that this was somehow the consequence of neo-colonialism, or the West has been oppressive, or racism. I’m not a believer in excuses.' It appears Obama articulated what many Westerners have thought and continue to think, that racism, oppression and new forms of subjugating Africa are false explanations for the problems that confront the African continent and are no longer justifiable. This was a fundamental error in his analysis that he continued to advance when he arrived in Ghana’s capital, Accra.
Early in his speech, Obama said, 'the 21st century will be shaped by what happens not just in Rome or Moscow or Washington, but by what happens in Accra as well. This is the simple truth of a time when the boundaries between people are overwhelmed by our connections. Your prosperity can expand America’s. Your health and security can contribute to the world’s.' The president of America suffers from historical amnesia in the colossal wealth that has been extracted from Africa (leaving aside the millions of African slaves from whom his wife Michelle is descended). This wealth accumulation has not only continued in the post-independence phase, that is, the era of his father, but Africa’s 'prosperity' continues to expand America in an unequal relationship that is symptomatic of a global economic system currently in crisis.
Obama then went on to say, 'I see Africa as a fundamental part of our interconnected world – as partners with America on behalf of the future that we want for all our children. That partnership must be grounded in mutual responsibility…' Any genuine partnership must be grounded in honest truths and understandings of historical realities because history informs the present and the future. And then came another one of Obama’s fundamental analytical errors of the diagnosis of the problems of Africa. He said, 'It is easy to point fingers, and to pin the blame for these problems on others. Yes, a colonial map that made little sense bred conflict, and the West has often approached Africa as a patron, rather than a partner. But 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.' This is where Obama’s ideological spectacles distorts the analysis of Africa’s past, because the West, including its leader, the US, has not only approached Africa as a patron but exploited her economically and politically for America’s own national and imperial interests, particularly during the period of the Cold War, indeed, throughout the 50 years of Africa’s post-independence history. The Cold War disfigured Africa and those impacts remain on the continent today. In short, as Commissiong explains, 'Obama spoke as if America and Europe had nothing to do with much of the "bad" governance that Mama Africa has seen since European invaders began their rape, murder and plunder.'
However, it can be argued that the West has indirectly contributed to the destruction of the Zimbabwean economy in failing to honour the 1979 Lancaster House Agreement, while Western multinational companies continue to aid and abet the proliferation of small arms that have ended up in the small hands of young boys as combatants in the wars in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Uganda (with the Lord’s Resistance Army) and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
Following on that, Obama said to Ghanaians, ‘[W]e must recognise a fundamental truth that you have given life to in Ghana: development depends upon good governance. That is the ingredient which has been missing in far too many places, for far too long. That is the change that can unlock Africa’s potential. And that is the responsibility that can only be met by Africans.' Furthermore, 'we must support strong and sustainable democratic governments… Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions.'
Yet whilst in Cairo in early June this year, Obama appeared apologetic for America’s arrogance before his Arab audience. In Ghana, with the gaze of the whole of Africa and the world upon him, Obama did not acknowledge that his country had supported African dictators such as Mobutu Sese Seko in the DRC and Daniel arap Moi in the land of his father, to name but two African countries where American meddling, whether it be economic or political, has impacted negatively on development. Neither did he mention that his presidential predecessors carried out regime change against the governments of Kwame Nkrumah and Patrice Lumumba and for decades armed the opposition movements such as UNITA (União Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola) led by Jonas Savimbi in Angola. The antipersonnel landmines that remain in Angola and require elimination are largely Western and supplied by top-secret private American companies. Just as Africa has no need for the 'caudillos' (strongmen) that have also characterised Latin American politics, Africa does not need Obama’s duplicity and imperial arrogance. In any partnership there must be political honesty wedded to a principled stand and analysis of past relationships that must inform future relations and actions. Otherwise deception continues and Obama will be nothing but Reaganism and Bushism in a humanitarian guise, albeit with an African face. Therefore, when Obama pronounces, 'America will not seek to impose any system of government on any other nation – the essential truth of democracy is that each nation determines its own destiny', it is not surprising, if we look to historical experience as our guide and teacher, that seeds of scepticism inform our outlook. If Obama’s words were true, the embargo on Cuba would not remain and Cuba and America’s relationship would enter a new chapter in the making of history – but that is another story!
When Obama uttered that 'development depends upon governance' he should have elaborated further on these rather overused terms. Past American administrations, including that of Obama’s, equate 'democracy' and 'good governance' (with its heavily laden-value judgement) to mean a free market economy that defends American interests. The corollary is that any government that undermines American interests is undemocratic. However, Obama’s duplicitous stand can be seen in his visit to Egypt in June. Egypt is run by an 81-year-old octogenarian president who has been in power for over 28 years. What criteria influenced Obama’s team of advisors in selecting Egypt for his address to the Arab world? Was a blind eye turned to Egypt’s autocratic rule in favour of the fact that the American administration considers Egypt its number two best Arab ally, after Saudi Arabia, and therefore the fact that ordinary Egyptians do not have democracy (like the Saudis) is something Obama’s administration can trade off in the pursuit of their foreign policy interests?
Similarly, when the dictator Omar Bongo died earlier this month, a man who had ruled his oil-rich nation with an iron fist for 41 years, Obama noted 'President Bongo played a key role in developing and shaping the strong bilateral relationship between Gabon and the US today.' Yet Bongo was head of one of the most authoritarian one-party states in Africa and a man who killed and jailed members of the opposition. America has installed and funded many tyrannical African dictatorships, yet the commander in chief of the US empire, as Firoze Manji observed, should have acknowledged that the history of America’s 'relationship with Africa has not always been positive'.
Fundamentally, Obama’s concept of democracy reflects the neoliberal agenda or Washington Consensus, which can be defined as the security of property rights, deregulation, a unified exchange rate, trade liberalisation, privatisation, fiscal discipline, a minimal role for the state in the economy to ensure the market runs unfettered for the maximisation of profit, low tax rates and financial sector liberalisation. However, the ongoing global economic meltdown, which began in the United States, raises important questions as to what kind of economic system is desirable to provide the maximum benefit to the majority of people, not just in Africa, but globally. What confidence can African people have in the neoliberal economic agenda that is in crisis in the West and which has been vociferously rejected in Latin America? To paraphrase the communist Joe Slovo, the Soviet Union may have failed with communism but neoliberal capitalism has failed humankind.
Obama said, 'The essential truth of democracy is that each nation determines its own destiny. What we will do is increase assistance for responsible individuals and institutions, with a focus on supporting good governance – on parliaments, which check abuses of power and ensure that opposition voices are heard, on the rule of law, which ensures the equal administration of justice; on civic participation, so that young people get involved; and on concrete solutions to corruptions like forensic accounting, automating services, strengthening hotlines, and protecting whistleblowers to advance transparency and accountability.' The subtext is that if Africans behave and adhere to the rules of the game, often determined by others, they will be rewarded by what Obama refers to as 'assistance'. His criteria of 'good governance', which is tied to aid and imposed by the international financial institutions and the donor community, has become a political conditionality alongside the former economic conditionalities of the structural adjustment programmes (SAPs – otherwise known as Suffering African People). It appears this political conditionality has now been reconfigured in the terminology as 'good governance' which has come in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 along with the rise of the 'multipartyism'. It is the prevailing dominant discourse and purports to be a liberal one, even if the terms are coercive.
As the scholar Issa G. Shivji correctly identifies, 'The contemporary neoliberal discourse has one fundamental blind spot. It treats the present as if the present has had no history. The discourse on democracy in Africa suffers from the same blindness.' As Shivji reminds us, 'the independence and liberation struggles for self-determination, beginning in the post-world war period, were eminently a struggle for democracy.' These were bottom-up struggles that engaged ordinary people in reclaiming 'the right to think for themselves and to chart their destiny'. The reality is that the trajectory of economic and political liberalism of 'good governance' – to use Obama-speak – does not represent mere reform but rather Africa’s further integration into the liberal and imperial global order. Obama likes to present himself as a man-of-change but his ahistorical perspective and language suggest no new grand vision or change for Africa.
Whilst America’s leader points to the corruption and bribery in Africa that is undoubtedly a problem borne of poverty and underdevelopment – as African people on the continent and abroad – we must hold him accountable to checking American and other Western companies that aid this corruption by paying facilitation fees – bribes – to ensure they obtain contracts favourable to them. Corruption is a two-way street, not only involving corruption between Africans but between Western companies and Africans too. According to Obama’s moral compass, is this not also reprehensible? Secondly, we must also ensure that such companies do not consider Africa a place of tax evasion, which means increasing profits for US companies and increasing poverty, unemployment and deskilling for Africans. Obama’s administration must prosecute American companies and individuals who bribe and avoid taxes, as such funds will positively assist Africa’s economic development. Thirdly, if Obama is genuine about tackling corruption, which not only has a moral dimension, but is rooted in economic and political realities, we must address the continuing looting of African dictators (like Mobutu, Bongo and others) sitting in Western and American banks. Their loot – money which belongs to ordinary African people – should be returned directly to civil society organisations to circumvent corrupt African governments using it for their own ends. For example, in 1999 the American Senate investigated Citibank and discovered that Bongo alone had US$130 million in his personal account with the bank. Yet, it is corrupt for this money to continue to reside in Citibank whilst poverty prevails among Gabon’s 2 million poor.
Ultimately, when we apportion historical blame for Africa’s current problems let us do so fairly whilst owning up to our own contribution to the problems. It is indisputable that African leadership of the worst kind – whether civilian or military – has contributed to the neocolonial mess that Africa is in. By neocolonial, I refer to local reactionary classes in Africa who align themselves with foreign imperial interests for economic and political gain; they are subservient and junior partners in the unequal global set-up.
However, another fundamental aspect of Africa’s continued poverty and underdevelopment lies in the fact that Africa has tried all the economic medicines and models since independence. Many of these prescriptions have perpetuated Africa’s subservience, technological and economic stagnation in the imperial world market. SAPs failed to bring about economic growth in many African countries. Yet Obama told us: 'Wealthy nations must open our doors to goods and services from Africa in a meaningful way. And where there is good governance, we can broaden prosperity through public–private partnerships that invest in better roads and electricity.' The premise of Obama’s thinking is that there is 'a direct correlation between governance and prosperity'. If we look to the world’s largest democracy, India, we can see this is not necessarily the case. The vast majority of Indians continue to confront economic poverty like many Africans. Therefore, democracy without justice is 'demon crazy' as one Kashmiri protester splashed on a placard. Economic justice for Africa may begin with a levelled playing field if African farmers received the same agricultural subsidies American and European farmers receive when their crops enter the world market. However, we all know that African governments cannot afford this. If Obama is genuine about a new beginning for Africa, he could have announced the ending of tariffs on African exports to the American market and an end to the dumping of subsidised American agricultural products like American long-grain rice.
The headline ‘Obama’s speech sparks calls for reform across Africa’ captures Obama’s intent, but more significant is the content hidden in the rhetorical stance, or more accurately, given little attention or simply silence. AFRICOM (AFRIcan COMmand) merited more attention but received a passing mention in Obama’s speech. He very briefly explained that the creation of AFRICOM was the consequence of a commonsense (whose commonsense?) restructuring of the US approach to promoting stability in Africa, and that there were no current plans to relocate its headquarters from Germany to African soil.
In summary, the four pillars of future Africa–US relations rest on, firstly, what Obama calls American 'support [for] strong and sustainable governments'; secondly, 'supporting development that provides opportunity for more people'; thirdly, 'strengthening public health'; and finally, 'the peaceful resolution of conflict'. We shall wait to see how his administration deals with the conflicts in Africa – in the DRC and Darfur – on which he remained silent.
Overall, as Africans we must disabuse ourselves of the belief that Obama is our messiah. As the late Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem wrote, ‘Obama is not our saviour. Our capacity to leverage anything from Washington beyond good intentions will depend on how clear we are in terms of our own interests. We should deal on a Pan-African multilateral level instead of lining up as Obama’s "bestest" country or ally.’ Presently, Ghana has been anointed the brown-eyed darling of the American administration, just as it was the 'model colony' during British colonial rule. Fundamentally, pan-African solutions are – to use Obama’s words – the 'ingredient which has been missing in far too many places, for far too long … that is the change that can unlock Africa’s potential.'
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 Solomon Comissiong, ‘Take a Look in the Mirror, America’ in Black Agenda Report.
 Firoze Manji ‘Obama in Ghana: The Speech he might have made’ Pambazuka News 2009-07-16, Issue 442.
 Issa Shivji ‘The Struggle for Democracy’ 2003.
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