11 July 2009

Africa: Support Democracy, Africans Urge Obama

Washington, DC — From across Africa, messages for President Barack Obama, submitted to allAfrica.com, have appealed for government by the people. "WE NEED DEMOCRACY IN AFRICA," insisted a 40-year-old businessman, in emphatic capital letters.

The vast majority of nearly a thousand people who sent questions and advice before the U.S. leader landed in Ghana cited good governance and curbing corruption as necessities for African progress. And they were explicit that democracy is the means to those ends.

A Nigerian farmer writes of African states "governed by leaders who are non-committal to democratic values, thereby hampering development and quality of lives of citizenry." Another Nigerian urged President Obama not to "sugarcoat or pretend" in his dealings with "inept, corrupt and sit-tight despots."

Once-respected leaders who re-write constitutions and laws to abolish term limits are subject to special scorn. "Can you make it clear to African leaders," asks a 36-year-old accountant, "that you will only make friends with presidents that obey the rule of law, respect their constitutional ruling mandate?"

"Mr. Yoweri Museveni is a wise man by human standards," said one among many who criticized him, "but his overstay in power as the leader of Uganda has turned him into a 'supreme' leader no longer sensitive to the problems of the country, as evidenced by the leaping growth in official corruption, no longer sensitive to the issues affecting we Ugandans who are not in political offices. Life is getting harder every other day. His avidity for prolonged stay in power is not only dangerous for Uganda and its people, but also for the region, and the global community as a whole."

Contributions streamed in from almost every country in sub-Saharan Africa, as well as from around the world - New Zealand to Canada, Sweden to Mexico. Ranging in age from 13 to over 80, the writers cited diverse occupations: student, nurse, engineer, lorry driver, physician, journalist, editor, graphic designer, auto mechanic, marketer, electrician, statistician, aviation specialist, postal worker, professor, entrepreneur, secretary, priest.

The submissions are impressive for their seriousness and thoughtfulness.

Whether elegantly composed or not, whether written in English or French, almost all are characterized by an intrinsic eloquence. In a remarkable departure from the norm in public web-site discussions, only one out of the many hundreds of messages could be characterized as offensive, and that one was from someone identifying himself as a disabled American veteran.

Complementing a yearning for genuine democracy, a common thread among the comments was concern about perceived impediments to economic development: corruption, conflict, gender inequality, lack of education, barriers to trade, suppression of independent media, climate change and disease, particularly HIV/Aids. Crisis areas got numerous mentions - with Sudan, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo prompting particular despair.

"Mr. President OBAMA," asked a 38-year-old man, "can you tell us why -after more than six million dead people, after several UN reports, after several NGOs' reports and after many SOS calls from Congolese people (not the government) - is the U.S. (your administration) still acting very softly with this Congo's Genocide?"

A sizable minority expressed a sense that Africa is the subject of double standards. Several people wondered why the military removal of Honduras's president was immediately condemned, while a similar standoff in Madagascar has been largely ignored.

"I would like to remember you," said a network administrator, "that our elected President [Marc] Ravalomanana was ousted by military led by Andry Rajoelina. "Now we Malagasy people are threatened by these militaries' gun, as these militaries shoot all those who want to express their opinion." Other questioners asked: Why invade Bosnia but not Darfur, why Iraq and not Zimbabwe?

"Somalia as it is today," wrote another contributor, "is like Afghanistan under complete Taliban control. I do not understand why it seems as if Africa is by itself with this issue. The Somalian issue is a threat to the whole world. In the past year Somalian pirates have took over many ships and people... My question: is why doesn't the United Nations bring in peacekeepers and more countries into Somalia to help with this crisis?"

Keeping pressure on perpetrators of conflict was a frequent request. "As U.S. was the guarantor in the mediation of Eritrea's and Ethiopia's border dispute, is your administration ready to enforce the International Tribunal Court decision where your predessors failed to do so?," asks an Ethiopian.

A student articulated a widespread view that ordinary Africans are cynical about national interests, as defined by autocratic leaders.

"Eritreans and Ethiopians are very well aware that the 1998-2001 senseless war had nothing to do with border issues," said a student, "but rather with individual affairs of the two dictators."

Although only one person accused the United States of being more interested in Ghana's oil than its governance, its intentions do provoke a certain skepticism. "What will be the politics of your administration regarding the dictatorial regime of Teodoro Obiang in Equatorial Guinea?" asks one of its citizens. "Should petrol interests be before people's interests?"

Questioners asked whether the Obama administration will lead business delegations to explore investment opportunities; support African entrepreneurs; back sustainable agriculture rather than agribusiness interests; re-orient assistance to grassroots NGOs and projects rather than to governments; and meet campaign promises to increase aid for health and education.

China, while acknowledged as an important new economic factor in Africa, is regarded warily. There is considerable fear that the Chinese will follow what is commonly seen as a long-standing American and European pattern of tolerating corruption in return for access to resources.

A 50-year-old teacher stated, at some length, what dozens of other contributors expressed:

"Africa has so many tyrannical regimes, thanks to the economic support they receive from western governments and now from China as well. As long as these regimes are seen to serve the interest of donor countries, like fighting terrorism, they are assured of the support they need to remain in power, irrespective of the atrocities they commit against their own people. As much as 40% of the budget of some these regimes is acquired from foreign sources. For this reason governments notorious for flagrant violation of human rights thrive throughout the African continent. As long as governments do not depend on their people to finance their activities, they are at liberty to do anything they wish, and the people will have no leverage to influence the conduct of their governments."

The observation comes with a warning. "Whereas the policy of propping up tyrannical African regimes, irrespective of their human rights record, may serve the short-term interest of western governments, it has a long-term adverse effect of alienating them from the rapidly awakening masses of Africa."

Despite that history and the many worries about whether the United States can abet genuine change in Africa, there is a pervasive hopefulness. Much of the source of that hope appears to be a sense that President Obama shares the deep desire for democracy and the determination to target corruption that permeate the messages. However fashionable and persistent the view that Africans aren't ready for popular rule, and that strong leaders are needed to solve pervasive problems, these heartfelt communications to the U.S. leader reinforce what anyone who travels among Africans already knows: elites may believe they know best, but ordinary people want the right to make their own choices.

AllAfrica interview with President Obama and coverage of Ghana trip

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