11 July 2009

Africa: Brother Barack Admonishes - and Encourages - Africa

Speaking to Africans with the intimacy of a brother, and citing the heritage he shared with them, President Barack Obama of the United States delivered an uncompromising message to the continent on Saturday.

Speaking from Ghana's democratically-elected Parliament, months after the ruling party was dislodged – and accepted defeat – by the narrowest of margins, Obama said much of the hope promised by Africa's liberation has yet to be fulfilled.

"Yes," he acknowledged, "a colonial map that made little sense bred conflict, and the West has often approached Africa as a patron, rather than a partner."

Then came the jab: "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."

He followed up with personalized testimony, founded on an earlier statement about his grandfather's experience as an adult man of being called "boy" by the British: "In my father's life, it was partly tribalism and patronage in an independent Kenya that for a long stretch derailed his career, and we know that this kind of corruption is a daily fact of life for far too many."

Returning to the same theme a few minutes later, he agreed that "each nation gives life to democracy in its own way, and in line with its own traditions."

Then came an incentive: "But history offers a clear verdict: governments that respect the will of their own people are more prosperous, more stable, and more successful than governments that do not."

And another warning: "This is about more than holding elections – it's also about what happens between them. Repression takes many forms, and too many nations are plagued by problems that condemn their people to poverty."

Followed by a rain of sharp cautions:

"No country is going to create wealth if its leaders exploit the economy to enrich themselves, or police can be bought off by drug traffickers.

"No business wants to invest in a place where the government skims 20 percent off the top, or the head of the Port Authority is corrupt.

"No person wants to live in a society where the rule of law gives way to the rule of brutality and bribery.

And, finally, a challenge:

"That is not democracy, that is tyranny, and now is the time for it to end."

But the tough sound bites, which judging by the response AllAfrica received from its readers in the days leading up to the speech would have been music to their ears, were interlaced with warm endorsements of what Obama called the "considerable progress in parts of Africa," creating a message of fraternal encouragement in the whole.

He acknowledged the achievements of his hosts, the people of Ghana: "peaceful transfers of power even in the wake of closely contested elections… improved governance… an emerging civil society… impressive rates of growth."

Returning to the era of liberation, he said that "just as it is important to emerge from the control of another nation, it is even more important to build one's own." Now was the time to do this, he suggested, "a new moment of promise."

But now it will not be "giants like [Kwame] Nkrumah and [Jomo] Kenyatta" who will determine the future. It will be all Africans: "Above all, it will be the young people – brimming with talent and energy and hope – who can claim the future that so many in my father's generation never found."

Laying the ground for what he said the United States believed necessary to build the nations of Africa, he began with what he called a fundamental truth: "Development depends upon good governance."

Followed by a gentler admonition: "That is the ingredient which has been missing in far too many places, for far too long." Then Brother Barack again, with advice: "That is the change that can unlock Africa's potential. And that is a responsibility that can only be met by Africans."

Sketching an outline of what he advocated, Obama called for "strong and sustainable democratic governments… capable, reliable and transparent institutions… strong parliaments and honest police forces; independent judges and journalists; a vibrant private sector and civil society."

History was not on the side of "those who use coups or change constitutions to stay in power," he said. It was with people "taking control of their destiny, and making change from the bottom up.

"We saw it in Kenya, where civil society and business came together to help stop post-election violence.

"We saw it in South Africa, where over three quarters of the country voted in the recent election – the fourth since the end of apartheid.

"We saw it in Zimbabwe, where the Election Support Network braved brutal repression to stand up for the principle that a person's vote is their sacred right."

But the United States had responsibilities too. As AllAfrica's Charles Cobb, Jr. pointed out in analyzing the speech for CNN, Obama didn't offer much in practical terms. For example, despite pledging to make it easier for Africans to grow the food it needs and export it, there was no plan offered for the U.S. to abandon the protection of its farmers, which prevents Africans from reaping the benefits of the free trade the West preaches.

But the president did suggest that "wealthy nations must open our doors to goods and services from Africa in a meaningful way."

Repeating his theme from G8 Summit in Rome earlier in the week, he said the commitment of the U.S. "must be measured by more than just the dollars we spend" – it should, instead, by judged by "whether we are partners in building the capacity for transformational change."

To that end, he pledged to help good governance initiatives, to isolate those who pay bribes and to cut payments "that go to Western consultants and administration."

Click here to read the full text of Obama's speech, including his remarks on health, conflict prevention and supporting development that provides opportunity for Africans >>

See full coverage of the visit and read the AllAfrica interview with President Obama

AllAfrica Readers Tell Obama They Want Democracy

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