It is not far-fetched to suggest that a significant part of Obama's special assignment in Africa in 2013 was to clear the way for American bio-tech companies to move along the path of least resistance. Tanzania under Kikwete is an important foot soldier in that broad strategy
In June-July 2013, US President Barack Obama embarked upon his first official trip to Africa. He made three regional stops: Senegal (West Africa), South Africa (Southern Africa) and Tanzania (straddled between East and Southern Africa.) But even before he departed, Obama's itinerary had become contentious in that it excluded Kenya.
Kenya is by far East Africa's power-house, economically and otherwise. The US president claimed to be coming to Africa to enhance US-Africa interactions and build business partnerships.
By all accounts, Kenya was a more convincing nerve center of action than Tanzania. In addition, Kenyans were losing lives in neighboring Somalia in a war against Islamic terrorism, a deeply significant issue in US foreign policy. Why was Tanzania prioritized? Was there an inside-story that we were not being told? We backtrack to Obama's initial run for the US presidency to read between the lines.
When Baraka Obama first entered the American national scene in early 21st century, he stepped into a volatile public debate between genetically modified organisms (GMO) protagonists and GMO antagonists. To a politician, many critical votes were at stake here; Obama had to take a stand on what had become an agitated dialogue-of-the-deaf.
Candidate Obama confirmed early his campaign that he was mindful of the risks of vesting too much power in the hands of multi-national corporations (MNCs), especially in regulatory government agencies.
Additionally, regarding the divide between consumers and the food giants, he was decidedly on the side of the former. His presidency would not allow the Department of Agriculture to be transformed into the department of agribusiness.
On assuming office, however, Obama made a surprising u-turn by suddenly becoming an ally of big agricultural businesses. Quickly, there were 'loud whispers' that the new US president had transformed into the most visible 'convert' of the biggest of the agri-businesses, the much-despised Monsanto Company.
The turnaround was accomplished by adopting the 'revolving door policy' of appointing Monsanto's ex-employees for key positions in government regulatory agencies.
The strategy was so effective that, shortly, Obama was branded 'Monsanto's man in Washington' and 'the most GMO-dedicated politician in America.' Shockingly, Obama evolved this cozy relationship with Monsanto in blatant defiance to public objections. Indeed, critics wondered: Did Obama jump or was he pushed?
During the first presidential campaign, Obama had made a pledge that he would make it legally mandatory for genetically engineered foods to be labeled as such. As he put it, '... let folks know when their food is genetically modified, because Americans have a right to know what they're buying.'
Organic consumers were deeply disillusioned when the next (2012) presidential elections came around and the president's promise was still pending. Obama had not even bothered to explain to the American organic consumers why his position on GMOs had changed. They felt betrayed by a man that they deeply longed to trust.
WHAT IS THE GMO FUSS ALL ABOUT?
What is it that disturbs critics regarding genetically engineered foods? Simply put, experts argue that the ultimate impact of bio-technological genetic tinkering on human health and environment is still largely unknown.
Accordingly, GMOs' availability for human consumption is premature; they require further testing. After all, biotech foods have been around for a mere forty years and, to the critics, they are still unlabeled, untested and unsafe. In handling the GMO issues, therefore, society must subordinate corporate interests to public good. What is the hurry anyway?
To compound issues, GMOs are peddled by unethical and unscrupulous profit-driven MNCs. Indeed, it matters immensely that the most visible face of the GMOs is that of Monsanto, a company with horrific public image worldwide.
Finally, antagonists reject the idea that GMO research is largely undertaken under the auspices of the same biotech companies that stand to benefit from deliberately distorted research findings. This practice is seen as analogous to an individual taking his case to the criminal.
Against this background, American organic consumers have lost patience with Obama. They are unprepared to compromise with their president over their right-to-know what is in the foods that they buy and their right to choose whether or not to ingest GMO-foods.
Deeply disappointed, GMO critics have now practically given up on official safety regulations; the most that they expect is simply to be informed when their foods contain GMOs.
This is a state-based grass-root political strategy that they are calling the 'label-it-campaign' or 'Right to Know Movement.' To them, Obama has been pushing GMOs in America, albeit deviously.
OBAMA'S BID TO EXPORT GMOS TO AFRICA
Obama would go considerably further than betray American organic consumers about GMOs. Last year he raised the odds considerably by launching an elaborate plan that in effect would authorize and facilitate twenty-first century spread of American MNCs in Africa.
In May 2012, the US President ceremoniously launched the New Alliance for Food and Nutrition Security (NAFNS), ostensibly to eradicate hunger and poverty in sub-Sahara Africa within the next decade.
The speedy African panacea would be realized by embracing 'modern agricultural methods and technology' undertaken in partnerships between African and Western governments and private interests.
During the NAFNS launch, Obama did not mention the buzz-words such as GMOs or bio-technology. He preferred innocuous code words like 'modern agricultural methods and technology,' words that concealed that he was indeed proposing to transplant a contentious and unresolved American food issue to Africa.
Naturally, fulfillment of the African food security miracle was to be spearheaded by the grand daddy of the GMOs companies, the world's biggest agricultural and seed corporate monster, Monsanto.
Here too Obama was cautious not to mention the notorious Monsanto by name. However, the company's CEO was there singing praises for the president's 'wise' initiative and the lucky blessings for Africa at long last.
But critics were not so sure. They quickly and violently questioned the NAFNS proposal primarily on the grounds that MNCs are historically known as blood-suckers not inclined or equipped to be in the business of philanthropy, least of all for Africans. This has always been the case since the advent of the Dutch East India Company, the mother of all MNCs.
African activists objected to NAFNS' nascent dishonesty and exploitative intent. "We strongly object that the image of the poor and hungry from our countries is being used by giant multinational corporations to push a technology that is neither safe, environmentally friendly nor economically beneficial to us... . we think that it will undermine our capacity to feed ourselves."
In short, African critics saw NAFNS for what it really was, a Trojan horse to ferry American agricultural bio-technology into the heart of Africa with or without Africans' knowledge and consent. Was this a case of a grand modern-era scheme of deception?
With ten offices fully established in South Africa alone, Monsanto in 2013 was poised to move north to implement its 'GMO plan' for Africa now doubly emboldened by a partnership offer of the most powerful government in history, thanks to Obama.
Barely a year after the NAFNS launch, and while most of the world was still urging caution regarding bio-technology, Tanzania's President Jakaya Kikwete started speaking openly in support of GMOs as the life-savior foods for Africa. Concurrently, he condemned GMO critics as under-informed and needed to be educated. Were the two phenomena a coincidence?
During his first official visit to Africa a couple of months ago, Obama surprised many by skipping Kenya as one of his US presidential stops. In East Africa, he chose Tanzania and then South Africa.
Informed critics suggested that Obama was out to counter China's economic impact in the two countries. But an equally compelling reasoning has emerged that Obama went to this part of Africa primarily to clear the way for GMOs to spread northwards unhindered.
Before discussing the inherent contributions of South Africa and Tanzania to the GMO logic, it is noteworthy that it was Obama who initially reached out for the friendship of Tanzania's President.
In 2009, Kikwete was the first African leader to be invited by newly elected Obama to the White House. Three years later, the same Kikwete was back in Washington for the NAFNS launch.
Obama retuned the favor in 2013 by visiting Tanzania. There are over 50 African leaders in Africa. How did Kikwete earn such honors of closeness to the US president? One could be forgiven for suspecting that Kikwete has long been in the GMO plans, needing what Herbert Marcuse once called 'capitalist massage.' In a sense, the GMO convert in Kikwete was bigger than Tanzania; he was needed to serve a larger strategic goal.
Why is Tanzania's friendship critical to the American GMO plan in Africa? South Africa is Monsanto's center of operations in Africa; it has been so since the apartheid era. In the Monsanto-Push-North-Initiative, Tanzania is now the northernmost soft spot. This makes it strategically vital as Monsanto's stepping stone for continental penetration.
What is more, in the Obama-GMO plan, Tanzania stands head and shoulder above Kenya. Unlike the vocal Kenyans, Tanzanians have been relatively less critical of GMOs. Conversely, Kenya has become more than an irritant adversary of the biotech industry; in November 2012 Kenya officially banned importation of GMOs into the country.
In this sense, Kenya is a GMOs unfriendly frontier to be handled in the future. On the other hand, Tanzania is a member of the Southern African Development Community, thus politically more reachable by Monsanto via the dominant South Africa.
Finally, southern Tanzania is a vast arable farmland ideal for MNC mono-crop agriculture. Quest to develop the region goes back to the Julius Nyerere era when it was an adjunct economic justification behind the push to build the Tanzam Railway in the late 1960 and early 1970s. Its presence is a made-in-heaven opportunity for both Monsanto and Tanzania.
By his own admission, Obama came to Africa in mid-2013 in the interest of greater US-African engagements and to promote business partnerships with Africans.
Agriculture is a defendable centerpiece of his vision for Africa because the continent possesses the requisite ingredients for enormous growth. It is not far-fetched to suggest that a significant part of Obama's special assignment in Africa in 2013 was to clear the way for American bio-tech companies to move north along the path of least resistance. Tanzania under Kikwete is an important foot soldier in that broad strategic plan.
When the US chose to assist in rebuilding War-ravaged Europe after World War II, it came up with an open public plan on how it intended to do so. The content of the Marshall Plan was publicly open and was visited by all, including the newly established world power, the Soviet Union. Many agreed to be part of the plan; others declined.
But they all knew what the Marshall Plan entailed. Obama's food security plan for Africa lacks that kind of openness; it is shrouded by hidden agendas and underhandedness. Why so?
Perhaps Africa's iconoclasts can be forgiven for conjuring up images of modern day scramble for Africa.
- James N. Kariuki is Kenyan Professor of International Relations and an independent writer based in South Africa.
- THE VIEWS OF THE ABOVE ARTICLE ARE THOSE OF THE AUTHOR/S AND DO NOT NECESSARILY REFLECT THE VIEWS OF THE PAMBAZUKA NEWS EDITORIAL TEAM