Sunday, 12 July 2009

Barack Obama beats the drum for democracy and dignity

Accra

12 July 2009

Barack Obama's homecoming lived up to the billing. Ghanaians accorded President Obama the warmest Akwaaba! He returned the compliment, meeting with Ghanaian health workers, activists, politicians and traditional rulers.

Then at his inspirational best Obama set out out the main strands of the United States' new Africa policy, brimful of good ideas about what the continent should be doing. But as a seasoned Ghanaian diplomat remarked amid his dazzled younger colleagues: 'Now for the hard part.'

Two thousand of us – journalists, MPs, ministers, academics, business people, military officers and diplomats – crowded into the garish, pink-tiled conference centre in Accra for the occasion.

Inside, the building was resplendent in the colours of Ghana's red, gold and green flag. Kente cloth was the dominant apparel among the audience, happily outflanking the crumpled lounge suits and jeans sported by the diplomats and the hacks. A colour banner melding the national flags of the USA and Ghana hanging at the back of auditorium read: 'Yes together we can!'

Perched in the balcony, the choir was in fine voice, tuning up for their rendition of the Ghanaian and the US national anthems. Enter the Speaker of Ghana's parliament Joyce Bamford-Addo to preside with some formality over the event. Minutes later, Presidents John Atta Mills and Obama troop in; the national anthems are sung with gusto and on with the business. Each speaker was greeted with a blast on the trombone, imitating the musicians of the Asante court who fire off loud riffs on the horns to welcome visitors.

After tactfully brief remarks from Speaker Bamford-Addo and Mills, Obama took the podium, warranting the longest blast of trombone riffs from the back of the hall. 'Sounds like we've got Louis Armstrong back there,' Obama quipped. Armstrong played at Ghana's Independence celebrations 52 years ago.

Opening up, Obama explained he had to come to Ghana at the end of a long trip to Russia and Italy for a simple reason: '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.'

Obama, his advisors told us, is determined to reintegrate African policy into the US's mainstream agenda; stopping over in Accra to make a major policy speech after the G8 summit reinforces that signal: 'I see Africa as a fundamental part of our interconnected world.'

Starting from his premise that 'Africa's future is up to Africans,' Obama went on to tackle the prickliest of issues: '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.'

Perhaps only an American president who refers to the 'African blood within me' could speak so candidly to Africa without triggering accusations of interference or hypocrisy. Referring to his own family's history in British-ruled Kenya, Obama pointed to the damage that colonialism had wrought and how 'the West often approached Africa as a patron rather than partner.'

After the Independence era when his Kenyan father won a scholarship to Harvard, Obama spoke of Africa's immediate challenges: 'Just as it is important to emerge from the control of another nation, it is even more important to build one's own.'

Looking deep into the audience he added: 'This time it will not be giants like Nkrumah and Kenyatta who will determine Africa's future. Instead it will be you – the men and women in Ghana's parliament and the people you represent. 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.'

The key themes of Washington's new approach in Africa would be democracy, opportunity, health and the peaceful resolution of conflict. It would be a relationship of mutual responsibility and benefit, Obama promised.

Everyone knew to whom Obama was referring when he spoke of 'leaders that exploit the economy to enrich themselves... and police who can be bought off by drug traffickers.' Even in Accra, a few local politicians and security officers wriggled in their seats.

Obama commended the Ghanaian investigative journalist Anasa Aremeyaw Anas along with civic activists in Kenya and Zimbabwe for making change from the bottom up. 'History is on the side of these brave Africans and not with those who use coups or change constitutions to change in power. Africa doesn't need strongmen, it needs strong institutions.'

The references were plain. On 12 July, the day after Obama's speech, Congo-Brazzaville's President Denis Sassou-Nguesso was holding elections in which he had barred all the credible contenders and his party had doctored the voters' registration list. None of this has prompted serious protest from Sassou-Nguesso's friends in Paris – ex-President Jacques Chirac and incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy or any other European power.

Sarkozy's African exploits contrast sharply with Obama's. To loud jeers 18 months ago, Sarkozy told told thousands of students in Dakar that Africa was not 'participating in history' because its peasant farmers had no sense of the future. Then last month, boos again greeted Sarkozy and Chirac when they arrived in Libreville for the funeral of Gabon's long-time ruler and France's political fixer, Omar Bongo Ondimba. No sign of 'mutual responsibility' from the Elysée Palace so far.

While Obama talks of getting serious about corruption on all sides Рtargeting money launderers and tax havens by using forensic accounting methods and protecting whistleblowers РSarkozy's government is seeking ways to derail attempts by civic activists in France to launch private prosecutions of the families of Bongo, Sassou-Nguesso and Burkina Faso's Blaise Compaor̩.

That raises the spectre of just how hard it is for Africa to pursue the political and economic reforms that Obama says that the USA will back: some of Africa's biggest economies such as Kenya, Egypt and Nigeria are still held down by arbitrary rule and widespread corruption – and in which many of their main trading partners are implicated.

Beyond the political concerns, Obama floated several innovative ideas to promote educational, economic and social opportunities: US$3.5 billion of investments in agricultural research and production, rapid development of Africa's renewable resources and $63 billion to improve public health provision across the developing world.

Saving his strongest rhetoric to condemn Africa's warmongers, Obama said: 'Defining oneself in opposition to someone who belongs to a different tribe or who worships a different prophet has no place in the 21st century.'

And promising US backing for Africa's own peacekeepers desperately trying to contain conflicts in the Horn and Congo-Kinshasa, Obama said: 'When there is genocide in Darfur or terrorists in Somalia, these are not simply African problems – they are global security challenges, and they demand global responses.'

In his final rhetorical flourishes, Obama spoke directly to Africa's youth: 'The world will be what you make of it... You can conquer disease, end conflicts, and make change from the bottom up. You can do that. Yes you can. Because in this moment history is on the move.' By this time, most of the auditorium was cheering in encouragement.

Such rampant idealism contrasts starkly with the gritty realism of the writer V.S. Naipaul, known for his grim depictions of African and Caribbean states. One of Naipaul's favourite aphorisms was 'the world is what it is'. That more or less reflects the conservative views of Obama's main opponents: it's a rough world and protecting national self-interest is going to be hard enough without any internationalist flights of fancy.

And it's that sort of gritty realism that would await Obama on his return to Washington, an African-American development expert explained as we sat in a bar in Osu after the first couple had taken their helicopter to see the slave castle at Cape Coast. The hope and the inspiration were all there, she said The real challenge was using that to change direction both in Africa and the USA – both in the middle of the devastating financial slowdown.

In the USA, much will depend on Obama's ability to win Congressional support for new initiatives – ending US agricultural subsidies that weaken the prices of African crops or financing more public health projects – at a time when Washington's trillion dollar fiscal stimulus is still yet to produce the sought-after results in the domestic economy.

The biggest hurdles are in Africa itself. After showering praise on the liberal politics and good economic management in Ghana and Botswana, Obama's officials recognise that positive change in the continent's bigger economies such as Kenya, Egypt and Nigeria is critical to a great leap forward for Africa.

Even the most resilient Afro-optimist would search hard for signs of political change in the short-term in those three countries. Yet the youth, who make up the majority in all three countries, are lauding Obama's remarks and are calling out for change themselves. Now for the hard part, indeed.

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