Obama kicks butt
Romance is over
First visit to Africa and the romance with Obama seems to be over; for good or for worse.
We had already forgiven him for snubbing his fatherland, having understood how badly we behaved after the 2007 general election. We however looked forward to his debut visit to the continent with great expectations.
So why are some disappointed? Because declarations about ending tyranny and corruption have been made many a time.
Obama may be sincere in his wish to end these vices but it seems he has started on the traditional footing. Perhaps he should have asked: “America has been engaged in this continent for many years. In Kenya the US has played a very visible role for 46 years; since independence. Why have US policies failed in the past? What is to be done differently? We Africans know the answers but often no one listens.
It was a bit surprising that Obama repeated, in both the speeches in Italy and Ghana that his cousin cannot get a job in Kenya because he must pay a bribe. While we cannot deny there is corruption in Kenya, (just as it is elsewhere in the world) there are still many Kenyans who get jobs without paying bribes. Americans do business here with their flag ship companies having well established subsidiaries and they recruit too. It is unlikely that one has to bribe to get a job there.
Kenyans are inundated by corruption and have struggled against it for a long time, often paying dearly for that. They have fought for better governance since the beginning of colonial times. Obama’s grandfather was part of this struggle. However his speech left a questionable image of the country and its people. Perhaps he is angry with us but dressing us down when in another country is rather patronizing.
Obama also says that his father failed in his life due to either nepotism or tribalism. Yet even in his book, he has not been flattering to him. One doubts if the man would have had more of the tribalism or nepotism than any African American would have had of racism in America.
Many people came into the job market long after him and sat before panels made up of managers of Asian, European and different African ethnic groups. Some were women who apparently are more likely to be discriminated against. They broke those barriers and got the jobs competing for positions throughout their careers and they made it. Why? Because they did not make others the scapegoats of their failings.
Obama failed to come out clean and say that even as his father may have faced these hurdles but his failure was as much due to drink, women and what sounds like a large ego.
He (Obama senior) was not different from many educated Africans of his time because they had been prepared to come and head institutions but not to labour. They suffered a culture shock and were unable use the precious education they had received to move their countries forward. Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian writer has dealt well with the subject in his 1956 book, No longer At Ease.
Obama has broken many barriers. He has learned to use his gifts well. His books are some of the very few young men around the world keep on the bedside. We have recommended the book to many young people, given it out as a gift for birthdays, graduations and so on, and the word accompanying it is that Obama wrote honestly, objectively and unlike many with such a background, made no apologies about it. His style gives many people particularly Africans who are torn between the two worlds of Africa and the West, strength and a sense of being. It was a surprise that he blamed others for his father’s failure.
Corruption and tyranny
His speech on African issues lacked a sense of new beginnings as he described the problems and then blamed the ‘big man of Africa’; that after he had just experienced the global economic crisis triggered by his own country men. Not that two wrongs make a right but this ‘big man of Africa’ theory does seem to obscure many issues as well. In any case no big man would exist in Africa without working with the west. After all much of the money stolen from the continent is invested in the latter countries (Switzerland for example has paid the heirs of Mobutu Seseko, the former President of the Congo money that is believed to have been stolen his country).
Obama seemed to have shed the persuasiveness he had gone with to Russia, Italy and the Muslim world. Instead he lectured Africans and particularly Kenyans showing once gain how defenseless we are. That has been the tradition of the developed world in their engagement with Africa. These are attitudes you cannot get away else where in the world.
There is no more democracy in Saudi Arabia, which is a close ally of the US than there is in Kenya. The US is also able to ignore the big man of Egypt, the country Obama addressed the Muslim world from. Yet Hosni Mubarak has been the President of Egypt since 1981 that is 27 years. Opposition to him is dealt a heavy hand. There are also corruption scandals touching on him.Why does the US apply these double standards?
Kenya, a good citizen of the world
Kenya stood by Americans and the West in general throughout the cold war. Today it is the Southern buffer for lawless Somalia which is considered a hot bed for terrorism. The country has suffered bombings by terrorists who were after American interests. Despite its chaotic democracy and mind boggling scandals it has been a haven of peace for a volatile region, always standing close to the free world and housing thousands of refugees from the region. However since the election violence last year, it seems the Americans have found a new example of a bad boy.
Throwing money at problems, corruption and tyranny
That he closed the event with a promise of billions of dollars in aid for Africa and while this could have come down well for some, with hindsight it is no different from what the three American Presidents have done when in Africa. In Tanzania, towards the end of his term, the former US President George W Bush gave the country US$698 million grant. That is a lot of money for our neighbours. At the time Tanzania President had wished out loud, when the press asked about the likelihood of Obama being elected president of the United States of America: “Let him be as good a friend to Africa as President Bush has been.” Will he?
Africa is laden with debt. Kenya has Ksh414 billion of foreign debt outstanding and from these pronouncements there will be more coming. For diverse reasons, including corruption, there is little to show for these huge loans. Used well interest on these borrowings would be enough money to provide clean drinking water in each village in Kenya.
Debt has debilitated Africa, causing the kind of squalor and indignity that should not be allowed to exist anywhere on earth. We know that this money swings like a pendulum, moving from the ‘donor’ who is actually a lender, to the foreign bank accounts of the big men and contractors of overpriced or fake projects, sweeping overhead citizens. That is the genesis of corruption and tyranny in Africa.
Even some Americans know this and have tried to come clean. Others are insulated by their political, business and strategic institutions from knowing. John Perkins, a former economic consultant who says he worked as an economic hit man explains how they destroyed the economies of many debt-ridden third world nations by converting the debt into profits for the corporate and political elite. He highlights the games American businesses play in the developing world to create the current phenomena (of failed states) in his book the, Confessions of an Economic Hit Man.
Others like Christian relief worker Kathleen Kern have written on the heinous wars that have killed more than four million people in the Republic of Congo over mines producing coltan, a vital component used in making semiconductors that operate laptop computers and cell phones. According to these writers and perhaps many others, America is as much if not more to blame for corruption and tyranny in these countries.
Obama’s chance to make a difference
Politics is not straight forward and perhaps when you have the big job like Obama, it is frustrating not to be able to get your cousin a job, explain why a Harvard graduate dad failed in his career let alone the daunting task of explaining why an endowed continent of 500 million people cannot feed itself. To make a difference, one needs to appraise mistakes made in the past and listen more carefully before making judgment.
It seems like unless Obama redefines US policy on Africa, the status quo will remain. America’s role in the continent will remain that of extraction of natural resources and perhaps studying the African (almost as a different species), her animals and plants, to acquire knowledge that her (Africa) cannot afford. Politics of business will continue to cause untold suffering in the 21st century as they did in the 20th, both only better than the 19th century because slave trade and colonialism have officially ended.
In his debut visit to Africa as US President it would have been refreshing to see a sign that he understands these issues and would be working for the mutual benefits of his country and Africa. He could for example, have considered how his country can benefit from what P.K Prahalad would call ‘fortunes at the bottom of the pyramid’. This is the almost 500 million impoverished black people in Africa with resources and skills that are useful to the rest of the world. These people have the highest per capita need for goods and services and whoever manages to start a mature engagement rather than a aternalistic one with the continent could just begin the next global socio-economic phenomenon. Africa has a soft spot for Obama. This can make it easier for him to seize this opportunity than for any other leader today.