Obama Gets Frank With Africa

Tell It Like It Is, Prez!

Africa is one of those conundrums that has been around for all of my life. Ever since I can remember, there’s been calls for aid, donations, and more aid and more donations and even more aid and donations. Part of the dynamic has been a product of history where the European and North American nations keep sending guilt money for perceived historic wrongs. The problem is, all that money that’s been spent on Africa has amounted to the Africa of today, and it’s not exactly what you might call a success.

There are corrupt governments, military juntas, tribal wars and countless causes for violence, poverty, injustice and chaos. When you sit there an tally up the money spent, it just doesn’t make sense. If we’d kept that money, imagine what we might have done with it? And as uncharitable as that sounds, it’s just as confounding when you sit and contemplate how fucked up the dark continent has become.

So, in this light, when an American President with an African heritage steps up to deliver a speech, it’s time for some home truths.

BARACK OBAMA delivered the most challenging speech by an American leader in Africa for decades when he castigated the continent’s leadership for creating a culture of “brutality and bribery”.

Adopting a tone his white predecessors never dared employ, the US President told Africa it could no longer blame the West for all its woes.

“Yes, a colonial map that made little sense, bred conflict, and the West has often approached Africa as a patron, rather than a partner,” he told Ghanaian MPs on Saturday. “But the West is not responsible for the destruction of the Zimbabwean economy over the past decade, or wars in which children are enlisted as combatants.”

Seeking to jolt Africa’s politicians out of a complacent belief that his shared ancestry with them would soften his rhetoric, Mr Obama spoke with withering directness. Condemning tyrannical leaders who “enrich themselves” amid chronic poverty, he promised fresh “partnerships” only with states that were well governed.

For the kleptocrats and autocrats who still sprinkle the continent, he had a simple message: enough is enough.

“No person wants to live in a society where the rule of law gives way to the rule of brutality and bribery,” he said. “That is not democracy, that is tyranny, and now is the time for it to end.”

Traditional “strongman” rulers must give way to “strong institutions” if they are to benefit from future Western assistance, he said. “We have a responsibility to support those who act responsibly and to isolate those who don’t.

“Development depends on good governance, and that is the ingredient which has been missing in far too many countries. That’s the change which can unlock African potential, but that is a responsibility which must be met by Africans. Africa’s future is up to Africans.”

It’s unpopular to say it, but the Geldof/Bono line of activism where  more aid is requested without any accountability for how the aid is used has to be questioned. I know it seems improbable, but it is distinctly possible that that very aid has caused more problems for Africa.

It’s not even tough love. It’s being very frank, and it’s a necessary step in achieving real change. A lot of people who have an interest in the aid organs will disagree, but the fact is, they haven’t managed to rid Africa of the sort of poverty and famine that ends up on TV in a call for more donations.

Some years ago in Tokyo, I was watching a program where they showed an MRI machine donated to an African township by the Japanese Foreign Affairs Department. The machine ran according to its spec for 20 years. Then it broke down, long past its projected life time. The people of the township asked, “why have the Japanese stopped supporting us?”

Thus, the show turned on inviting a Foreign Affairs spokes person to be grilled by a panel, and the grilling boiled down to “why aren’t we looking after these people more?”

His response was very simple: “we honestly thought that country would move on in the intervening 20 years and be able to supply its own MRI machines.”

You should have seen the expression of the panelists trying to make the spokesperson feel guilty. 20 years is a long time.It was the time it took for Japan to recover from the devastation of WWII and start exporting cars to the world. It was the time it took for South Korea to go from military rule to democracy to economic powerhouse. It’s not like it’s impossible, and yet the thing about Africa is the endless cycle of abject poverty and senseless violence and getting more aid out of our collective conscience.

It’s a bit rough that President Obama said what he said, but it most probably needed to be said. Better late than never, but even better now than later.

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