On Saturday, July 11th, President Obama made a major speech to the Ghanaian Parliament on U.S. engagement with the continent. His message was clear: good governance is a prerequisite to effective development and “Africa’s future is up to Africans.” AFJN applauds Obama’s strong stand against irresponsible African leaders, but also has concerns about the reality of U.S. policy in Africa and the impact of the West on the continent’s ability to pull itself out of the poverty cycle.
President Obama encouraged Africa to stop “pointing fingers” at a “colonial map” and said that the “West is not responsible for… wars in which children are enlisted as combatants.” Yet, the weapons that the U.S. and Russia gave to governments and groups during the Cold War continue to be used to recruit child soldiers around the continent. Today, the United States is one of the top exporters of small arms and light weapons, many of which are used in African conflicts. There is no doubt that governments in Africa can do better to fight corruption, to control their borders, and to develop strong institutions, but the U.S. must also recognize its continued contribution to Africa’s problems through neocolonial policies.
If Obama was serious about promoting prosperity on the African continent, he would have addressed U.S. farm policy and the subsidies given to large corporations that undermine farmers in Africa. He would have made it clear that despite the numbers written in his 2010 budget request, he will refuse to give Nigeria any military aid unless its attacks against civilians in the Delta stop. He would have sent a message to U.S.-based corporations that he will not tolerate exploitation of African workers on plantations, in mines, or on farms. President Obama has the power to change these policies, and he cannot expect governments to act more responsibly if he himself does not.
In addition to encouraging African economies to steer away from one-commodity exports, Obama should have apologized for the role the U.S. played in putting African countries into that situation in the first place. It was the International Monetary Fund in the 1980’s who forced irresponsible agricultural policies onto Africa, but President Obama made no mention of such actions. He completely omitted any recognition of the U.S. role in assassinating democratically elected leaders such as Patrice Lumumba and neglected to mention that U.S. support for the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia is one of the reasons the Horn is such a troubled region today. It’s not about blaming the West for Africa’s troubles, it’s about recognizing that we too can work to improve our relations with the continent, just as African leaders develop more responsible policies.
Actions speak louder than words, so the real test of Obama’s commitment to democracy and good governance will come when he meets with someone like Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni and tells him that unless he changes his ways, the U.S. will refuse continued support, particularly military aid. AFJN is grateful to have a President who seeks a relationship of mutual respect and mutual responsibility with Africa, but we also know that in order for that vision to become a reality, U.S. citizens will need to hold him to his words.
Obama has yet to make it clear exactly what his policy will be toward the continent, despite his historic speech in Accra. It is our job to hold him accountable to his message of good governance and to push him to create positive policies in the fields of agriculture, militarism, and corporate responsibility, among others. Although it is still early in his first term, we must demand a new relationship with Africa from a President whose message of change resonates throughout the continent.
Click here to read Pambazuka News’ editor Firoze Manji’s “The Speech He Might Have Made.”
This article is adapted from an story that will appear in the July-August edition of ‘Around Africa,’ AFJN’s Policy Report and Newsletter. Written by Beth Tuckey.