New Internationalist

President patronizing

Last week President Obama made his first visit to Africa. The visit was an historic occasion - the first of a Black US President, who is himself of Kenyan decent. His choice of Ghana, as opposed to Kenya - his father's country - or Nigeria - the most populated country on the continent - caused much debate in the African media and amongst bloggers. But Ghana, unlike Kenya or Nigeria, is a stable democracy and there is no doubt that Ghana's emerging oil industry also played a part in the choice. Nigeria's oil output has been decreasing steadily over the past couple of years, due to the actions of the militants in the oil-producing region of the Niger Delta and it is estimated that production is down by as much as 40 per cent.

Obama's speech to the Ghanian parliament has been analysed and discussed both in the mainstream African and international media, as well as amongst bloggers across the continent. Rather than attempt to repeat what has already been written I would like to summarize some of the commentary by African bloggers and the mainstream media. Ellen Sirleaf Johnson, the President of Liberia responded:

'He talked about governance and the need for a leader to be able to have accountability, transparency; he talked within the context of governance, about capacity building...when he said US commitment is more than dollars; it's going to be partners for building capacity for transformational change. He talked about foreign assistance, and how that foreign assistance policy will be shaped by the US and he spoke of trade and investment, energy, public health and then he talked about conflict and so we find all of these very, very consistent...'

Obama's speech has drawn considerable criticism from Africans because of its patronizing tone, which sounded more like a head teacher chastising pupils for misbehaving than a President addressing his peers. Particularly annoying was his statement that the West is not responsible for the many wars on the continent or for countries such as Zimbabwe sinking into a quagmire of over-inflation and repression: 

'It is easy to point fingers, and to pin the blame for these problems on others. Yes, a colonial map that made little sense bred conflict, and the West has often approached Africa as a patron, rather than a partner. But the West is not responsible for the destruction of the Zimbabwean economy over the last decade, or wars in which children are enlisted as combatants. In my father's life, it was partly tribalism and patronage in an independent Kenya that for a long stretch derailed his career, and we know that this kind of corruption is a daily fact of life for far too many.'

Blogger Mphatjie Monarengis describes the speech as:

'An arrogant denial of the destructive role that successive Western Governments play in Africa. Amongst other arrogant statements, Obama said: "the West is not responsible for the destruction of the Zimbabwean economy over the last decade, or wars in which children are enlisted as combatants".' 

Obama's observation is at best uninformed and at worst hypocritical. As Morarengis points out, Western sanctions against Zimbabwe have contributed to the crippling of the economy and are very much related to the reclaiming of lands stolen and owned by white settler farmers during the colonial period. The question is: would the West be so outraged over Zimbabwe if white farmers were not part of the equation? No sanctions have been placed against Sudan, despite thousands of people from Darfur being displaced and killed, or against Nigeria which for the past 15 years has consistently attacked its own people in the Niger Delta. This is not to support the actions of Mugabe but to point out the West's selective responses to repressive regimes whether in Africa and elsewhere.   

Obama goes on to praise Ghana for its democracy and good governance and there is no doubt that this is a model which other African leaders need to emulate: 

'To realize that promise, we must first recognize a fundamental truth that you have given life to in Ghana: development depends upon good governance. That is the ingredient which has been missing in far too many places, for far too long. That is the change that can unlock Africa's potential. And that is a responsibility that can only be met by Africans.'

We Africans are all agreed that corruption, patronage and election-rigging are wholly unacceptable and contribute to the lack of development and poverty across the continent. We agree we need accountability and transparency in governance.  However as Glory O' Nigeria points out, the US and other Western nations do themselves contribute to maintaining corruption.

There are serious allegations against Obama's United States, namely that the US is a major contributor to the corruption and bad leadership in Nigeria. Nigeria is a leading producer of crude oil and the US has been implicated in the crises rocking the corrupt Nigerian Government and the genocides that have been perpetrated in the Niger Delta.

The US-based corporation Halliburton is presently under investigation for allegedly paying out $180 million in 2003 to various Nigerian Government officials to secure contracts in the country's lucrative Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) industry. Multinationals such as Shell and Chevron have contributed to the massive destruction of the Niger Delta ecological system and have allegedly supported the militarization of the region by the Nigerian Government, as the recent Wiwa v Shell case has shown. In addition both the US and UK Governments have been implicated in the militarization project.  

Glory O' Nigeria also reminds us of the 1993 Nigerian elections in which the winner, MKO Abiola, was imprisoned and killed after he received visitors from the US Government. It remains a mystery why such an act was committed in the presence of the representatives of Bill Clinton. Clinton was the President of the US and our own President-in-waiting died while his delegates were visiting.

I would like Mr Obama to respond to the situation. Let him take a look at the history books and also run through the list of the US delegates. What was America's part in the death of the hope of millions of Nigeria - MKO Abiola? Former Nigerian military gangster Abdusalami Abubakar was charged in court for this murder. Was he standing trial then on behalf of the US? President Obama should tell us what happened.

Is it because of the oil that the US Government fails to acknowledge the successive repressive 'democracies' governing Nigeria? Are we to believe that it is just Ghana's stability that impresses Obama and not the potentially huge oil reserves waiting to be exported to the US? 

Two years ago I published a blog post about the National Geographic documentary Ravaging Africa. The documentary covered three areas in which the West has played a direct role in the exploitation and destruction of Africa, with the final episode celebrating African resistance over the years. 

1. 'Militarizing Africa' describes how the US has fomented the devastating war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, as well as taking part in and engineering the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia. With Mfuni Kazadi, Millicent Okumu, Farah Maalim and Halima Abdi Arush.

2. 'Economic War' focuses on the World Bank and IMF's decimation of the economies and social sectors of Guinea, Zambia, Kenya and South Africa. With Bakary Fofana, Sara Longwe, Caroline Adhiambo, Njuki Githethwa and Molefe Pilane.

3. 'Corporate Plunder' details the disastrous effects of Royal Dutch Shell's operations in Nigeria and those of Canada's Tiomin Resources in Kenya. Also highlighted is the massive tax looting of Africa by Western corporations. With Ifieniya Lott, Mwana Siti B. Juma, Charles Abugre and John Christensen.

4. 'African Resistance' celebrates the liberation of Southern Africa, the defeat of US aims in the Congo and Somalia, as well as the diverse non-military struggles against US domination that were represented at the World Social Forum. With Wahu Kaara, Amade Suca, Mfuni Kazadi, Farah Maalim, Virginia Magwaza-Setshedi, Emilie Atchaka and Njeru Munyi. 

As we well know, war continues in Somalia and in the Congo. The latter in particular has a history of exploitation, as well as some of the most hideous human rights violations which continue today and which are fed in the large part by Western multinationals, with the complicity of their respective governments. All of these clearly contradict Obama's denial of the destructive role the West has played in Africa.

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