Monday, July 13, 2009

Befriending the Average African

Even before he arrived in Ghana, there were billboards, T-shirts, dresses and songs about the return to the continent of the “Son of Africa” who was now the President of the United States – the world’s only superpower. This pride in Barack Obama’s achievements had been seen throughout the U.S. presidential campaign and reached a fever pitch when he won the 2008 election. The proverbial African man on the street was elated that one of his own was now the Leader of the Free World.

However, all Africans are not as happy to have to deal with President Obama. In his speech before the Ghana Parliament, he told the audience: “Africa doesn’t need strongmen. It needs strong institutions,” adding that “Governments that respect the will of their own people, that govern by consent and not coercion, are more prosperous, they are more stable, and more successful than governments that do not.” Those are applause lines the people respond to – not their leaders.

President Obama is a new phenomenon for African leaders accustomed to playing the race card or simply dismissing their critics as not knowing much about the continent. President Obama is not only a first-generation Kenyan-American, but he has now visited the continent four times. He has relatives and friends in Kenya he has visited and with whom he presumably maintains some level of contact. Moreover, he has been a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, throughout his admittedly brief Senate career. Consequently, President Obama comes to the office with more knowledge and credibility on Africa issues than any of his predecessors.

This poses a problem for African leaders who have derided criticism by previous American presidents. President Obama cannot be easily dismissed. He speaks of the need for good governance, transparency and sustainable democracy in a way Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush could not. These two American leaders paved the way by highlighting Africa in U.S. policy and then funding programs to help address Africa’s problems. Now comes President Obama with the message that he is “building on the strong efforts of President Bush” in Africa, recommending that the developed world’s leading nations pool US$20 billion to deliver food and agricultural capacity building and committing US$63 billion from America to meet Africa’s overall challenges.

The African people cheer such a policy; their leaders quietly fume at being called on the carpet by one they privately would consider impudent for calling out his elders.

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