About me.

Andrew M. Mwenda is the founding Managing Editor of The Independent, Uganda’s premier current affairs newsmagazine. One of Foreign Policy magazine 's top 100 Global Thinkers, TED Speaker and Foreign aid Critic

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Why Obama is not our saviour

When you are poor, every Tom, Dick and Harry steps over your nose. This was the impression I got when I read the lecture (as opposed to a speech) by US President Barack Obama in Ghana. The uncritical enthusiasm with which some elites in Africa received it was disappointing. Obama spoke like a primordial father to his children: ‘We must start from the simple premise that Africa’s future is up to Africans.’

This is very condescending. Why didn’t Obama tell this to Russians where he had just been? Imagine a guest telling his host: ‘It is your responsibility to look after your children.’ The guest must consider his host an idiot to tell him such an obvious thing.

This was the attitude of colonialists ‘ treating Africans as children. Gen. Ian Smuts, a former prime minister of South Africa, said while giving the Rhodes lecture in 1932: ‘The African has largely remained a child type, with a child psychology and outlook’. Thus colonialists called every African, regardless of age, a boy or a girl hence the terms ‘house boy, house girl, etc ‘ a phrase Obama said colonial Kenya used on his elderly grandfather even when the old man was an elder in his village.

Secondly, Obama’s lecture did not have anything fresh or novel about the cause of Africa’s development predicament. He lectured: ‘development depends on good governance,’ and ‘you are not going to get investment without good governance’. What does good governance, a phrase so repeatedly banded around, mean: Democracy? Respect for human rights? Equality of opportunity! Equal administration of justice!

The USA industrialised rapidly in the 19th century when its black population were slaves and overtook Britain is the world’s largest economy by 1920 when its women had no vote. Women gained the vote in 1920; black people in 1965. How come its racial laws did not scare away domestic and foreign investment?  Apartheid South Africa was getting more investment than any other African nation in the 1950s, 60s and 70s in spite of its brutal repression and in spite of economic sanctions.

Obama lectured: ‘strong and sustainable democratic governments’ are a prerequisite for Africa’s growth. Yet the examples of successful nations he gives ‘ Singapore and South Korea ‘ were authoritarian when they rapidly industrialised. He misses the point: why do dictatorships thrive in Africa? What social infrastructure does the continent need to sustain democratic rule? He thinks like Africa’s chattering class that democracy has failed because we have bad rulers.

On corruption, Obama sounds even more ignorant: ‘No business wants to invest in a place where government skims 20% off the top.’ Really! How come Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and Indonesia industrialised in spite of high levels of corruption.

Obama refuses to recognise that armed conflicts in Africa sometimes reflect the determination of Africans to shake off undesirable rulers. Secondly, Togo, Zambia, Malawi, Ghana, Gabon, Gambia, etc have never been through civil war. Yet, there is little difference in economic achievement between them and Ethiopia, Uganda, Mozambique and Rwanda which have. The aforementioned post conflict nations have shown greater commitment to structural reform than their forever peaceful sisters. Lesson: A sense of crisis is critical for the receptivity of reform.

The major constraint to Africa’s development has not been lack of democratic rule or honest government per se. Investors are flocking to countries that are more dictatorial (China) and corrupt (India). If dictatorial rule and corruption have a role in our continuing economic and political crisis, we have to reframe the debate: What is peculiar about dictatorial rule and corruption in Africa that scares away investments?

A small but loud section of the African elite; frustrated by their inability and cowardice to confront our predatory rulers, unsure of their own abilities, have been waiting for a messiah, a foreign head of a powerful state to speak for them, to fight their wars, to validate their helplessness and vindicate their petty theories. That, Obama achieved. Yet the search for foreign solutions to Africa’s problems has kept us dependant of everything foreign ‘ financial and military aid, political ideologies, economic policies, institutional systems and now foreigners’ speeches.

These chattering elites of Africa behaved like tribalists ‘ embrace the message because of its messenger (a fellow tribesman) instead of its substance. Obama was embraced, not because of anything significant he said, but because he is considered black. What did he say that Bill Clinton or George Bush have not said?

We must believe that we have the ability to shape our destiny without foreigners lecturing to us ‘ however well intentioned they may be. All too often, Africa fails because its institutional systems have not grown organically from its social structure. They have been copied and pasted from elsewhere. Yet for institutions to work, they need to be nourished by a people’s nutrient values, traditions, beliefs and shared cultural understandings.

Obama reinforced the highly prejudiced presentation of Africa as a continent of misery, conflict and poverty. ‘But if we are honest (sic),’ he lectured, ‘for far too many Africans, conflict is a part of life, as constant as the sun.’ What is the percentage of Africans suffering directly from conflict according to Obama? Look at the map of Africa, isolate the countries in conflict, then the regions and people directly affected then do the maths: Less than 0.001%!

There was a civil war in Britain (Northern Ireland) throughout most of the 20th century. There is a separatist rebellion in Spain today. That did not stop them prospering. Europe industrialised and unified through and during wars in the 19th century including two world wars in the 20th century. Why does conflict impede growth in Africa but did not elsewhere?

The lesson is simple but powerful: Africa does not have a monopoly of the ills Obama talked about: tribalism, corruption, ‘bad governance’, dictatorship etc. They are found almost everywhere and they have not stopped those societies (America, Europe, East Asia) from developing. How come they do so in Africa? What is unique about our continent to make it so? In which peculiar way do these vice play out in Africa to impede development? That is the debate we need, not ill-informed slogans from Obama


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