Only an African-American president could say it and get away with it!
President Obama on his visit to Kenya and Ethiopia was able to pointedly criticize African leaders for their corruption, human rights abuses, abuse of power and unwillingness to ever relinquish office.
Nobody could accuse him of racism.
Mr. Obama said things that have long needed to be said.
In contrast to his speeches on the Middle East, which are always filled with controversy and generally seem to make things worse, his speeches in Nairobi and Addis Ababa could only upset Africa’s corrupt leaders. Ethiopian primary school teacher, Hikma Lemma had just one regret: “He took too long to come.” (“In Ethiopia, a cry for basic freedoms,” USA Today, July 28th.)
Things will not change quickly. Indeed, they may not change at all, but it was still good to hear the president address these basic issues.
“Ethiopia jails the most journalists in Africa after Eritrea, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have condemned the country’s human rights record. And in May, the State Department expressed concern over how the elections that month could result in all seats being won by the ruling party and its partners. The department noted lingering ‘restrictions on civil society, media, opposition parties, and independent voices and views.” (ibid, USA Today).
At the start of his African trip, Mr. Obama spoke candidly to Kenyans, warning them against the twin evils of corruption and tribalism. He could have addressed both issues in any of Africa’s 54 countries and his listeners would generally have applauded him. Only the leaders would have sat stone-faced and emotionless, probably wishing they had invited the Chinese leader to visit instead of the American president. China, much more involved in Africa, does not comment on human rights abuses or corruption.
Boldly, Mr. Obama even addressed the persecution of gays in Africa. Most African governments deny that homosexuality even exists in their countries. Certainly, all governments are guilty of a double standard in this regard. At least one country has a prominently displayed sign in its airport warning “perverts and sexual deviants” to stay away, but saying nothing about the many prostitutes offering themselves in all the hotels.
In Addis Ababa, Mr. Obama addressed delegates of the African Union, whose headquarters are in Addis Ababa. Introducing him was the Chairwoman of the AU, who did not always tell the truth. She criticized the United Nations because Africa is the only continent that does not have a permanent representative on the Security Council. In actual fact, neither South America nor Australia are represented, either.
The US president expressed incredulity that any president would want to serve indefinitely. He said he is looking forward to retirement and being able to go places without a massive security detail. He said it was particularly difficult to understand when so many African presidents have so much money, another reference to corruption, enabling leaders to amass great wealth while their people go hungry. Unwillingness to leave office is also linked to corruption – African presidents fear being investigated for corruption when they stand down.
Underscoring his points was the absence of the current AU Chairman Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe, one of the richest men on earth. Mr. Mugabe has been president of his country since independence in 1980, presiding over a number of rigged elections.
Mr. Obama mentioned, too, that Americans don’t want to keep on sending Africa free food, but would rather teach Africans how to farm more efficiently. He could have added that the continent would do well to encourage western (white) farmers to remain in Africa, as their farming skills produce greater crop yields. Zimbabwe was once the grain basket of Africa – it’s people now go hungry because Mr. Mugabe evicted the white farmers.
Western reporters were also guilty of not telling the whole truth. Much was said during coverage of the African visit about what America is doing for Africa, with some focus on a program to help those with AIDS, a disease that, in Africa, is transmitted almost exclusively by heterosexuals. Not once did I hear mention of the fact that the program was the initiative of George W. Bush, Mr. Obama’s predecessor. With this one single program, he did more for Africa than any other president.
It would be nice to think that, with this one single visit to Africa, President Obama might accomplish something else on a grand scale – the end of corruption, together with real progress toward greater democracy. The two together would boost the living standards of the entire continent.
It remains to be seen whether his visit will make a difference. But his candid comments were certainly a good start!