Tuesday 11 May 2021
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Obama and Africa: Promises unfulfilled


We are in the final throes of the Presidency of Africa’s shining star, Barack Obama. I say Africa because we always felt he was one of us. In November, the US will have a president-elect and in January 2017, Obama will be history. The son of Africa came, we were dubiously promised the moon and the stars, but our dreams have been dashed along the way.
During his 7 years in the Oval Office, he has pretty much nothing to show for it. We wrongly embodied our aspirations in him. We overzealously expected more of him and especially to do more for the continent than his predecessors. This is mainly on account of his skin colour and his African heritage. This is our own fault. After all, he was elected President of the United States of America and not President of a yet-to-born Federal Republic of Africa.
Yet, we saw a glimmer of hope. In his rallying call “Yes we can!” Africans summoned their inner strength to find solutions to our shared problems. We started making noises about African solutions to African problems. But that vision dissipated and did not find practical meaning. It later became a refrain of our leaders when they meet annually for their meetings.
So we looked to the mighty US and our prodigal son for solutions. And he did not disappoint. During his first policy speech to sub-Saharan Africa delivered in Ghana – Africa’s pre-eminent democracy – in July 2009, we felt that at last we had the most important leader of the free world on our side. His speech, in particular, set the tone for the type of cooperation he wanted to see with Africa. The proposals and the mastery of oratory reverberated all over the continent. One long-serving Namibian diplomat
remarked to me in an interview, shortly thereafter, that the speech symbolised the dawn of a new era.
The boundless opportunities and possibilities in the relationship between the US and Africa went beyond the rhetoric, he enthused. In his speech, Obama declared: “I have pledged substantial increases in foreign assistance, which is in Africa’s interest and America’s. But the true sign of success is not whether we are a source of aid for people to scrap by – it is whether we are partners in building the capacity for transformational change.” The operative word – partners – was a significant amendment in the hereto asymmetrical relationship between the world’s super-power and the continent. For far too long, the US and other western countries saw Africa as an unequal partner. Like in other imbalanced human relationships where one partner earns more than the other, they were bound to rub it into our faces and dictate the terms. After all, we were at, and still are at their mercy to fund shortfalls in our budgets. They intervened in our conflict-ridden neighbours and send their sons and ammunition to hose our fires because we were helpless and defenceless. This is despite the fact that African governments spend astronomical funds on security and defence. Bereft of our senses, we accepted this relationship. And just like in any partnership where the one partner does not appreciate the other, the relationship turned abusive in several respects.
Their western trans-national     companies used our continent as a plundering ground – extracting the last ounce of diamond, copper, zinc, gold and silver we had to offer. In return, they paid measly taxes and dined and propped up illegitimate leaders. They even had the audacity to prescribe how and by whom we should be governed. Increasingly, they took the loot and exported ill-gotten gains. The evidence is contained in the 2015 Thabo Mbeki led High-Panel Report on Illicit Capital Flows which makes for sad reading.  It said, US$ 50 billion per annum leaves our shores which equals the total Official Development Assistance (ODA) received by African governments.
Logically, it can be argued that whatever increases President Obama promised in 2009, six years later they would have made their way back to the US and other western countries in illicit flows. In recalibrating the relationship between the US and Africa, this issue to my mind, should have been prioritised – help Africa stem the capital flight, so we will not need to come with a begging bowl for assistance.
Complicating matters further is that ODA does not always reach the people on the ground in the original pledged amounts. Lobby groups and International NGO’s in western capitals maintain a murky system whereby their middle-men milk ODA dry, in consultancy fees and the like. They lobby their governments not to directly fund projects through government agents but rather through other vehicles which they can access.
In the Ghana speech, at least this issue was not lost to the President and he remarked that: “by cutting costs that go to Western consultants and administration, we will put more resources into the hands of those who need it.” Years on, those working in the NGO sector will tell you that this is still a pipedream, they suspect at least 40% of direct donor funding goes to the pockets of these intermediaries. A study by the OECD in 2012 puts it at a modest 20% – spend in the donor country on administration and other related costs. Nevertheless, that 20% represents billions of funds that could end the suffering of beneficiaries in critical areas such as health, portable water and renewable energy provision.
The second point I wish to make in this transformative relationship that President Obama dreamt of in Ghana is the issue of democracy. He said: “America will not impose any system of government on any other nation – the essential truth of democracy is that each country determines its own destiny.” On this score, these words served to re-assure Africans that our sovereignty is paramount and no one should impose their values and systems on us. These were important words because, far too often, Africa had been subjected to prescripts of regime change and consequent forced removal of leaders who had fallen out of favour with western capitals.  We had to accommodate NGO’s and institutes with ulterior motives and deep pockets whose aim was not to enlighten and promote pluralism in the public sphere as they ought to. But, more often than not, they became agents that fan insurrection and open rebellion to elected authority.
In this regard, we thought, in President Obama we had a person who understood that our systems of governance are sacred to us, just as theirs are in Washington. The deposing of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in August 2011 by such violent means went against this sincere undertaking – even if our leaders and forms of governance were opposed to Western ideals, America won’t interfere. The mess that is Libya today is indeed very instructive. From one of the highest standards of living on the continent with free education and health to boot and an enviable life expectancy, Libya, today, is a pariah state.
And this is just not one isolated incident of gross interference. The recent unilateral MCA US$ 470 million cut in foreign aid to Tanzania because of electoral incidents in Zanzibar is another betrayal of Obama’s commitment.  In fact, withholding such aid is tantamount to meddling in the affairs of a sovereign state. Tanzanian President John Magufuli is correct in saying that his country must stop its over-reliance on foreign donors. In November 2015, US Secretary of State, John Kerry, congratulated Tanzania for holding presidential and parliamentary elections which “re-affirmed Tanzania’s strong     democratic record.” Less than 5 months later, according to the US, this strong democratic record had vanished overnight because of the disputed election in Zanzibar. It doesn’t surprise anyone that our leaders are increasingly looking east as a result of these double-standards and unworkable foreign policies.
Lastly, Obama has not prescribed new policies in Africa except one or two that I can think of. These include the power generation project in Eastern Africa announced during his last African visit and the Nelson Mandela Young Leaders Initiative – both laudable initiatives. However, he inherited PEPFAR, the Millennium Challenge Account and AGOA policies from his predecessor. Undeniably, these policies have been good for us. They have helped us to fight HIV/AIDS, they have helped us fund much-needed infrastructural programmes in education, tourism and agriculture. AGOA has helped us export our products to the lucrative American market and make our end products competitive.
All in all, Obama’s engagement with Africa has been a mixed-bag, at least not different from any other US President. His interventionist policies in security matters have brought us untold suffering (Lybia) but at least the regime change mantra (Zimbabwe) has subsided. His foreign policy priorities have been to sort out the Middle-east mess, bequeathed as a result of disastrous the unilateralism policies pursued by Bush. But there have been other trouble spots to contend with. In Africa, we will forgive him for not playing a bigger role in our affairs. For all the flak he received, Obama recently pulled a rabbit out of the hat – the historic détente between Cuba and US – a praise-worthy act which will go down as the most significant moment of the 21st
century. His legacy is still being dissected in the court of public opinion. Perhaps, history will judge him kindly.

Kazembire Zemburuka is a broadcaster by profession, currently a post-graduate student in the UK. These comments are made in his personal capacity.

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