Tough love from a brother

He may only have been in Africa for 21 hours but it was long enough for Barack Obama to send out his inspiring message across the continent - “A New Moment Of Promise,” he called it.
Barack Obama meeting a womans group
Barack Obama meeting a womans group

He may only have been in Africa for 21 hours but it was long enough for Barack Obama to send out his inspiring message across the continent - “A New Moment Of Promise,” he called it.

He urged Africans to stop laying the blame elsewhere and to take control of their own destiny. He encouraged the younger generation to catch the “Yes We Can” fever that had assisted his own rise to the White House.

Strengthening democracy from the grassroots requires some brave foot soldiers and Mr Obama singled out the work of civil society groups such as Zimbabwe’s Election Support Network, which struggled to ensure people’s votes counted in the face of a violent state-driven clampdown.

“Make no mistake: history is on the side of these brave Africans, and not with those who use coups or change constitutions to stay in power. Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions,” Mr Obama stated.

Ghana is a case in point - one of the reasons for Ghana’s successful election late last year was its strong electoral commission.
Along the West African coast, the Sierra Leone People’s Party was voted out of power in 2007 amid growing anger at government corruption.

The election worked because the National Electoral Commission headed by Christiana Thorpe was strong and did not buckle under pressure to fix the vote

The strong institutions are certainly lacking in Barack Obama’s African home - Kenya. When Mwai Kibaki was announced the winner of the 2007 election, the head of the government-appointed electoral commission, Simon Kivuiti, admitted that he did not know for sure if Mr Kibaki had won.

During his speech Barack Obama did not name and shame leaders - that is not his style. But his denunciation of Africa’s “strong men” will have made a few leaders squirm in their presidential palaces.

Mr Obama seemed to be adding his voice to the collective despair across West Africa as Niger’s president, Mamadou Tandja, tears up the rule book in an attempt to stay in power.

Cameroon’s Paul Biya, Senegal’s octogenarian President Abdoulaye Wade, Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni and several others have also changed the rules in order to remain in office.

The question is whether those leaders are going to play the blindest bit of attention to the words of an African-American who is far more popular than they are.

They may well have reached for the television remote control and found something less uncomfortable to watch.

Barack Obama said the partnership between Africa and America must be one of mutual responsibility.

“He threw the ball into our own court and said if you want to play ball on the international level you have to play by the international rules,” said Kwesi Aning of the Kofi Annan Peacekeeping Institute.

It will not be easy to change some old corrupt habits but, if Africa plays its part, Barack Obama is promising a great deal in return including assistance to boost agriculture, trade and healthcare.

But, in a difficult economic climate, the US may be hard pushed to fulfil some of its promises.

In Uganda, for example, there is mounting concern as funding constraints are forcing health centres to stop enrolling new patients for US-funded anti-retroviral treatment under the President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief (PEPFAR) initiative which George Bush started.

Being an African-American means Barack Obama is listened to as a brother in Africa rather than as a condescending visitor.

People agreed with him rather than dismissing him when he hit out at some of the practices holding back the continent.

“No business wants to invest in a place where the government skims 20% off the top, or the head of the Port Authority is corrupt.
“No person wants to live in a society where the rule of law gives way to the rule of brutality and bribery. That is not democracy, that is tyranny and now is the time for it to end,” he said.

Inside the conference centre, Ghanaian politicians cheered, applauded and gave a standing ovation. Some smelt hypocrisy there.
“The political leaders were clapping and cheering the speech. But when we plead for an end to the same problems that Obama highlighted we are threatened, abused and sidelined,” said Mr Aning.

He commended the speech for being honest, direct and lacking spin but suggests the same cannot be said for some of the politicians who were listening to it. “You have the power to hold your leaders accountable,” Mr Obama said, aiming his message at the youth.
But it can be dangerous trying to stand up and call for better governance.

In March, two Kenyan human rights activists - Kamau Kingara and John Paul Oulo - were gunned down in broad daylight shortly after helping an investigation into extra-judicial killings by the Kenyan police.


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