Dear Obama: Corruption Isn’t Just Africa’s Problem

Copyright Foreign Policy

What the U.S. president didn’t say in his big Nairobi speech.

For an American president celebrated by many of his listeners as a returning native son, Barack Obama’s recent speech in a Nairobi stadium was a strange way to promote what he called an Africa “on the move.”

Yes, there were plenty of feel-good moments in Nairobi, where a smiling Obama dined with family, dropped occasional phrases in Swahili, and danced with an easy grace to African rhythms before the cameras. It all thoroughly charmed an audience eager to embrace him.

But if one listened carefully, boiling down the message of the first Kenyan-American president (as he called proudly himself on this trip), what remained was an odd mixture of anachronistic and patronizing tropes plucked from the musty rucksack of American policy discourse toward the continent since the end of the Cold War.

Sure, there were lots of references to fighting terrorism and to other relatively recent U.S. priorities, including the highly laudable goals of educating more girls and giving them equal opportunity, and defending the rights of lesbians and gays.

Yet the themes he hammered away at most insistently stemmed from timeless caricatures of Africa.

Yet the themes he hammered away at most insistently stemmed from timeless caricatures of Africa.He spoke of wanting to do business with the continent on the basis of “trade not aid,” falsely furthering the old impression that Africa is a sinkhole for American development assistance, when in fact far more goes to other parts of the world. He repeated the almost insulting truism that things work out best when Africans strive to solve their own problems – as if Africans have not been striving to do so all along.

Obama’s speech presented two major problems. The first is that even Obama’s tentative efforts to praise the continent’s potential — he spoke, for example, of surging mobile phone usage rates — didn’t adequately convey the scale and pace of change that Africa has seen in the last decade or so. One would scarcely have gotten a sense of this from his words, or indeed from most American news coverage of Africa, but the last fifteen years has been a time of general reduction in conflict, of democratic consolidation in many places, and especially of economic growth. Far from waiting on the kindness of outsiders, who built few schools for them during decades of colonial rule, African countries are now, on average, investing impressive amounts(measured as a percentage of GDP) in education.

Second, and closely related to the president’s disappointingly traditional messaging, is the fact that the United States has remained relatively detached from and even irrelevant to many of these changes. A consistent question among Obama’s audiences in Kenya and Ethiopia, as well as among virtual ones across the continent, heard in journalists’ interviews, in fact, was, “Where oh where are the Americans?”

The continent has famously seen a huge boom in the presence of Chinese people and of Chinese business interests – both trade and investment – in the last decade or so. Less well publicized, but just as real, many African countries are drawing strong new interest from a wide variety of foreign governments and business people, including non-traditional partners like Turkey, Vietnam, Russia, Malaysia, and Brazil. During this same period, the American presence on the continent has flagged, and numbers measuring US economic engagement have stagnated. Obama himself spent less than 24 hours in sub-Saharan Africa during his first term, and put off what will likely be regarded as his most important visit to the continent until late in his second term.

By contrast, China’s top leaders – either its president or prime minister – have been visiting Africa on a near-annual basis.

By contrast, China’s top leaders – either its president or prime minister – have been visiting Africa on a near-annual basis. To read the whole article, please click here.