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.

Into Africa: China’s Wild Rush

Copyright The New York Times

By  

NAIROBI, Kenya — For nearly a decade, as China made a historic push for business opportunities and expanded influence in Africa, most of the continent’s leaders were so thrilled at having a deep-pocketed partner willing to make big investments and start huge new projects that they rarely paused to consider whether they were getting a sound deal.

China has peppered the continent with newly built stadiums, airports, hospitals, highways and dams, but as Africans are beginning to fully recognize, these projects have also left many countries saddled with heavy debts and other problems, from environmental conflict to labor strife. As a consequence, China’s relationship with the continent is entering a new and much more skeptical phase.

The doubts aren’t coming from any soured feelings from African leaders themselves, most of whom still welcome (and profit from) China’s embrace. The new skepticism has even less to do with the hectoring of Western governments, the traditional source of Africa’s foreign aid and investment (and interference). In a 2012 speech in Senegal, Hillary Rodham Clinton, then secretary of state, implicitly warned Africa about China. The continent needs “a model of sustainable partnership that adds value, rather than extracts it,” she said, adding that unlike other countries, “America will stand up for democracy and universal human rights even when it might be easier to look the other way and keep the resources flowing.”

Some Africans found Mrs. Clinton’s remarks patronizing. What’s most remarkable, however, is how passé this now seems, given skepticism about China from Africa’s own increasingly vibrant civil society, which is demanding to know what China’s billions of dollars in infrastructure building, mineral extraction and land acquisition mean for the daily lives and political rights of ordinary Africans.

This represents a tricky and unfamiliar challenge for China’s authoritarian system, whose foreign policy has always focused heavily on state-to-state relations. China’s leaders demonstrate little appreciation of the yawning gulfs that separate African people from their rulers, even in newly democratic countries. Beijing is constitutionally uneasy about dealing with independent actors like advocacy groups, labor unions and independent journalists.

After a decade of bland talk about “win-win” partnerships, China seems finally aware that it needs to improve both the style and substance of its push into Africa. Last week, at the start of a four-country African trip, Prime Minister Li Keqiang acknowledged “growing pains” in the relationship, and the need to “assure our African friends in all seriousness that China will never pursue a colonialist path like some countries did, or allow colonialism, which belongs to the past, to reappear in Africa.”

This language came in belated response to a sea change that arguably began with an op-ed essay last year in The Financial Times by Lamido Sanusi, who was recently suspended as Nigeria’s central bank governor. He wrote: “In much of Africa, they have set up huge mining operations. They have also built infrastructure. But, with exceptions, they have done so using equipment and labor imported from home, without transferring skills to local communities. So China takes our primary goods and sells us manufactured ones. This was also the essence of colonialism.”

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