Articles - The Voice of Garanganze:  The Writings of Patrick Kalenga Munongo

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Reactions to Mr. Obama's speech in Ghana
August 24, 2009, 2009

 

As the son of an African immigrant to the United States from Kenya and a woman from Kansas, President Obama’s recent trip to Ghana had an immense significance for Black Africans and members of the African diaspora.        

Ghana is a country with a rich history; The ancient Ashanti people prospered and developed a highly militarized defense system, and were skilled craftsmen in gold and metal working. In 1957 Ghana became the first African nation south of the Sahara to gain its independence from British colonial rule. More recently, Ghana has made inroads in its pursuit  for democracy, as well as in the areas of economic stabilization and growth. In short, Ghana is viewed as a breath of fresh air on the continent.

Reminiscent of what he had done in Kenya as a US senator, President Obama held African leaders accountable for the deplorable outcomes seen in their countries, and preached to the Ghanaian parliament that African leaders (I paraphrase) should adopt transparent management practices; embrace fair applications of the law; and respect the will of the people, within the boundaries of their respective constitutions. President Obama deserves credit for speaking unequivocally to African leaders who might not tolerate that same criticism from their people. His call to end corruption, embezzlement and all things that have kept Africa from reaching its potential is commendable and inspiring.

However, President Obama’s speech was skewed in its inequitable dispensation of condemnation. Let me explain. President Obama’s speech on African politics was based on a one-sided view of Africa, as if no other external forces were at play in the continent’s current predicament. Mr. Obama spoke like the U.S. president that he is.  

The first thing that caught my attention is that Mr. Obama’s speech lacked any greetings in Ghanaian national language, albeit a quick reference to Mr. Nkrumah, first leader of Ghana. Contrast this to the speech he gave in Cairo, to the Muslim world, in which he gave numerous quotes from the Quran, and greeted his audience with a warm ‘Salam Alekum’.  Some might say that I am splitting hairs, but symbolism is everything in politics, especially from the ‘leader of the free world’.

In his famous Berlin speech of June 26, 1963, President Kennedy spoke in german: “ich bin ein Berliner”, (I am a Berliner).  The significance of Kennedy’s utterance of those four german words was to connect with the people of Germany, to send them a message of sympathy and respect, given the cold war the west and the east were waging at the time. The Ghanaians would get none of that.

After a gloss over of the painful Ghanaian history of slavery, Western colonization, and struggle for independence, President Obama, went back and forth into a litany of things Ghanaians and Africans should do to better their societies. Unfortunately, the brief historical references failed to buttress Mr. Obama’s criticism of African leaders. The typical american citizen would not know half of the things the U.S. has done and continues to do in Africa - a region of the world he/she is not even familiar with.

Take the case of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The U.S. provided intelligence support and substantial financial aid to Mobutu’s regime while it knew full well of its tyrannical ways. Yet and still, the US turned the blind eye to the suffering of the Congolese people. U.S. intelligence has been used as a tool to keep people like Mobutu and other african dictators in power, while their populations have become crippled and impoverished. Why didn’t President Obama address these paradoxical american stances as he spoke to Africans?

As congolese citizens, we continue to be beholden to the World Bank’s and IMF’s restricting and suffocating, structural adjustments and other dictates, whose grips, of late, have been less severe. Africa’s problems, if I may generalize a bit, stem partly from african mismanagement and corruption. However, the flipside of the coin is that africa is victim of the unrealistic debt repayment schemes, imposed by the Bretton Woods Institutions which are purported to manage and establish rules and procedures that regulate financial stability in most of the developing world.

 

 

Some of the Congolese debt was incurred under the leadership of people like Mr. Mobutu, the same dictator the west was supporting. It is said that Mr. Mobutu received billions of dollars from these institutions. Are we to believe that they (the IMF and World Bank) had complete lack of knowledge of how these massive sums of money were being spent? To date, there are about 30 to 32 african countries on the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries List (HIPC), as determined by the same lending institutions. Each one of these countries has been at a different place on the debt repayment spectrum. Their leaders, past or present, would have a difficult time making it on the most democratic leaders List, if one was ever developed. Yet, aid was and is given to them repeatedly. President Obama’s ‘lecture’ should have included examples of such misuse of funds and selective oversight of dictators gone amuck; another factor that has led to Africa’s underdevelopment.

Saddly, President Obama inherits a tainted legacy of U.S. policies that very few Americans know much about. Therefore, it is fitting that some Africans would take President Obama to task for not raising these inconvenient issues in the Ghanaian parliament. As africans, we can only hope that a similar sternness and condemnation will be directed towards companies that do business in Africa, the IMF and the World Bank, and now even towards the chinese.

When there was genocide in Rwanda, the U.S. in the UN was debating whether they should call that slaughter a genocide or a civil war, for weeks on end. When millions of congolese were dying in what was dubbed the first african world war, the US and the west watched idly, as millions of people died, and hundreds of women were raped. And by the way, the rapes continue, and the region remains unstable, even as America begins to pay closer attention.

Mr. Obama’s mention of South Korea as a yardstick for some african countries is valid. He drew South Korea’s development as a contrast to African underdevelopment, given that some decades ago, South Korea was at par with many african countries. Good point. But, has South Korea experienced as much ill-conceived interference in its politics as, say,  the Democratic Republic of the Congo? I do not think so.

Are there geopolitical and historical realities at play that should be explored? Yes. Given the intermittent saber rattling of North Korea, including the 33,400 U.S. citizens who died during the Korean war,  and communist China in the north, it is fair to say that the west had and continues to have a compelling argument to see South Korea succeed, and not fail. The D.R. Congo and its dictator were dropped the moment the ‘iron curtain’ fell in Germany. We had no China or North Korea to keep the attention of the west on us. Our ‘proxy cold war’ was over, and so was the patronage of the west.  Can an argument be made that Mr. Mobutu should have taken advantage of western largesse during the cold war to develop his country? Absolutely. He did take advantage of it, only to enrich himself - and the west knew it. Very little was done to develoop the Congo.

There is room for an equitable distribution of blame. As an African I hope that President Obama will address the abuses perpetrated by the West and expose the real truth, which is that the U.S. has for many years, propped up dictators, as long as they serve america’s interests. The U.S. and the west have done some unconscionable things, whose consequences are still contributing to Africa’s current conditions and standing in the world.  

Criticism of African politics is welcomed, but that criticism must be fairly represented. Otherwise, stereotypes of Africa and Africans as folks who cannot manage their natural rich countries are perpetuated, while the west is absolved. The west, for good and for ill, has been a major architect of Africa’s past and present predicament. No amount of African rectitude - and God knows we need it - can forestall the lure of money and/or the stranglehold of debt repayments. African leaders do not govern in a vacuum. There needs to be accountability on both sides of the issue, or else Africa will continue to be at the receiving end of unmerited and skewed criticism.

Truth be told, the negative interference of the west has had dire consequences on African development, equal to the lack of African leadership.


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