Obama and Africa

If and when Senator Barack Obama is sworn in next January as America’s 44th president and the first of African descent, whither US-African relations? It’s a complicated question. The answers won’t be to everyone’s liking.

Obama’s own relationship with continent begins, obviously, with his late Kenyan father, of whom he saw little but says this in a speech – to date his most extended utterance on Africa — he gave at the University of Nairobi in August 2006: “For all his education, my father’s life ended up being filled with disappointments”.

The source of those disappointments? “The politics of tribe and patronage” in newly independent Kenya. Obama Sr. was a Luo; the new elite predominantly, selfishly, Kikuyu. That and a propensity to speak his mind cost the Harvard-educated technocrat his career and landed him close to the gutter for many years.

“We must surely acknowledge that neither Kenya not the African continent have yet fulfilled their potential,” the son says. Economically, Kenya and South Korea were on a par in the early 60’s. Now South Korea’s GDP is 40 times greater. Why?

He trots out a few stock answers. The legacy of colonialism, its artificial boundaries and the strife they fed. The difficulties inherent in moving rapidly from a highly agrarian to a more urban industrialized economy. Geography. Disease. Lack of access to developed markets. Trading partners who insist African economies liberalise without granting them reciprocal concessions.

But none of these, as far as Obama is concerned, gets to the heart of the matter. “It’s more than just history and outside influences that explain why Kenya lags behind. Like many nations across this continent, where Kenya is failing is in its ability to create a government that is transparent and accountable.”

Obama’s view of the continent surely owes a lot to what he perceives to have been his father’s experience. Here was a bright man who had much to offer his newborn country, but ethnic chauvinism and corruption did him in. “Ethnic based, tribal politics has to stop,” Obama says. “It is rooted in the bankrupt idea that the goal of politics or business is to funnel as much of the pie as possible to one’s family, tribe or circle with little regard for the public good.”

Note that he does not carry on messianically about democracy in the manner of the man he hopes to succeed. What he cares about is whether “people can trust their government to do the job for which it exists – to protect them and to promote their common welfare”. If they can’t, “all else is lost”.

Reflecting not only his own instincts but the views of advisers like Susan Rice, who was Bill Clinton’s assistant secretary of state for Africa, he sees danger in governments that can’t be trusted by their people to do the job for which they exist but which instead use power as an opportunity to loot. Corrupt, unaccountable states are fertile terrain for transnational threats ranging from Al Qaedist terror to communicable disease.

The big question of course is what an Obama administration will do to promote accountable government and to what extent it will seek to demonize or ostracise those who do not make the grade. Will it become bossy and hectoring, as Rice became last time she held office? Might it rather work quietly to help build the “strong, independent institutions” Obama sees as essential to Africa’s transformation. Will it strengthen indigenous initiatives like Nepad which at least pay homage to the ideals Obama espouses?

Of this one can be more certain. If elected president, Obama will bring to the job a uniquely personal perspective on Africa. He is suspicious of Africa’s ruling elites and tends to the view that they have not served their people well. Just as he preaches a new kind of unselfish and empathetic politics at home, so he will be encouraging it abroad.

At the outset, he will clearly have a very strong appeal among ordinary Africans. To African leaders who hold elections but do not hold themselves accountable, he will be a worry. He will have been pleased to see his fellow Luo, Kenyan prime minister Raila Odinga, break ranks in denouncing Robert Mugabe as a dictator at the World Economic Forum last week.

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