The Ghost of Obama Sr.

Hitherto, President Barack Obama’s intended approach to Africa has largely been a matter of conjecture.  With his speech to Ghana’s parliament on Saturday and the curtain-raising interview he gave to the indispensable a week earlier, we now have his essential talking points on the subject. However much interagency consultation went into preparing them, they are uniquely his own.

The overarching theme is governance, expressed in ways that, coming from others, might well have raised an eyebrow. From the interview: “Part of what’s hampered advancement in Africa is that for many years we’ve made excuses about corruption or poor governance; that this was somehow the consequence of neo-colonialism, or the West has been oppressive, or racism. I’m not a believer in excuses.”

It comes as no surprise, of course, that the way Obama sees Africa is informed by his own DNA and experience. Striking, nonetheless, is the degree to which he has been influenced by the memory of his Kenyan father.  Indeed, were Shakespeare around to write a play about Obama’s Africa policy, the ghost of Obama Sr. would surely be among the dramatis personae.

In his memoir, Dreams from My Father, Obama has his paternal sister Auma describe the brief upward and long downward trajectory of “the Old Man” following his return to newly independent Kenya with a Masters degree in economics from Harvard. It’s the stuff of an African Thomas Hardy novel. A Luo, in this telling, he makes the mistake of publicly protesting that all the best jobs are going to Kikuyus, which gets him fired from his government position, then blacklisted and ultimately reduced to alcoholic poverty.

In his speech, Obama uses his father’s tragedy as an example of what he sees as Africa’s largely self-inflicted failure to achieve its promise post-independence. Observing that Kenya had a higher per capita GDP than South Korea when he was born in 1961 and has since been “badly outpaced”, he warns against pinning the blame on others.

“Yes, a colonial map that made little sense bred conflict and the West has often approached Africa as a patron, rather than a partner. But the West is not responsible for the destruction of the Zimbabwean economy over the last decade or wars in which children are enlisted as combatants. In my father’s life, it was partly tribalism and patronage in an independent Kenya that for a long stretch derailed his career, and we know that this kind of corruption is a daily fact of life for far too many.”

In his book, Obama makes Auma point at a photo of President Jomo Kenyatta, the proximate cause of their father’s fall, and say: “That’s where it all starts. The Big Man. Then his assistant, or his family, or his friend, or his tribe. It is the same whether you want a phone, or a visa, or a job. Who are your relatives? Who do you know? If you don’t know somebody, you can forget it. That’s what the Old Man never understood. He came back here thinking that because he was so educated … everyone would somehow put him in charge. He forgot what holds everything together here.”

In his speech, Obama expresses confidence (or is it merely hope?) that there will be no more Big Men. “We have learned that it will not be giants like … Kenyatta who will determine Africa’s future instead it will be you, the men and women in Ghana’s parliament, and the people you represent. Above all, it will be the young people, brimming with talent and energy and hope, who can claim the future that so many in my father’s generation never found.”

All asked Obama what kind of legacy he would want to have left in Africa at the end of his term in office. He replied that he would like it said that the US had been “an effective partner … in building the kinds of institutions, political, civil, economic, that allowed for improving standards of living and greater security for the people of Africa.” He also hoped we would be closer to the day when “a young person growing up in Johannesburg or Lagos or Nairobi or Djibouti can say to themselves: I can stay here in Africa, I can stay in my country and succeed, and through my success my country and my people will get stronger.”

In other words, the dream he takes from his father is the dream of an Africa in which his father would have been able to fulfill his potential, an Africa to which the only route is better, more honest government and institutions with leaders who are genuinely interested in serving their people. Let’s pray that no one will be able to say of Obama’s efforts in Africa eight years hence what Auma said of their father: “he forgot what holds everything together”.

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