Despite differences in agenda, Obama's Africa visit may herald bright future relations

Gamal Nkrumah
Thursday 30 Jul 2015

President Obama's five-day trip to the African continent put in focus a number of prickly issues. What was the US agenda and what will be the repercussions?

"By the pricking of my thumbs, Something wicked this way comes" — Shakespeare, Macbeth.

But perhaps the presidential tour portends good and not evil, a prophetic omen that unfolds as Africa changes with the times. Only time will tell.

Africa and the United States may not often see their agendas overlap. At any rate, there are 55 countries on the African continent. Of these nations, 54 are members of the African Union. Morocco is the only African nation that is not a member of the AU. Presumably, every African nation has its own agenda, with the possible exception of the failed and fragile states, and there are several of these in Africa.

Kenya and Ethiopia, neither of them in the least can be labeled failed states and are the two East African nations that US President Barack Obama visited this week, have an unambiguous agenda. The problem is with hidden agendas, as they are as abstruse as they are profound. Washington's agenda is also categorical.

"People are being lifted out of poverty, incomes are up, the middle class is growing and young people like you are harnessing technology to change the way Africa is doing business," Obama said, addressing a pan-African audience in Kenya amid rapturous applause.

Obama's Kenyan counterpart, Uhuru Kenyatta, concurred. "The narrative of African despair is false, and indeed was never true," Kenyatta declared. "Let them know that Africa is open and ready for business," Kenyatta expounded.

True, but Africa is doing brisk business with China and not with America. So is the US competing with China for markets in the continent one of Washington's hidden agendas?

Obama is the first US president to address the African Union, ironically at its Chinese-built headquarters in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa. Obama held talks with regional leaders on the ongoing civil war in South Sudan, a failed state. Obama spoke about the "cancer of corruption," that threatens to derail the African economic boom. He contended that corruption was "draining billions of dollars" from the emerging economies of Africa.

Government malfeasance is at the heart of Africa's political malaise. Yet, American complicity counts. And the double standards that Washington adopts with impunity have far-reaching repercussions. Take the cases of Kenya and Ethiopia. Washington has turned a blind eye to human rights violations primarily because the two nations are allies in the US-led war against terrorism in East Africa.

Africa is the world's second-largest and second-most-populous continent after Asia. Africa has enormous economic potential and some African economies are among the fastest growing in the world, including Ethiopia and Kenya. Nevertheless, Africa is the least developed continent and has been the least capable of poverty reduction.

To counter Chinese economic expansionism in the continent, Obama launched Trade Africa and announced that the US would invest $7 billion in infrastructure and target specific promising nations such as Kenya and Ethiopia. Obama was optimistic about the continent's economic future, noting that current growth rates are bashing "old stereotypes."

Even so, without a decisive mechanism for combatting corruption and advancing good governance, the African continent would continue to be mired in prolonged periods of uncertainty. It transpired during Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari's visit to Washington last month that a former Nigerian minister, so far unnamed, had pilfered $6 billion from Nigerian state coffers.

Awash with oil and natural gas, Nigeria, Africa's largest economy with a GDP of $521 billion, is a prime example of how corruption can cripple the continent's full economic potential. Buhari has embarked on a worthy anti-corruption campaign. The groundbreaking Nigerian news website Sahara Reporters alleged that Nigeria's President Buhari ordered the arrest of his own brother-in-law, Alhaji Musa Yola, on corruption charges, a claim that was later denied by the presidency.

The benefits of accountability and transparency in the political and economic spheres are there for the taking. Obama touched a raw nerve when he told the AU in Addis Ababa that the outdated practices of nepotism and presidency for life are detracting from the continent's social, political and economic potential. "Nobody should be president for life," Obama stressed.

Perhaps, he was alluding to Burundi's President Pierre Nkurunziza and his bid for a third term in office despite the fact that it contravenes the country's constitution. Such heinous political practices only bolster graft and gratuity. "I don't understand why people want to stay so long, especially when they have got a lot of money," Obama extrapolated.

Obama's host in Kenya, Kenyatta, was indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court, based in The Hague, Netherlands. Kenyatta, a most congenial and convivial host, had a brush with Obama over a number of issues of cultural concerns that create political tensions between Africa and the US. Homosexuality springs to mind.

Why did Obama insist on speaking his mind concerning this most controversial and prickly topic in Africa? Surely, he understands how the vast majority of Africans disapprove of gay rights. Obama did not refrain from openly spotlighting the gay rights agenda. Does he not know that in Kenya, the birthplace of his father, gay sex is punishable by up to 14 years in prison?

Homosexuality was possibly the most anticipated clash of civilisations controversy to crop up during Obama's five-day tour. In the American context, perhaps it is true that liberal Americans are "painfully aware of the history when people are treated differently under the law," as Obama so aptly put it.

"When a government gets in the habit of treating people differently, those habits can spread,” Obama extrapolated. His host begged to differ. Gay rights “is not really an issue on the foremost mind of Kenyans. And that is a fact," said President Kenyatta.

Kenyan Deputy President William Ruto concurred, contending that homosexuality was "against the plan of God," whatever that may be.

The point is that the squabble of gay rights highlighted how many Africans are deeply offended by what they see as America's "civilising mission" and pompous preaching, meddling in cultural issues that from an African perspective should not be atop the agenda on such an august occasion. It should not have popped up in the first place.

The onus should have been on more consequential and meaningful matters, such as militant Islamist terrorism in East Africa and the 2013 attack on Nairobi’s Westgate Mall and the April attack this year in Garissa that killed nearly 150 people, both carried out by militant Islamist terrorists. Most Kenyan Muslims are law abiding citizens who abhor violence.

Kenya's foreign minister, Amina Mohamed, is herself a Muslim and a most outspoken critic of terrorism. Africans question America's motives. The challenge is least steep on the tricky question of terrorism. The US Africa Command (AFRICOM) is a key concern.

African troops are being increasingly deployed and US troops are no longer dispatched to war zones in Africa. The logic of this manoeuvre is simultaneously obvious and enduring.

Likewise, Obama is the first sitting US president to visit Ethiopia. Ethiopia's Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn officially welcomed Obama to the strategic Horn of Africa nation.

Ethiopia, Africa's second most populous nation, has one of the fastest growing economies on earth. Yet, Ethiopia's ruling party, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) won all 546, or 100 percent, of parliamentary seats in last month's polls.

African Union observers pronounced the elections free and fair, and the polls passed off without incident. The EPRDF has its roots in Marxism–Leninism. But neither Marxism-Leninism or the Maoism of Mao Zedong is regarded as a sacred cow anymore. The golden calf is capitalism.

Critics of the EPRDF claim that there was a break in the chain of control of ballot boxes and the opposition cried foul. Be that as it may, Ethiopia is vital to Washington's war on terror in East Africa. Fighting terrorism topped the agenda in Ethiopia.

The rainy season has begun in earnest in Ethiopia with ominous dark clouds unleashing torrents as Obama's plane skidded on the sodden tarmac of Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa. Was this an ill omen? No, and emphatically so, is the honest answer.

Ethiopia is unequivocally the most important member state of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) — the eight-nation regional trading bloc. IGAD, however, is as political as it is economic. And therefore, whatever their differences, Ethiopia will always be a key East African ally of the US, with or without a restrictive, authoritarian regime.

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