How the newly re-elected US president is not the solution but the problem for Africa
Last week, Barak Obama was re-elected president of the United States. Since his first election in 2008, many African elites were happy that at least “one of us” has won the presidency of the world’s only, albeit declining, superpower. Behind this “one of us” label lies hope that Obama, being “black”, would do more to “help” Africa fix its problems like dictatorship, poverty, corruption and bad government. And it seems from his rhetoric during his first election campaigns that he would try to “fix” Africa. Nothing is scarier about Obama than this ambition.
No Western leader would enjoy as much legitimacy as Obama if he attempted to “solve” Africa’s problems. Obama’s actions would enjoy widespread support in Africa and the Western world for two main reasons. First, his African ancestry gives him “racial legitimacy” – both in Africa and the Western world – to act since he is seen as “one of us” or “their own” depending on which side of the Atlantic you sit. Second, his little experience with his Kenyan family combined with his personal hubris has given Obama confidence that he understands Africa and its ills better than his predecessors.
Indeed, Western attempt to solve Africa’s problems, however well intentioned in their aims and however grandiose in their idealism, are part of the problem not the solution for our continent. This is because any Western leader would come with a set of assumptions and prejudices about the source of our failures – corruption, bad leadership and lack of democracy. When I was young and intelligent, I treated these assumptions as manifest truth. Now that I have grown old and stupid, I see them as symptoms of a more complex structural problem.
Here is my first point: It is unlikely that Obama will sit around a table with a group of African politicians, businesspersons, civil society activists and civil servants to craft a solution for Africa. Even if this were done, it would only be ceremonial. Therefore, the blueprint to fix our continent would be designed in Washington by people who know a lot theoretically about Africa but have little or no experience with actual practical complexities of its politics. To attempt a large-scale plan from such a position is the stuff that most delusions are born of.
Secondly, many people from the West come with a set of assumptions about institutions and policies that have worked well in the West and think these can be replicated in Africa to produce similar results. This view is supported by a large number of African intellectuals and lies at the heart of our continent’s problems. We ignore the fact that these policies and institutions that have served the West so well were born of a specific context. It involved changing technology, which fostered structural change giving birth to political contests by emergent social groups. The resultant political contests took place in a specific set of values, norms and traditions and these produced a set of institutions and policies to respond to those realities.
Subtract all these processes and pick the end result, the institutions, and then copy and paste them unto a continent with a different social structure, history, skills, culture, norms – name it – and think it can work. That is one of the major delusions of all large-scale domestic or foreign-engineered change. I add “domestic” projects because I am acutely aware of some large-scale projects of national transformation like Ujaama that were locally bred and turned out to be a disaster. So the fact that something is locally generated does not automatically make it desirable.
For many years, the West, with the support of African intellectuals has attempted various projects of modernising Africa by replicating Western values, norms and institutions often with disastrous results. But the advocates of this “modernisation” project never give up. The 1980s and 90s Structural Adjustment Programs were one such experiment. These experiments lacked legitimacy because their promoters were largely white. Therefore, fear of being accused of racism tended to moderate their actions.
However, Obama is not restrained by such accusations. Being “black” and of African origins, he enjoys near-unanimous support on our continent. Local elites, frustrated at their inability to influence their destiny, have been waiting for a messiah from the West, especially America, to do for them by diktat what they need to do through political struggle i.e. dictate the pace and direction of change. Now these local intellectual elites have someone with the necessary legitimacy, born almost entirely of his assumed racial identity, to do this work.
Armed with an ideology that believes in the use of government power to promote social change, combined with his personal sense of destiny to change the world, Obama is the kind of man to attempt a large-scale experiment of social engineering in Africa. He loves to preach, to lecture and to guide. His messianic image of himself as the solver of every problem using government presents our nations a very big challenge. I admit that a lot of Obama’s ambitions in Africa are shared by a large cross section of our intellectuals. They would need a Gestapo to implement them.
Here is my point: our problems are largely (certainly not entirely) domestically generated, as are the demands to solve them. Often the problem has been that in trying to shape solutions to them, we rely too much on imported theories. The mismatch between suggested solutions and actual realities on the ground has been a major cause of failure on our continent.
Africa’s problems are primarily political, born of a complex web or power relationships from the village to the city. They cannot be solved by foreign diktat. Only domestic political struggle can. Foreign assistance is vital but can only succeed if it seeks to support local agents of change. When foreign assistance comes with solutions like those Obama outlined in his 2009 speech in Accra, then we are back on a slippery slope. In such circumstances, the best Obama can do for Africa is to fold his hands and do nothing. Africa’s savior may be the continuation of the economic crisis in America, which may divert Obama’s next big plan for our continent.
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