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Why Obama cannot liberate Africa

This article was written for The Guardian

How regurgitating stereotypes and prejudice about Africa easily gets you audience in Western media

So I chanced upon an article by a one Patience Akumu (`Why Obama doesn’t understand the lust for power of our African leaders’, The Guardian UK, Aug.2). To Akumu, Africa needs President Barack Obama’s lectures because “his powerful words are the kind of inspirational tool we Africans – both young and old – need to lift our downtrodden and intimidated souls…?” The author also says that Africa was better under colonial rule than after independence.

Africans have been involved in struggles for the improvement of their political systems without Obama. Through street protests, civil wars, military coups, court battles, and mass media debates, Africans have always fought for what is good for them. True, progress has not been a constantly improving curve. There are always gains and losses, progress and reversals. But this is normal because political change is difficult to organise and results often come at a creep, not a gallop. The political history of Western European and North America over the last 200 years attests to this. In fact African nations are outperforming Western nations in the speed of our progress. None of the Western nations enjoyed as much democracy as African countries enjoy today when they had Africa’s current very low levels of urbanisation, industrialisation, per capita income, government revenues, education attainment, and small size of the middle class.

It took America 88 years from the declaration of independence, which said all men are born equal, to the abolition of slavery. It took another 100 years from the Emancipation Proclamation to the major civil rights legislation that gave most African Americans a franchise. Today, millions of African Americans are still denied the right to vote because they are in jail, under probation or on parole. But when it comes to Africa, our political progress is not expected to be a result of political struggle that involves negotiation and compromise, give and take, feats and starts. It is expected to happen overnight by copying and pasting from Western nations or by borrowing from a textbook. In short, Africa should not have politics.

In the 1960s, 70s and 80s, our continent was plagued with military coups. Not anymore! Today African leaders are working in concert against coup makers and are succeeding. In those years, the countries which were not under military rule were governed by one party states. Now all are multi party states. In 1975, the whole of Africa had only two nations where a president had come to power in an election where he contested against a rival backed by an opposition political party. There is only one country governed by a non-elected party and president; Eritrea. In the 1990s and early 2000s, our continent was plagued by many civil wars, which have increasingly ended.

Now I admit that everything is not rosy. In some of our countries, elections are not free and fair. But even in these, the electoral process is improving every year. And Rome was not built in a day. Africa is not the liberal democratic ideal we aspire to, and no nation in the world is. But across our continent our people continue to struggle daily to improve governance. Many countries in Africa have seen a candidate from an opposition party defeat a sitting president or ruling party at elections – in Nigeria, Benin, Zambia, Malawi, Mandgascar, Congo Brazaville, Kenya, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone, Senegal, Somalia, etc. This political progress is a product of struggle and sacrifice by Africans, for Africans without any inspirational lectures from anyone.

Term limits were established in 44 out of 54 countries in Africa long before Africans had heard of Obama. Since then eight countries have since removed them, two (Rwanda and DRC) are likely to follow suit. But they exist in 34 countries. However, Akumu says the eight are the general rule, 34 are exceptions. These “downtrodden and intimidated souls” stopped Frederick Chiluba in Zambia, Bakili Muluzi in Malawi and Olusegun Obasanjo in Nigeria from removing term limits. Only last year, youths in Burkina Faso chased their president out of power for trying the same. In 2012, court in Senegal approved President Abdoulaye Wade to run for a third term. The electorate refused and voted his opponent. In Burundi, people are contesting their president’s desire to stay in power.

These achievements of our people through their heroic struggles against all odds are what will inspire us to forge forward, not Obama’s empty and contemptuous rhetoric. Obama and sections of our elite focus on our failures, creating a doomsday picture of “downtrodden and intimidated souls” waiting for the paternalistic hand of a foreign statesman to save us. Yet most western interventions in Africa have caused grievous harm to our people.

The claim (or belief) that the salvation of Africa will come from outsiders is strong in sections of the West and dominant among a section of the African elite. It is expressed in campaigns for many aspects of Western aid to our continent: money, relief food, eloquent speeches, human rights campaigns, peacekeeping troops, technical assistance, economic policies, laws, etc. In this world-view, Africans are not supposed to be active participants in the struggle to shape their destiny but passive recipients of international charity. But many of us in Africa reject this negative presentation of our continent and insist on fighting our battles ourselves. We accept international solidarity but not international leadership in our struggle.

Thus, if term limits are the best thing for Africa, the countries removing them are making a mistake from which they will learn and change. Africa’s capacity to learn from her mistakes has been proven. In the 19760s and 70s, governments in Africa nationalised local and foreign business in socialist experiments. Our economies collapsed. We have since learnt the value of markets and private enterprise and our continent is now growing.

There is nothing new or novel Obama was saying. His speech did not reflect his so called “tough love” for Africa but contempt for us. It is our duty and responsibility as Africans to fight for what we believe is good for us. If freedom, democracy etc. are good for us, we do not need anyone to tell us that. The political systems that emerge out of this political struggle cannot be predetermined based on some universal international standard. The outcome, even though influenced by external ideas, will be a product of our struggles.

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