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Obama in Kenya

By Andrew M. Mwenda

Although Obama behaved better in Nairobi compared to Accra, here is why I still have a bone to pick with him

So finally, U.S. President Barak Obama visited his ancestral homeland of Kenya to a rousing welcome. This was understandable because for most of recorded history (a history largely, if not entirely, written by our conquerors) we have been presented as inferior. In almost every book, movie or news story on television, radio and newspapers, we are depicted as poor, hungry, or sick and in need of assistance from external benefactors. Where a story of our social initiative is told, we are depicted as violent, incompetent and corrupt hence incapable of self-government. Obama excites our imagination because we see in his success the image of a future we aspire for.

Yet although he bears “our skin”, Obama represents the power of those who seek to dominate us by destroying our self-confidence. Therefore his speeches reinforce a pattern of contempt that his predecessors have purveyed for decades. Thus, although his speech in Nairobi (compared to Accra in 2009) was less of headmaster lecturing his pupils and recognised the transformative changes taking place on our continent due to our initiatives, he still castigated us. His comments on political violence and corruption in Kenya continued the tradition of lecturing to us. Why does America feel obliged to comment on how African nations govern themselves, something he does not do in Western Europe? Who gives Obama and the US the moral right to lecture to Kenyans about their governance?


There is a lot Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta could also have said to Obama: the daily killings and brutalisation of African Americans by the US police, mass surveillance programs that allow the federal government to eavesdrop on almost every telephone conversation, hack into emails and social media of US citizens, the indefinite imprisonment without trial and torture of suspects in Guantanamo Bay and other illegal detention facilities around the world, the corruption of Washington and Wall Street where corporate profits are privatised and corporate losses are nationalised, the mass incarceration of black people, the invasions of foreign nations, and violent removal of their governments with chaos in their wake, the large scale use of drones to kill innocent civilians in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan and Pakistan etc.

So, Obama came to Nairobi with his hands dripping with the blood of his victims, a man fit for the International Criminal Court, not a red carpet welcome. His self-assumed superiority over Uhuru is not moral but one of raw military and economic power, the hubris of empire. As an individual, Obama may be a decent fellow. But he represents a cruel imperial power that seeks to dominate the world for its own selfish interests, not the progress of humankind.

Each time Obama and his ilk accuse African leaders of human rights abuses, a section of our chattering class cheers in loud admiration. Yet African leaders are not that cruel. There are 33 million blacks in America of whom 1.3 million are in jail i.e. 4%. There are 961 million people in Sub Sahara Africa and a prison population of 830,000 – less than 0.1%. If America ruled Africa and incarcerated blacks at the same rate as it does at home, we would be having 38.4 million Africans in prison. But what would happen if Uhuru castigated Obama for this? We can glean it from a story once told me by former US assistant secretary of state for African affairs Chester Arthur Crocker over a cup of coffee in Washington.

In 1986, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe visited Ronald Reagan in the Oval Office. The Reagan regime (how does that sound?) was financing the terrorist Contra rebels against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. The Contras would descend on villages, kill and maim innocent people, burn down schools and hospitals and blow up bridges. And America was also sponsoring other terrorist organisations in Angola, Mozambique, Guetemala and Afghanistan. Mugabe proceeded to “lecture” (the word is Crocker’s) Reagan on how wrong-headed this policy was.

“That was the last time Mugabe was invited to the Oval Office,” Crocker told me sipping on his coffee. Back then I thought Mugabe made a big mistake to be rude to his host at a private discussion. Now I realise that U.S. leaders do that to their African hosts at press conferences although never to their European cousins. This is not a relationship between equals but of master and slave, lord and servant. And it continues because we Africans have internalised the ideology that relegates us to this subordinate status. If we collectively opposed this and answered such provocation with similar provocations, Western leaders would stop it. Sadly when Western leaders admonish our leaders publically, a section of our chattering class cheers in loud approval and admiration.

Steven Biko, that great hero of the anti-apartheid movement, captured this internalisation of the ideology of one’s masters very well. He said that the greatest weapon of an oppressor is never his guns and armies but the mind of the oppressed. Colonialism succeeded because it played on our internal differences to divide and conquer us. Neocolonialism succeeds today because it plays on our internal weaknesses to divide and exploit us. But all nations have weaknesses, and these should never blind us to our strength or lead us to embrace those who hold us in contempt. Black people are a terrorised minority in America. But in spite of this, and as they rot in jails, they do not feel outsiders should come to America and criticise their president. I remember Congressman Charlie Wrangle, a black man from the Democratic Party, attacking then Venezuela President Hugo Chavez for calling President George Bush a devil in New York.

Western leaders do not merely demean and insult our leaders as a section of our chattering class imagines. They demean and insult us as a people, even though they mostly use our political leaders as bogeymen. Their media present our people largely in their misery and poverty. Can’t they tell the story of our accomplishments? By constantly showing us our failures, they are destroying our most important resource, our self-confidence, and thereby justifying their interventions “to save” us. They do not depict us negatively because we are poor and they pick some of our bills. They do it because we accept and approve of it. Bob Marley best captured Africa’s biggest challenge when he said we must liberate ourselves from mental slavery.

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