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Obama’s gift to Africa

By Joseph Bossa

It’s a reminder of what America’s policy aims to achieve by training young Africans like his father

When Barack Obama was elected president the first time, romantic African hearts danced with expectation he would usher in a new period of American aid to Africa because his father was an African. Those more realistic knew that he had been elected and had taken an oath to pursue and uphold American interests. Only where African needs coincided with American interests would help come. The realist view prevailed. Is that likely to change during his second term?

One of the questions Obama was asked during the Time magazine interview as Person of the  Year, 2012 was: “If you look outside the boundaries of the US, what are the places that keep you up at night now and you hope, I’m going to make these places better four years from now?

His answer was lengthy and detailed. The places he mentioned were the Asia-Pacific region and China and India in particular, the Middle East, North Africa, with Egypt in particular. He said those places held economic, political and security interest for US.  Africa south of the Sahara did not feature among the places that will keep Obama up at night trying to figure out how to make it better over the next four years. That is not necessarily a bad thing.

Last time America tried to help Africa with its human resource development, America ended up as the greatest beneficiary. Under a programme to train Africans who would run their countries’ institutions after independence, Barack Obama the elder was brought from Kenya to study in America. He met a young American lady, fell in love with her, they sired a son, he picked up such knowledge as he was able to and returned to Kenya.

Back home, Obama Sr. set to work, was frustrated by a system that valued less the knowledge he had acquired than the tribe and religion he belonged to, turned to alcohol and died young in a motor accident, leaving America potentially the only beneficiary from his sojourn.

The son Obama Sr. left in America grew up and became president of his country. Like President Abraham Lincoln who saved the American Union, for saving capitalism and the American way of life, Obama the younger is poised to become one of America’s greatest presidents. (And we ask who helps who in foreign aid.)

And so President Obama, when first elected, did not offer Africa, nor does he promise now, upon his re-election, bags of money or special programmes. He seems to share the view of the Chinese of old that sometimes a non-physical gift can be more valuable than a physical one. The Chinese say, ‘’If I give you a fish, I give you a meal for a day but if I teach you to fish, I give you a meal for life.’’ Therefore, from Accra, Ghana during his first term President Obama gave Africa the only thing he could freely give– advice.  Build strong institutions rather than strong men if you are to develop, he   counselled. In other words, Obama was telling Africa: Learn to govern yourselves well and you will not need to seek aid from America.  It is the dearth of well-functioning institutions that lies at the core of human resource waste and weakness of post –independence Africa. That message was also a reminder of what America’s policy aimed to achieve by training young Africans like Obama Sr. just before and immediately after independence. At another level, that admonition is a lamentation for his father, for if Kenya had institutions which cared less for the tribe or religion of an individual, maybe his father would not have died when and as he died.

That advice is powerful and more valuable than gold and silver. That is what Africa needs to hear and heed. That is Obama’s gift to Africa.

Joseph Bossa is the Vice President of the Uganda Peoples Congress party

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