Barack Obama made his first trip to Africa as President of the United States, and his speech last week in Accra was the talk of Africa and much of the world. When we looked at it here in the office, a colleague said to me, “It’s almost as if Obama works for Oxfam.” He worked through a number of Africa’s challenges and many of his recommendations were aligned with those Oxfam makes on the same issues.
But the speech was also interesting for another reason: It’s always hard for someone from the US to confront Africans about problems on their continent. And even though Obama’s father is from Kenya not everyone was open to his suggestion that, although colonialism was unjust, Africa needs to move on. Obama did not specifically confront the trade in slaves that devastated so many communities, and one human rights activist in Nigeria in particular said he was talking down to Africans, and demanded compensation from America for slavery. He’s probably not the only one who rejected Obama’s call to stop laying blame for Africa’s problems on others.
On the subject of governance, a long-standing topic of discussion on the continent, Obama was critical of some African leaders, especially those who change their country’s constitution to stay in power longer. Will Ross wrote in his article for the BBC “Tough love from a brother” that this “denunciation of Africa’s ‘strong men’ will have made a few leaders squirm in their presidential palaces.” That some of these strong men are US allies made this a bold statement.
How you feel about Obama’s speech will depend, like most things in life, on where you sit. If you had told me two years ago that the president of the United States would make a speech in Ghana and talk about his father herding goats in a small village in Kenya, and tell the audience that “I have the blood of Africa within me, and my family’s own story encompasses both the tragedies and triumphs of the larger African story,” I never would have believed it.
He also told the people of Africa that the future is theirs to decide, that each country develops democracy in its own way, and that “America will be with you every step of the way — as a partner, as a friend.” I sincerely hope America can live up to this pledge.