Obama Redefined the Door of No Return

Published on 14th July 2009

Obama and Atta Mills  Photo:Courtesy
President Barack Hussein Obama helped redefine the Door of No Return for Africa but fell in the trap of "silences". Silences aside, Obama's speech was very powerful and refreshing especially on its focus on the youth aged below 25 who comprise 65% of Sub Sahara population.   

"You can conquer diseases, end conflicts, and make change from the bottom up. You can do that. Yes you can. Because in this moment, history is on the move" said Obama in his address to Ghana parliament. This statement pushes responsibility squarely on the shoulders of the African youth: ‘Do not wait but move and act. To ensure that your actions do not have negative effects, seek information and get equipped with the right tools.’ Let me explore some of the redefined doors of no return as was outlined by Obama's visit to Ghana. 

The Cape Coast Castle was built by a Swedish company in 1653 and then captured by the Danes in 1663 and was used for trade in timber and Gold. When the British captured it in 1664, they turned it into one of the slave holding forts on the West African coast during the Trans-Atlantic Slave trade that saw an estimated 12 million Africans shipped to the new world. The Cape Coast Castle, has a door that opened to the sea, once a slave passed this door, there was no more hope as one had to be loaded onto ships. The door of no return has its equivalent in East Africa in what is referred to as "Bwagamoyo" in Tanzania, now Bagamoyo town. "Bwagamoyo" a Swahili word loosely translated to mean "give up” or “lose hope"... after trudging all the way from as far as modern day Congo, slaves would literally give up their "spirit" at being loaded onto boats to the Zanzibar slave market.  

Obama's hard hitting statements on Africa's tyrannical leaders, corruption, tribalism and lack of institutions symbolically point at the continent's self inflicted modern day doors of no return. His emphasis that "...Africa's future is up to Africans" could be based on the fact that after 500+ years of people on the continent suffering the fate of externally engineered "doors of no return" it is nonsensical to expect salvation from the same (outsiders). It is up to Africans to either shut the door and or turn it into a door of opportunity where one can always "return" a hero. 

Can you imagine 12 million people; fathers, mothers, sons and daughters all shipped like cattle to go-power the economic livelihood of the capturing nations? Fast forward; not so different from those leaders who engaged in slavery, African leaders are leasing out over 30 million hectares of land to feed other economies while 200 million Africans are faced with starvation. What the ordinary citizen look up to as leaders are simply individuals out

to cut deals with developed economies and stash the proceeds in Western banks and built castles for themselves. Due to poor leadership on the continent, Africans are once again on the run. If it is not famine chasing them; it is their own leaders pushing them at gun point to give space to mining companies without adequate compensation. If it is not diseases; it is conflict over resources and wars over the control of the "national cake." 

For Africa, the key to the door of no return was handed down by the West as a slaughtered carcass called "government." African hunters (leaders) are busy fighting over this carcass. The African people never chose of their own volition to institute the animal called government as we know it. That explains why governments on the continent exist to serve the political elite and exploit their people. Tyrants, that is, individuals who prioritize their own interests over the best interests of the majority roam the continent under the guise of "government." Obama is right to point out that it is us Africans to get rid of this negative culture - and - this cannot be through elections alone. It has to include cultural, constitutional and law reform in order to build institutions that are respected by all.  

The myths such as that propagated in Kenya that some communities are more enterprising and educated than others masks tribalism as another door of no return. If one particular group holds hostage the governance system of a country and goes ahead to award tenders and strategic opportunities to themselves, they subject others to a door of no return. One cannot argue that if the political establishment for example filled the police force with one ethnic community; that it follows they (the ethnic community) are the only ones capable of holding guns! Clearly, Obama's speech pointed at possibilities of making the pie grow bigger by removal of chains holding people back from prosperity and enjoyment of life. 

Now I turn to silences that is, deliberate attempt to distort historical facts to serve one's immediate strategy.  President Barack Obama either deliberately or through omission opted to engage in silences in his address to Africa. In pointing out that Kenya had a higher per capita economy than South Korea at the time he was born, Obama failed to discuss who "owned" that economy he refers to. It is one thing to refer to a successful nation and another when one discusses individual citizen's role in such a success. Kenyans are still struggling 46 years after independence to move out of spectator status (picking flowers, serving as watchmen, cooks - what I refer to as employment economy; while actual wealth is transferred elsewhere) in terms of wealth creation. 

On Zimbabwe, Obama got it wrong. Whereas it is true that the West is not 100% responsible for the destruction of the Zimbabwe economy; Obama "silence" here ignores the West's involvement in land politics and subsequent lack of productivity in this country. The Zimbabwe story might one day turn out to be a clear case of sabotage and an attempt to perpetuate the notion that only particular types of people can be farmers.   

Obama also deliberately engaged in "silences" when he simply chose to gloss over Western patronage in Africa; governance and talked of "old habits must also be broken" in reference to dependence on commodities as if all this is Africans fault not to engage in value added exports. What is governance for instance, is it government service delivery to its people? Paid for by whom? African countries cannot purport to have good governance if other countries pay for their upkeep. Patronage will continue unless Africans pay for the upkeep of their own governments. A value added relationship with external and African markets is what will translate to positive contribution to governance.  

" ... And I think, as Americans, and as African Americans, obviously there's a special sense that on one hand this place was a place of profound sadness; on the other hand, it is here where the journey of much of African American experience began," said Obama at the Cape Coast Castle. A keen observation of what African Americans are faced with to date is an indicator of how systems (banking, education, political parties, flawed institutions, media, etc) hold back progress from a group of people. For Africa, it is largely a governance system that has been accepted without thorough probing as to whose interest it serves. Other than focusing on individuals, we as the people must prioritize to probe both the impact of systems and their agents in order to secure positive change for the future of Africa.  

By James Shikwati

Mr. Shikwati james@irenkenya.org is Director of  Inter Region Economic Network.


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