White House Jolts Africa’s Development

Published on 7th September 2009

Obama and Clinton      Photo courtesy
US President Barack Obama’s Ghana visit on July 11 jolted Africa’s slumbering development process. Obama, and later his Secretary of State, Mrs. Hilary Clinton, urged Africans to consolidate democracy, grow the rule of law, fight corruption, integrate African traditional values and institutions into their development process, and trade among themselves. But as various African editorialists and commentators analyzed, the substance weren’t new, what was fresh was Obama’s bold into-your-face manner, the level of confidence projected, the psychological significance, the partaking of the on-going African development debates, and the attempts to hit home a new mindset for Africa’s development.


That one of the key stumbling blocks of Africa’s progress is its mindset is unarguable. This has come in the form of authoritarianism and the “Big man syndrome,” corruption, weak rule of law, irresponsibility, finger-pointing, unfreedoms, and feeble human rights. Against this background is African policy-makers’ inability to midwife their countries from within their traditional values and institutions as other ex-colonies such as Malaysia, Japan and India have successfully done. Obama and Mrs. Clinton set to knock-off these self-destructive mindsets and inferiority complexes.


To let Africa face its problems head-on and begin hard thinking from within Africa’s sensibilities, Obama, and Mrs. Clinton didn’t promise any huge monies as George Bush and Bill Clinton had done earlier. They played more like therapist urging Africans to tap into their souls for solutions into their developmental challenges than play Father Christmas.


There was little new in the way of policy and no fresh proposals on trade or development aid. The signals from such US muteness on trade and aid are that with almost one billion people and huge internal markets, Africans should look more at trading among themselves and create prosperity. But beneath the silence, Obama’s White House is seeking, as Mrs. Clinton emphasized in Nairobi, to promote this new mindset – that Africa should pursue more of its internal dynamics for progress. While nobody will rule out Washington’s corporate interest in Africa, especially in the area of oil, natural resources and the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), a Washington policy to encourage the formation of economic ties with Sub-Saharan Africa countries, in the long-run, the opening of these ventures rest with healthy democratic regimes in Africa where the rule of law, human rights, and freedoms are the cornerstone.


Democracy and progress


Obama’s visit to Ghana, and not to Kenya or the “Giant of Africa,” Nigeria, was to drum home attempts of good governance and indirectly snub bad governance that has stifled Africa’s progress. Obama told the Washington-based allafrica.com why he chose Ghana:


 “Well, part of it is lifting up successful models. And so, by traveling to Ghana, we hope to highlight the effective governance that they have in place. I don't think that we can expect that every country is going to undergo these transitions in the same way at the same time. But we have seen progress in democracy and transparency and rule of law, in the protection of property rights, in anti-corruption efforts…And I think that there is a direct correlation between governance and prosperity. Countries that are governed well, that are stable, where the leadership recognizes that they are accountable to the people and that institutions are stronger than any one person have a track record of producing results for the people. And we want to highlight that.”

No doubt, Mrs. Clinton told Kenyans: “True economic progress depends not only on the hard work of millions of people who get up every day and do the best they can, often under overwhelming circumstances…It often depends on responsible governments that reject corruption and enforce the rule of law and deliver results for their people.”


In Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria, Liberia, South Africa, Angola, Cape Verde or the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mrs. Clinton reviewed the health of their democratic governance and offered some objective notes. In Nigeria’s screwed up electoral system, they were told to clean it up. Mrs. Clinton enjoined Liberia to move on as their governance is on the right track. The sense here is that much of Africa’s progress will be achieved with good governance and not the authoritarianisms of yesteryears.


As Nigeria and Ghana exemplify, the Obama and Clinton visits to Africa have revealed the fact that at issue isn’t oil or cocoa but values, democratic/governance values and institutions that will spur prosperity and help refine the illiberalities within African countries’ systems that have stifled progress for the past 50 years and made Africans the poorest people on earth despite the continent’s immense wealth. It is in such atmosphere that Nigeria, despite its immense oil wealth, nonetheless, feels somehow diminished in its own eyes and in the international system.


The old enemy of imperialism is gone; the new enemy of Africa’s progress is anti-democracy, wobbly institutions, poor governance, weak rule of law, poor human rights, unfreedoms, and certain cultural values such as the pull him/her down syndrome  that inhibit progress.


Gaddaffi and Obama


The jolting of Africa’s emerging democracies by Obama has created dim reactions from certain quarters in Africa, where autocratic one-party, military and near-military regimes and fake democracies form majority against the backdrop of cynicism and despair. Of Africa’s 54 countries only 16 today (since 2000) can rightly be called democratic, and the rest, though they claim to be democratic, is nothing to write home about. Money or not, from George Bush to Bill Clinton, the central vision of Washington’s Africa’s policy have been “ruling justly, promoting economic freedom, and investing in people.” Though most African countries could not meet these bench marks, Obama further pushed them and Mrs., Clinton, in her 7 African states visits, further explained their significance, as medicine, for Africa’s durable prosperity.


George Ayittey, of the American University, the only African among those invited by the US State Department to advise Mrs. Clinton before embarking on her African tour, has argued that, “The institutional tools Africans need” for prosperity in relation to the continent’s disturbing political history “are a free and independent media (to ensure free flow of information), an independent judiciary (for the rule of law), an independent Electoral Commission, an independent central bank (to assure monetary stability and stanch capital flight), an efficient and professional civil service, and a neutral and professional armed and security forces…Effective foreign aid programs are those that are “institution-based” and, as such, empower civil society. Give Africa the above six critical institutions and the people will do the rest of the job…Africa is poor because it is not free.”


Despite these stark realities, some African leaders like Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi still think military revolutions are good for Africa and criticized Obama’s African democracy-and-prosperity agenda. Bent on undermining the Obama Ghana visit and its encouragement of Ghana and Africa’s emerging democracies, just a few days after Obama left Ghana, Gaddafi attempted to visit Ghana to rubbish Obama. Though Accra cancelled the Gaddafi visit, Gaddafi had issued a statement that the “Rawlings Revolution, not democracy saved Ghana” and that “Ghana…was decaying in the annals of corruption as a failed post colonial state.” Everyone knows that democracy did save Ghana but not any killings, deaths, exiles, threats, and harassments caused by the Rawlings revolution.


This not only insults Ghanaian pro-democracy forces that laid down their lives to help restore democracy, the rule of law, human rights and freedoms after years of Rawlings self-seeking revolution that caused deaths, killings, exiles, fear, paranoia, harassments, threats, unaccountability and massive corruption. By such misguided remarks, Gaddafi also insulted Benin Republic’s Mathieu Kerekou, who after years of military rule driven by Marxist-Leninist ideology, discovered that Benin cannot progress with military rule and restored democracy as vehicle for progress. Botswana attest to the current African believes that Africans need no bloody revolutions to bring about progress but democracy, freedoms, humans rights and the rule of law informed by Africans’ traditional values and institutions. Progress-wise, in terms of development indicators, Botswana is the best country in sub-Sahara Africa and not Libya.


Obama and the Internalist victory


In either Obama or Mrs. Clinton, the discussion of Africa’s development from within traditional African values and institutions in relation to the known vexing issues of weak rule of law, undemocratic practices, unfreedoms and shaky human rights points to the rising philosophy of the Internalist School of Africa’s development. In all practical nuances, what Obama and Mrs. Clinton said has been said repeatedly before by the Internalists.


Generally wheeling around George Ayittey, a Ghanaian economist at the American University in Washington DC, the broader argument of the Internalists, against the long held Externalist School (or orthodoxy), is that Africa’s development challenges should be considered from “internal factors” just as it has been viewed from “external factors”  that argue that “nearly everything that has gone wrong in Africa is the fault of some external factor - such as the lingering effects of the slave trade, colonial legacies, Western imperialism, unjust international economic system, and even earthquakes on Jupiter! The leadership was above reproach; they could do no wrong. They were saints,” as Ayittey explains.


From here the Internalists argue that, yes Africa’s development challenges have to be viewed from external factors but it has to be seen, concurrently, from “internal factors,” too. This means “internal factors” such as civil wars, corruption, tribalism, military adventurism, unfreedoms, undemocratic practices, despotism, poor human rights, weak rule of law, and certain inhibitions within the African culture that undermines progress such as the pull him/her down syndrome, the Big Man syndrome, and witchcraft as responsible for misfortunes should be considered. This makes the Internalist philosophy, in the long run, more of a centrist doctrine, dealing at the same time with external and internal factors that challenges Africa’ progress.


Obama acknowledged the Internalists position, as a counterweight to the Externalist, when he told Ghanaian parliamentarians that “We must start from the simple premise that Africa's future is up to Africans… I say this knowing full well the tragic past that has sometimes haunted this part of the world. After all, I have the blood of Africa within me, and my family's -- (applause) -- my family's own story encompasses both the tragedies and triumphs of the larger African story… colonialism wasn't simply the creation of unnatural borders or unfair terms of trade - it was something experienced personally, day after day, year after year… But despite the progress that has been made - and there has been considerable progress in many parts of Africa -- we also know that much of that promise has yet to be fulfilled. Countries like Kenya had a per capita economy larger than South Korea's when I was born. They have badly been outpaced. Disease and conflict have ravaged parts of the African continent.”




In making the case that Africa’s prospects are in Africans hands, Obama reiterated the Ayittey paradigm of “African solutions for African problems.” The sense here is that, yes, there has been colonialism; yes, there has been slave trade, and yes, Africa is marginalized in the international trade system, but how Africa creatively uses these experiences for progress will demand, argued Obama, what Ghana is attempting to do. “Here in Ghana, you show us a face of Africa that is too often overlooked by a world that sees only tragedy or a need for charity.


The people of Ghana have worked hard to put democracy on a firmer footing, with repeated peaceful transfers of power even in the wake of closely contested elections… Now, to realize that promise, we must first recognize the fundamental truth that you have given life to in Ghana: Development depends on good governance. That is the ingredient which has been missing in far too many places, for far too long. That's the change that can unlock Africa's potential. And that is a responsibility that can only be met by Africans.”


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