Obama talks straight to Africa

Why President Obama's tough message to Africa was well-received

President Obama has issued a tough challenge to Africa, said Rwanda’s New Times. On his first visit to sub-Saharan Africa as U.S. president, Obama last week delivered “a stern message” to all Africans. Take responsibility for yourselves, he said in Ghana; stop blaming the West for all your problems, and start blaming your own corruption. “No business wants to invest in a place where the government skims 20 percent off the top,” Obama said. “No person wants to live in a society where the rule of law gives way to the rule of brutality and bribery. That is not democracy, that is tyranny—and now is the time for it to end.” Most important, this son of a Kenyan father took aim at our worst trait: tribalism. He told us to shed “the bankrupt idea that the goal of politics or business is to funnel as much of the pie as possible to one’s family, tribe, or circle, with little regard for the public good.”

Obama has personal experience with that kind of clannishness, said Rasna Warah in Kenya’s Daily Nation. When he came to Kenya as a young man, his siblings, cousins, and aunts depressed him with their stories of how they could not start businesses or get good jobs because they lacked the right connections or the money to buy them. Obama was truly upset by their plight. But he was further upset when they pestered him for money. It’s hard to feel close to your relatives when they seem to be using you. More broadly, “Obama is seeking a departure from the business-as-usual donor-recipient relationship, particularly with regard to Africa, because he knows how this relationship has distorted his own relationship with his ancestral land.” He has written of “how suffocating the demands of family ties and tribal loyalties could be, with distant cousins constantly asking for favors.”

“No white Western politician would dare” say such things, said Philippe Bernard in France’s Le Monde. But Africans not only accepted this lecture from their American hero, they applauded it. Obama “personifies the pride and the hope of revival” for Africa. His election was a boost to the “often-eroded self-confidence” of all Africans, and not just because he is a “son of Africa.” Obama is also “a symbol of an immense democratic hope for Africa itself—that an unknown politician without major ties can, to general surprise, actually be picked by the voters” in a free and fair election. The choice of Ghana, Africa’s best-functioning democracy, as the site of his speech underscored Obama’s message of hope.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

The symbolism was all very well, said Adekeye Adebajo in South Africa’s Mail & Guardian, but Africa needs more than fine words. We accept that we must do much to lift ourselves out of poverty and corruption. Yet that doesn’t mean America must do nothing. For starters, Washington “should play a greater role in annulling Africa’s $290 billion debt.” African countries will never eliminate poverty if they can’t even balance their own budgets because they owe so much interest to Western lenders. And the U.S. should also cut its immense subsidies to its own farmers, who compete unfairly with African farmers on world markets. If Obama fails to do these things, he will be just another American leader who can “feel the continent’s pain but yield no concrete benefits.”

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.