The challenge of democracy – Can Obama deliver on his promise to Africa?
On Friday 10th July 2009 and Saturday 11th July 2009, the whole world had its eyes trained on Ghana. Everyone wanted to hear what this son of Africa who had become leader of the whole world was going to say to help solve some of the chronic problems facing the continent.
Obama exceeded all my expectations and gave a speech that only he could give; he had an excellent grasp of the issues and it was clear that although he was critical of our African leaders, there was an implied promise that he would help to make things better. He also excelled in trying to go beyond the leaders to talk to the youth.
This was clearly a speech that had been written for the leaders as well as for the masses but in the event, we are told that weather conditions did not permit him to address the masses, though some believe that it was more for security considerations; so he had to ask the leaders to take the message to the youth. I was disappointed in the choice of the venue. I had expected that what I still call the Black Star Square should have been used so that there would have been more opportunity for the youth to hear him speak. The lighting was poor and the video feed was atrocious, Ghana could have spent a little bit more money to have got that right. This was an occasion when we should have been truly in the spotlight so to speak, but we failed. This is the same country that could spend money to buy 250 cars to celebrate 50th anniversary of our independence and yet could not invest in getting the whole world to listen to the clear message of promise from Obama.
There was also little publicity in the western world about the trip. The Ghana government should have made some song and dance about the choice of Ghana and profited directly by signalling to all in the world that as Obama put it….”the 21st century will be shaped by what happens not just in Rome or Moscow or Washington, but by what happens in Accra as well.” I had expected that the government of Ghana, the Ministry of Trade and Tourism and the Ministry of Information and the Ghanaian Missions abroad would have advertised the trip widely to provide more interest. I hope that Ghana can still profit from the visit since I certainly know that Obama and America intend to benefit directly.
For America, this was an exercise to show to the world the new order, a new benign way of leading the multi-polar world through alliances and pacts with the Russian, their old adversary in the Cold War that did a lot of collateral damage to Africa, and economic leadership by standing together with the G8 nations to make the world a better place economically.
But America intends to benefit from this trip in other ways, particularly in the area of security and the leaders in Africa need to decide whether America has changed from its old bad ways of fomenting discord on the continent in pursuit of its interests. We have to critically analyse this new moment of promise to determine for ourselves, as we are encouraged by Obama to do, the issues that serve our interests better. Can we trust America on all this?
The western press was not disappointed because there was a lot in Obama's message that enabled them to write about the doom and gloom of Africa. The headlines ran 'Obama admonishes African Leaders' Africans must help themselves' 'colonial past need not be a barrier'. So the news reported was not about the major progress that had been made in Africa and the promise of the moment, it was not about Obama rewarding Ghana for its deepening and maturing democracy, but it was about all the negative issues that Obama sought to dispel in this new engagement with the continent. This new engagement with the continent that will not be shaped by America telling us what we must that do – this did us a lot of harm in the past – but by being allowed to develop our own brand of democracy that will be consistent with our culture and with our heritage.
Obama informed us that he expects Africa to do better, and in each of the four themes that he chose to speak on, democracy, opportunity, disease and conflict he recognised it was not entirely our fault but there it time to move on the build on what we have.
I agree with all that Obama said. I agree that development is directly linked to good governance and there are no excuses for the way our leaders have let down their nation. This is what Obama said on the theme of democracy; it rings true everywhere and resonates with all.
"First, we must support strong and sustainable democratic governments. As I said in Cairo, each nation gives life to democracy in its own way, and in line with its own traditions. But history offers a clear verdict: governments that respect the will of their own people are more prosperous, more stable and more successful than governments that do not. This is about more than holding elections; it's also about what happens between them. Repression takes many forms, and too many nations are plagued by problems that condemn their people to poverty. No country is going to create wealth if its leaders exploit the economy to enrich themselves, or police can be bought off by drug traffickers. No business wants to invest in a place where the government skims 20 percent off the top, or the head of the port authority is corrupt. 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"
Can we trust Obama and America on this? Will they accept the will of the people of Gaza for voting in Hamas, will they accept that the current Iranian government really listened to the will of the people in one of the few countries in the Middle East that even allows its people to vote at elections? Will it intervene in Honduras to restore the deposed President?
African governments have a lot to learn from the experience of Ghana. It was the same country that showed so much promise at independence only to have America and Britain intervene and usher in a raft of military dictators. The CIA and MI5 actually interfered so that we would be ruled by military dictators. Obama should have acknowledged that without the CIA inspired military coup d'état in Ghana, our democracy would have been deepened and we may have been better developed now!
So the challenge of democracy in my opinion is also about how western governments learn not to dictate that we must follow one brand of democracy and only one brand and that they must dictate which brand suits us best. In 1966, Ghana paid a price for being caught up in the Cold War, not very different from the bond of 1844 that partitioned Africa.
We hope that with the promise of democracy Obama would protect us from the malicious interference from western powers. Because behind every coup d'état that we have had in Africa there has been a western influence, support or even direct involvement and in most cases it is because the west does not agree with the terms of democracy in that country.
So Africa will keep the promise of democracy and we hope that Obama will also assure us that the west will keep its grubby hands away from Africa.
But can the West keep their promise? I doubt it! WHY! Because in the same speech that Obama put the responsibility for upholding democracy on Africans themselves, he talked about a much maligned, and rightly so, policy of joining Africa in helping to promote the security of America. This is what Obama said ….
“America has a responsibility to advance this vision, not just with words, but with support that strengthens African capacity. When there is genocide in Darfur or terrorists in Somalia, these are not simply African problems – they are global security challenges, and they demand a global response. That is why we stand ready to partner through diplomacy, technical assistance, and logistical support, and will stand behind efforts to hold war criminals accountable. And let me be clear: our Africa Command is focused not on establishing a foothold in the continent, but on confronting these common challenges to advance the security of America, Africa and the world.”
We could all hear muttering in the house……the only part of his speech that did not go down well with his listeners. Obama reverted to type. The America concerned with its own security whose interests are above all other nations and to think that this proposal was coming from the same person who during his campaign emphasised that terrorism had been imported to Iraq because the Americans went there in the first place. Will this not import terrorism to Africa?
The same Obama who has charged us with a responsibility is suggesting now that they want an African Command in Africa but not as a foothold? What do they want an African command in Africa for?
President Obama should be reminded that, there was a time that an African High Command was proposed but was scuppered by the Americans. He must be reminded that at the start of the Congo crisis Ghana raised an army to help resolve the conflict, but the Americas scuppered it. He should be reminded that when Nkrumah proposed an Africa High Command to solve regional problems, it was America that turned round to suggest that Nkrumah had raised the army to fight against his neighbours and not to keep peace. If Ghanaians as he rightly pointed out in the speech are out in Bosnia, Lebanon and all sorts of places in the world keeping peace, why do we need Americans to come and do it on our continent? This bit is not palatable and America should rethink the neo imperialist move into Africa. Because everywhere the Americans go turns in a terrorist trap and we do not want that part of America on our continent.
Obama went on to remind us of the promise of democracy that needs to be won. This is what Obama said…..
“And a young preacher named Martin Luther King traveled here, to Accra, to watch the Union Jack come down and the Ghanaian flag go up. This was before the march on Washington or the success of the civil rights movement in my country. Dr. King was asked how he felt while watching the birth of a nation. And he said: “It renews my conviction in the ultimate triumph of justice.”
Now, that triumph must be won once more, and it must be won by you”
We can only win back that triumph not through arms and African Command, we can only win that through democracy and Obama should help in the achievement of that global democracy that was stunted when Ghana and Africa were caught up in the Cold War. It is about African Unity. It is about support to deal with the ills of colonisation and neo-colonisation in a more productive way.
It is about helping us forge institutions across the whole continent that will help transform our individual countries, it is about building infrastructure in governance that can be replicated in each state in Africa, it about helping us forge economic unions that will be able to bargain on a stronger footing to reject that bit of bad aid this is sometimes forced on our leaders because individually they are in a weak bargaining position whereas if the negotiated as a block they will be stronger and more strategic.
Obama has talked a good talk, he has provided a lot of useful advice to us, we believe that he is sincere, we believe that he will help, but we ask that he allows us to continue with our brand of democracy, he must keep the military out because like the military everywhere, they initially go in to protect and they end up brutalising the people as has happened in Ireland, in Iraq and will continue to happen. I would suggest to President Obama that however he tries to sell the African Command it will still reek with imperialism!
President Obama, you stopped short of preaching to us, we liked all we heard and will make our leaders more accountable in this march of democracy, but we are asking that you support us with this African union project that was conceived long before the African Command became necessary. We are asking you to provide support for the African Union.
If you seriously want to help us with our democracy then you must help us with forging our African Union since you already know that the best solutions for the problems in Africa must come from Africans.
Then we can assure you that with the promise of this moment in Ghana, the young of Africa will rise up to the challenge of democracy. We assure you that just like all the good things on this earth has come from Africa, just as MLK drew his inspiration from this independent Ghana, our young will draw their inspiration from this moment when a son of Africa returned to the soil as the President of America.
Ade Sawyerr is in partner Equinox Consulting, a management consultancy that provides consultancy, training and research that focuses on formulating strategies for black and ethnic minority, disadvantaged and socially excluded communities. He also comments on political, economic and social, and development issues. He can be contacted by email on [email protected] or through www.equinoxconsulting.net.