The 'change we need'? Obama in Ghana
2009-07-09, Issue 441
As US President Barack Obama heads to Accra, Ghana, this week, Charles Abugre hopes a new 'wind for change' is blowing. Coming from a 'son of Africa' held with pride and esteem by Africans across the continent, Obama's speech will have major influence on the way the world regards Africa. For all the anticipated talk about 'good governance' and 'democracy', Abugre stresses, the US president should first acknowledge his country's historical role in undermining African countries' stability and progress. If Obama is to spark a new beginning in US–Africa relations based on genuinely mutual interests and respect, he must actively allay fears around US militarisation and seek to review US economic relations with the continent. Through building trust and commending Ghana's democratic successes, who better, asks Abugre, to understand the wind of change than Barack Obama?
That there is a carnival spirit in Accra, Ghana, ahead of Barack Obama’s visit to this small West African country is to be expected. I recall the excitement on the streets of Accra in October 1994, when Minister Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam led 2,000 blacks from America to Accra for the Nation of Islam's first International Saviours’ Day. Crowds poured out on the streets to greet them. He came to preach awakening and redemption. In March 1998, amidst low approval ratings and sex scandals, the Clintons took Accra by storm. Bill Clinton was mobbed – much like a rock star – and later draped in colourful Ghanaian kente. He preached hope for Africa, offered aid but also apologised for America's standing by as hundreds of thousands were slaughtered in the Rwandan genocide. A decade later, President George W. Bush, suffering the lowest approval rating of any US president and the villain of an illegal and murderous war in Iraq, rolled into town. He was received as a hero, a saviour of Africa from diseases. He danced and was fettered. He preached freedom and democracy and promised to increase aid for HIV/AIDS and malaria, whilst denying an aggressive American agenda to militarise the continent in order to secure strategic access to petroleum resources.
So what is new about Obama’s visit? The trip to Ghana will be his second trip to Africa in a month, only seven months into his presidency. He went first to Cairo, Egypt, early in June. This is a record and signifies that Africa is more than of passing interest. Second, there has never been an American president with roots in Africa, making his visit something of a homecoming, whether he sees it that way or not. Being a 'son of Africa' carries more meaning to Africans – not least pride, dignity and hope – than anything he might say or do. Yet the significance of what he says about Africa on this trip will carry significantly more meaning for this same reason. Third, Obama means more to the world than a mere US politician. He has become a brand, for which, like all brands, there is a massive contestation of the values and meanings underpinning it. He means hope, a 'wind of change', the triumph of common humanity, equality of peoples and cultures and many more. But he also means pragmatism, a manifestation of American power, responsibility and interests.
President Obama is scheduled to make a major speech in Ghana. He will address Africans through a Ghanaian audience. What he says will influence the way the world sees Africa and Africa’s place in the world. What he says will reveal his attitude towards a continent much preached to and done to, and whose history is often discarded. He will address the Ghanaian parliament and by extension African lawmakers. He will visit the slaveholding castles in the west of Ghana, and by that act, reach out to the history of slavery, the civil rights movement and the history of colonisation that followed slavery.
What will be a good speech for Africa which breaks from the paternalism of his predecessors and yet lays grounds for America’s better interests based on Africa’s progress? First, there should be an acknowledgement of history – how the current is shaped by the past. His Cairo speech, believed to be directed largely at the 'Muslim' world, is an excellent parallel. There he acknowledged that today’s realities are rooted in centuries of coexistence as well as in conflicts and wars. A new beginning will need to acknowledge this history and be built on mutual respect, mutual interest and mutual listening. He talked about what Islamic culture had given to the world – timeless poetry, cherished music, elegant calligraphy, for example. He talked about the unbreakable bond with Israel because it is based on cultural and historical ties. He acknowledged America’s wrongs against Iran, especially the role the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) played in the overthrow of a democratically elected government.
The parallels with Africa are stark. Nowhere else can one better acknowledge humanity’s collective debt in relation to culture, music and calligraphy (at least in the case of Ethiopia), multiculturalism and the history of the coexistence of diverse cultures than Africa. If anyone will acknowledge what Africa offers to the rest of the world other than mineral resources, it has to be a 'son of Africa'. It will be good to hear that Africa doesn’t only export poverty and conflict. There is much more in the history between Africa and America to make the bonds 'unbreakable'.
Obama’s visit to Ghana coincides with the 100th anniversary of the birth of its founding father Kwame Nkrumah. He will be arriving at an airport built by Nkrumah, speaking in a parliament building constructed by Nkrumah and enjoying electricity which is the product of Nkrumah’s investments. All these projects were once touted in the West as 'white elephants', including the expansion of the port, harbours and trunk roads. He will be speaking to an educated elite, most of whom will have had their foundations in Nkrumah’s relentless investments in education. When he lauds Ghana’s relative peace, he will be minded to note that this has its roots in the pursuit of equitable development strategies of the 1960s that have spread opportunities to all ethnic groups. That the state means something to Ghanaians – well worth risking to promote democratic governance – is rooted in a culture of essential service provisioning by the state, began in the 1960s.
When Obama reflects on these he may be minded to apologise for the CIA’s role in overthrowing the democratically elected government of Kwame Nkrumah to satisfy Cold War strategic interests. In doing so, he may also be minded to extend this apology for the role the CIA played in Patrice Lumumba's removal from power and the resulting mess that is today’s Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Military coups in Africa – the biggest threat to democracy and good governance – were introduced by the CIA and other Western intelligence. Not to acknowledge that in a speech focused on good governance is to trivialise Africa’s history of struggle for democracy. A good son of Africa couldn’t possibly do that.
In his focus on good governance, President Obama may be minded to note that the experience that Africans have of the military is not of protectors but of instruments of destructive interests – whether these are domestic or foreign. Militarisation portends interference in democratic processes. The experience of foreign military build-ups portend external intervention to prop up dictators, or mess up the electoral process, for the protection of strategic foreign interests. If Obama is serious about democratic and accountable governance taking root in Africa, he will be minded to dispel the fear (and the rumour) that the United States is actively militarising the Gulf of Guinea through increased in the activities of US naval forces. He should signal loud and clear that he respects the African Union’s reluctance to extend the US military footprint in Africa, whether by providing landing facilities or hosting an AFRICOM (United States African Command) facility. He should dispel the rumour circulating in Ghana, when he speaks to the Ghanaian parliament, to the effect that Ghana’s former president John Kufuor had done a deal allowing US forces on Ghanaian soil.
Democracy and good governance are hard to sustain in a peaceful atmosphere when the mass of the population do not have an education and jobs – the latter being a source of taxation to sustain the institutions of democracy. When public institutions are funded either by foreign aid or indirectly by foreign companies, rather than the tax system, government accountability tends to de facto be externally focused. Not all types of jobs are conducive to democracy. Jobs that are concentrated in rural primary production tend not to produce the critical mass of activism and awareness necessary to hold governments to account, compared with jobs in manufacturing and value-added services. The value-added production of goods and services as well as taxation, in my view, are the most potent instruments for democratisation. This is the sense in which one cannot separate the economy from democracy.
Obama's speech could helpfully draw on these parallels. More than that, he can do something about it in two main ways: by extending his crusade against tax-dodging in Africa and reviewing current US economic relations with Africa. The issue of taxation applies to the capacity to collect tax, the sharing of natural-resource rents between Africans and foreign mining companies – many of which are American or trade on US stock markets – and tax-dodging through the use of tax havens. It will be wonderful if Obama were to call upon the Newmonts of this world and other multinational companies to publish their accounts on a country-by-country basis, including the profits they make and how the profit is shared or reinvested. It will be sufficient even to note the harmful nature of tax-dodging by multinational companies. Similarly, it will be helpful if Obama were to state that in accordance with the UN Convention on Corruption, the United States will prosecute American or African companies or individuals operating in American markets who are suspected of bribery, tax-evasion or aggressive tax-avoidance. This will send a wonderful deterrence signal. Addressing the tax problem can put no less than US$50 billion into the African economy annually.
An associated issue of resource outflow is the renewed debt problem. The limited debt relief delivered by the multilateral debt relief initiative has been all but reversed by the combined effects of the food and financial crisis. Two things need to happen. Obama should support the UN's call for a debt servicing moratorium using the US bankruptcy legislation as a guide. This is only fair and will signify that Obama is listening to the UN when it comes to economic matters. Secondly, there is a crying need for a structural solution. This should be in the form of an independent debt-arbitration panel operating under the auspices of the UN to mediate between debtors and creditors, rather the current system in which debtors are totally at the mercy of creditors. This is not only fair, but it is also necessary for a stable international system benefitting rich and poor alike.
In relation to value-added production, Obama is already one step in the right direction by pushing for agricultural productivity to be up on the international agenda. But first a few cautions. A focus on agricultural productivity should not become a cover for foreign private companies to grab land or impose expensive, input-intensive methods in the name of modernisation. The issue of land-grabbing is particularly worrying. A recent study by the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation) of five African countries, including Ghana, showed that 2.5 million hectares of land of sizes exceeding 1,000 hectares has been acquired, all in the name of promoting foreign direct investment. Single acquisitions have been as large as 450,000 hectares (Madagascar) and 400,000 (Ghana), most of which has been directed at biofuel production. Total investment commitments for land acquisitions of over 1,000 hectares exceed US$1 billion to date. The myth that Africa is a continent of abundant land with no claimants is dangerous for both future peace and social equity.
On a more positive note, Obama has an opportunity in the form of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) and the Millennium Challenge fund to demonstrate his support for a focus on productivity. To do so however will require a radical review of both instruments. As they currently stand, they achieve the opposite goals. The eligibility criteria discourages and undermines Africa’s capacity to produce by imposing US intellectual property, imposing privatisation and insisting as a precondition that governments are not directly engaged in economic activities. It also discourages them from using industrial policies to move out of commodity dependence and by using technical assistance as a means to cajole governments to implement trade liberalisation policies which directly undermine the goal of diversifying their economies. The view that liberalisation-at-all-costs is good for the economy has now been shown to be false. This is even more so with African countries. If Obama really does mean to promote value-added production in Africa he should indicate that the era of the extremes of economic ideology is over, that Africans are unlikely to ever break out of primary commodity production and joblessness without an active but balanced role of the state in investments, manufacturing and in enhancing their share of the value chain.
Such a strategy already exists in Africa. In 2004, the African Union, the African Ministers of Industry, and NEPAD (New Partnership for Africa's Development) adopted an African Productivity Capacity Initiative (ACPI) aimed precisely at a wise use of industrial policy and public–private investments aimed at value-added production. Such a strategy cannot succeed without targeted and time-bound infant industry protection, including more pragmatic use of trade policy. Obama should indicate support for such approaches and align his strategy for agriculture with this African-driven initiative. Such a support, even with modest financial means, will be invaluable politically and in terms of policy space. He should indicate to the IMF (International Monetary Fund) and the World Bank that the neoliberal development model they work with is rendered out-of-date by the global poverty, financial and trading crisis.
Obama must continue to emphasise the personal responsibility of African leaders and African people. He should ask them to do more with what they have, mobilise more resources from within, stamp out corruption and live less lavishly. He should commend Professor John Atta Mills for the small size of his motorcade and for not moving into the ridiculously luxurious new presidential palace built with huge loans (as people hungered). He should remind African and all other parliamentarians that they do not have a right to a standard of living several times the average of their populations. He should discourage African politicians from being businessmen – a clear root to conflicts of interest and corruption. He should remind them that the only way to measure their worth to their citizens is the extent to which citizens have jobs and access to healthcare, education, water and personal protection.
Above all he should remind himself and us all that the wind of change that began in Accra in 1957 and swept across the African continent only to be suppressed for several decades may well be on the rise again. Who better to understand this than Barrack Hussein Obama.