Richard Dowden: Fine words, but will Africa listen?

At a stroke Obama has reformed the relationship between Africa and the West

Monday 13 July 2009 00:00 BST

Only an African could have said what President Barack Obama said to Africa in Accra on Saturday. The message was simple: "Africa's future is up to Africans... the world will be what you make of it."

At a stroke he reframed the relationship between Africa and the West, reassuring his audience of Ghanaian parliamentarians and dignitaries that America would be there to support them but aiming at a post-aid Africa. He promised better targeted assistance from the US, particularly in health and agriculture to help Africa feed itself. But aid, he said, is not an end in itself. It must create conditions where it is no longer needed.

This has been said before, but as one Ghanaian remarked: "If a white foreigner tells you to clean up your mess, you treat it as an insult. If a brother tells you, you treat it as good advice."

And did he tell them: "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 government skims 20 per cent 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 – even if you sprinkle an election in it – and now is the time for it to end... Africa doesn't need strong men. It needs strong institutions."

His tough criticisms were balanced by praise for African success stories. He urged ordinary Ghanaians to rekindle the spirit that enabled Ghana to become the first Sub-Saharan African country to achieve independence. He told them to hold their government to account, conquer disease, end conflicts and force change from the bottom up. "You can do that. Yes you can," he said, adapting his own catchphrase.

The setting – and the response – was very African. More than half the Ghanaian MPs were dressed in magnificent Ashanti robes and startlingly bright Kente cloth. Many of them had come with their personal entourages complete with umbrella holders – and what umbrellas! Vast, gaudy, royal canopies hung with gold tassles and baubles. Obama arrived to a thunderous welcome of talking drums and inside the hall a huge Gospel choir wailed out "Amazing Grace" while Barack Obama stood, hand on heart.

His oration had a touch of the Mandela magic about it, sweeping from the experiences of his father and grandfather under colonial-rule Kenya, to Ghana's dam-breaking struggle for independence, to Africa's potentially glorious future. The parliamentarians hung on every word, hooting with raucous laughter at criticisms that might be direct hits on their own behaviour.

But are they taking Obama's message on board? At the end of the speech a large crowd gathered outside the hall around the bulky figure of Jerry Rawlings, the former dictator later elected president, who held an impromptu press conference. He ranted about America's past sins in Africa and the corruption of the previous government. His party is back in power since the beginning of this year and, according to many Ghanaians, so is he, though he has no formal position in government.

Rawlings still holds sway over the urban poor and they will be the main victims as the country heads into hard times having borrowed excessively on the expectation of Ghana's oil which comes on stream next year. Ghana's democracy – one of the best in Africa – will be severely tested in coming months as prices are expected to rise.

Other Ghanaians clearly did not get the aid message. One civil society leader said yesterday that many people were disappointed because he did not announce a special gift of extra aid or a cheap loan for Ghana, the customary gift of a visiting Western Big Man. Aid dependency has become a habit in many African minds.

There are, on reflection, things that Obama might also have mentioned, for example America's $31bn in subsidies for US farmers which squeeze some African farmers out of the market. And Obama, always careful to say he is American but of African parentage, leapt from colonial times to the present without mention of the US role in supporting dictators during the Cold War, an apology many Africans would like to hear.

There is also a danger that this new approach to Africa may simply become a rerun of an attempt by donors in the 1990s to "back winners" in Africa. America's Millennium Challenge Corporation which gave Ghana $547m in 2006, is based on that principle. The success stories got aid but the growing numbers of powerless, poor and hungry people in failing states did not. The problem remains what to do with badly run countries.

Many of these "failing" countries in Africa are also rich in minerals that America needs. The US already imports 15 per cent of its oil from West Africa, including profoundly undemocratic states like Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea and Angola. That percentage is expected to rise to 25 per cent in the near future. Obama made no mention of the US's own economic interests in Africa which have frequently overruled the democratic, good governance agenda which he spelled out on Saturday.

Is this going to change? In the past America could afford to leave failing states to rot since no other country in the world had an interest in them. After 9/11 the US government imagined that such places might become havens for anti-American Islamic movements. That fear seems to have been greatly exaggerated but a greater economic threat now looms. If Western countries and companies shun failing but richly endowed parts of Africa because they are dictatorships or badly run, China is more than ready to pick them up.

With $2tn to spend on its companies to buy up the world's resources, China deals with any UN-recognised government. And it deals only with governments and on a basis of non-interference. Words like civil society, participation, democratic accountability and good governance are not in China's dictionary. Despite Obama's inspiring words to Africans to demand good, accountable governance, bad African rulers now have a friend with an alternative agenda.

The writer is Director of the Royal African Society and author of 'Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles'

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