Will Obama’s ‘New Model’ Work for Africa? By Niyi Akinnaso

The semiotics of President Barack Obama’s African Agenda, unveiled in his recent week-long visit to three African states (Senegal, South Africa, and Tanzania) could be analysed in three parts, namely, a trade message that included an aid package, a political message, and a cultural message. He also indirectly left an important message for Nigerian leaders.

A robust American agenda provided the context for the African Agenda. Obama did not go to Senegal, South Africa, and Tanzania just to push those countries’ development agenda; he chose them because of their political, economic, and strategic interests to the US.

Senegal, a long-running democracy since independence, recently demonstrated America’s push for democracy and the rule of law: An incumbent President was defeated and he accepted the result, thus recalling the situation in Ghana when Obama visited that country in 2009. Besides ailing Nelson Mandela’s iconic contributions to South African democracy and the model he provided for power transfer, South Africa is the largest economy in Africa, and she offers a strategic location in the Cape of Good Hope for routing American trade. With borders with the Indian Ocean and boundaries with as many as eight African countries, Tanzania offers the US a good economic and strategic hub. Above all, each of these countries has robust trade relations with the US, which Obama would like to expand for American businesses, a number of which accompanied him on the tour.

Obama also came to Africa to counter the growth and spread of Chinese trade and influence across the continent, having beaten the US to second or third place within the last five years. The Chinese trade expansion in Africa was not lost on Obama, given its occurrence under his watch, and while he was busy expanding American trade with Asia and Latin America.

Above all, Obama needed to overcome Africa’s disappointment with the minimal attention he had given to the continent so far, especially given his pedigree as the first African descendant to be President of the US. With only half a day in Ghana during his first term, he trailed his predecessors, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Whether one week in three countries is enough depends partly on the effectiveness of his message and partly on what Africa stands to gain from the recent visit.

Obama’s Trade Africa package and the messages to African leaders and youths must be assessed against the above backgrounds. Realising that power supply is critical to trade and investment opportunities, Obama makes Power Africa central to his Trade Africa project with a $7bn initiative that aims at doubling existing power supply for six African countries, namely, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria and Tanzania.

The new trade model is accompanied by a strong political message that enjoins African leaders to contribute their own quota to trade relations with other countries. Speaking in Tanzania, Obama said: “We are looking at a new model that’s based not just on aid and assistance but on trade and partnership.” The main objective of this model is to build a self-reliant Africa: “Ultimately, the goal here is for Africa to build Africa for Africans”. Obama amplified this message in South Africa: “The idea is not that Africa should be the ward of some other country. What we need is an Africa that’s building, manufacturing, creating value, inventing and then sending those products around the world and receiving products in return…If we do that, there’s no reason why Africa cannot succeed.”

Obama also wanted African leaders to build strong democratic and economic institutions, invest in education and capacity building, and deliver political goods to their citizens. Referring to Boko Haram in Nigeria, Obama argued that terrorism is more likely to emerge in countries that are not delivering for their people, and where conflicts and underlying frustrations are not adequately dealt with. Underlying this reference is a lesson for Nigerian leaders: Obama will not visit a country, despite political and economic ties, if such a country continues to wallow in poor governance, corruption, and insecurity.

He also had a message for African youths, using Mandela’s life struggle against apartheid as a guidepost: “There will be time to test your faith, but no matter how old you grow, I say … don’t lose those qualities of youth: your imagination, your optimism, your idealism, ’cause the future of this continent is in your hands, and if you keep your head pointed toward the sun, and you keep your feet moving forward, I promise you will have no better friend and partner than the United States of America.”

The rhetoric and substance of Obama’s message to African leaders and youths were not unexpected. Unfortunately, however, they may not bring about the kind of change and “progress” that Obama envisaged. African leaders and the political class have developed a political culture that privileges identity politics and puts self-interest over public interest. The result is a cut-throat competition for power; tenacious hold on power, once attained; and unprecedented corruption. Once in power, they cultivate an opulent lifestyle that belies their pedigree and defies reality.

Of course, there are a few exceptions to the rule, but they are few and far between. Those exceptions happened to be the focus of Obama’s visit. His message might resonate with them but not with the vast majority of African leaders who play by a different rule. These are leaders who misappropriate taxpayers’ money as well as aid and loans to their countries, thus stifling education, health care, and infrastructural development.

These leaders have infected the youths with corrupt practices and distorted social values. Rapid deindustrialisation and the concomitant closure of manufacturing industries and small businesses have wiped out potential employers of labour. In a country like Nigeria, where failing educational institutions produce half-baked graduates, most of whom are unemployed or unemployable, the youths have taken to various vices within and outside the educational institutions, including cultism, prostitution, human trafficking, fraud, kidnapping, armed robbery, and terrorism.

Any sermon to African leaders about trade and investment must address the political culture within which they operate. They have to change their attitude about electoral politics and about power and governance. They must learn to respect their country’s constitution, the judiciary, and the rule of law. And they must learn to put public interest over self-interest. These changes may require disincentives for public office, such as caps on salaries and allowances and part-time jobs in the legislative houses.

Obama should have stopped with his trade and political messages. But he went on to deliver a cultural message about gay rights. To Obama, of course, it might have been a political message about equal rights, having been emboldened by a recent Supreme Court ruling in his country that threw out a restrictive definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman. However, to African leaders, the cultural attitude to gay and lesbian sexual orientation overrides the issue of rights and social justice. Hence, President Macky Sall of Senegal, a predominantly Muslim country, was emphatic in his response to Obama: Senegal is a “tolerant” country, he said. But it was “not ready to decriminalise homosexuality”.

Whatever Obama lost in his cultural message, he gained in historical lessons, when he visited Senegal’s Goree Island, the centre of Atlantic slave trade, and Robben Island, the apartheid-era prison in South Africa, where Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years in prison. Only time will tell whether Obama will make similar gains with his trade and political messages.

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