A few days ago, Barack Obama made a speech in Ghana, a West African country. It was well anticipated, as he's the first US president to actually have African ancestry - his father being Kenyan.
Speaking about the problems facing Africans, he said;
"It is easy to point fingers, and to pin the blame for these problems on others. Yes, a colonial map that made little sense bred conflict, and the West has often approached Africa as a patron, rather than a partner. But the West is not responsible for the destruction of the Zimbabwean economy over the last decade, or wars in which children are enlisted as combatants."
Every one of these statements was a lie.
The fact is, the West is largely responsible for the destruction of the Zimbabwean economy over the last decade, along with many other African economies, both in the recent past, and right now, as i type. The USA has benefited from proxy armies that use child soldiers, and has been responsible for wars in which children are enlisted as combatants.
The West, and the US, have actively supported dictators, genocidal maniacs, and systems such as South Africa's apartheid. And their role is not limited to the distant past, to some forgotten era of "colonialism". Colonialism exists right now, sponsored by the USA under Barack Obama just as it was under all of his predecessors.
Obama says "the West has often approached Africa as a patron, rather than a partner". He invokes the idea of our attempts to dictate African progress. "Patron" hardly captures it. "Bloodthirsty murderer" might be more apt. As others are pointing out (e.g.: "Acknowledge America's Role in African Affairs", "Taking Responsibility Begins At Home", "Obama in Ghana: The Speech He Might Have Made"), Obama's language, and the pathetically inadequate grasp of African history that he endorsed in his Ghana speech amount to a whitewashing of history - and worse, a whitewashing of the present.
What Obama is really invoking is a racist myth that Africans have been the cause of their own troubles through their failures to realise their own potential. He reminds one of the black American stereotype of a welfare-dependant people blaming whites for supposedly self-inflicted failures to 'pull themselves up by their bootstraps.'
In Africa, as in America, this is a racist lie. Africans have tried time and time again to improve their conditions, and every single time they get slapped down by men like Barack Obama. Sometimes they succeed, only to be confronted with relentless campaigns - from men exactly like Barack Obama - to turn their successes into Pyrrhic victories.
Obama's lies do illuminate one thing; they prove to us once again that his skin colour is the only thing that differentiates him from past US presidents, and perhaps it's the only good thing about him at all, in what it (supposedly) says about race in America. As John Pilger said in Melbourne a couple of months ago, he may be black, but he's just an American president.
"[T]he West is not responsible for the destruction of the Zimbabwean economy over the last decade"
Since Obama lied so explicitly about Zimbabwe, let's begin there.
At the moment, Zimbabweans are running a shared parliament, which includes both Robert Mugabe and his political opponent Morgan Tsvangirai. For a long time, right-wing ruler Robert Mugabe held onto power there, and in recent years we've come to know him as the brutal man that he is, responsible for the torture and persecution of political dissidents. But the West didn't make any noises about Mugabe until he began a program of nationalisation of industry and land redistribution - taking land from settler descendants and giving it to the landless black Zimbabweans who their ancestors stole it from. These programs made him immensely popular in Zimbabwe, but these are the reasons he has come to be known as a "dictator" in the West.
Nationalisation, in particular, is an economic policy that places industries into public hands, ensuring that the profit from certain industries goes directly into the countries budget. In Africa, much of the profit from industries such as mining flows into transnational corporations (like DeBeers - who still control most of the diamond trade, and are wholly responsible for more death and misery than a person can reasonably contemplate). Some countries, such as Namibia (where i'll be going in a few months!), have been able to wrest some control back from these industries -diamond mines there are part-owned by the state, part by DeBeers, but the transnationals still control the decision-making regarding such resources, and still extract profits that, by all rights, belong to Africans.
So nationalisation is a pretty clear policy of taking Africa's wealth and channeling it toward the people, rather than continuing to let it bleed-out overseas to rich Westerners - exactly what Obama claims to advocate. Land seizures were badly handled in Zimbabwe - they were characterised by unnecessary violence and a lack of compensation for the displaced land-holders, but the fact is, they involve a redistribution of wealth to black Africans that, again, is exactly what Obama claims to call for. Exactly what he claims is missing in Africa. And exactly why so many Zimbabweans support Mugabe despite his brutality.
For the crime of nationalisation and land redistribution, the USA and Britain led the call from the West - which Obama claims "is not responsible for the destruction of the Zimbabwean economy over the last decade" - for sanctions against Mugabe. Sanctions deliberately designed to "destroy the Zimbabwean economy" (much like the assault on Iraq's economy, ten years earlier). Mugabe went, in Western newspapers, from being a tolerable and fairly right-minded African leader to a being a hideous dictator (much like Saddam Hussein, twenty years earlier).
Coupled with a drought and the mismanagement of seized farms (although there is some disagreement on the degree to which farm mismanagement affected the problem), these sanctions had exactly the desired effect - mass starvation leading to political instability.
And now, Western comedians routinely poke fun at the ridiculous "One Hundred Trillion Dollar Notes" printed by the Zimbabwean government as their economy slid into hyper-inflation and a massive food crisis. Pretty funny!
(Further reading: "Why I Refuse To Condemn Mugabe" by Adolf Mkenda.)
Democratic Republic of the Congo (D.R. Congo)
"[A] colonial map that made little sense bred conflict".
Sure, to some extent.
But for the most part, Obama, men like you knowingly bred conflict. Sorry, not just "bred" conflict, breed conflict. Present tense. Not just in some distant, dusty past, involving poorly drawn territorial maps and inappropriate tribal resettlement.
While sanctions are fine against leaders who try to redirect Africa's wealth through land redistribution and nationalisation, Western countries (and transnational companies) are perfectly happy trading with corrupt administrators who redirect wealth from their people, and funding violent militias, and systematically fuelling pre-existing ethnic conflicts, to keep the average African person from trying to seize any part of that wealth.
(Congolese activists at Federation Square, in Melbourne)
The standard myth about the Congo is that it's an inherently unstable nation. That ethnic violence and inappropriate borders are solely responsible for 'breeding conflict'. This is a lie, as explained by Ali M. Malau in "Congo: We Should Be Africa's Brazil". Western companies extract resources from the Congo - using local proxy armies to police these operations and smack down any discontent. They then reap the mass of the profits from those resources, paying off corrupt governments to keep them on the West's side. The people of the Congo see almost none of this incredible wealth. Even the people actually carrying out the extraction - the miners - don't get much benefit from it. They work under hideous conditions, and virtually nothing is reinvested in local communities. The wealth travels overseas. To us.
This isn't "historical colonialism". This is modern transnational colonialism, and it is happening right now.
Contrary to many of Obama's public statements on Africa to date, the USA plays a key role, leading other Western nations in a systematic effort to keep the Congolese government as weak as possible, to head off attempts at nationalising the Congo's resources for the good of its people. Ken Anderson wrote in Imperial Clash on the Congo Front that Laurent Nkunda, a Rwandan army officer who had ties to the US-backed regime in Rwanda, was embarking on yet another proxy war in the east of D.R. Congo which, according to the Wall Street Journal, was leaving Congolese politicians "preoccupied by the recent fighting and humanitarian crisis ... near Congo's eastern border with Rwanda."
Since then, the Rwandan government has joined forces with the Congolese government in taking the unprecedented move of pursuing the homicidal Nkunda and placing him under arrest. This comes as a direct result of unwanted attention being paid to Rwanda's support for Nkunda, and, particularly, Britain's ongoing support for the authoritarian regime in Rwanda (see DRC: The Future Has Come And Gone by Lansana Gberie). Why? Read on...
Rwanda and Uganda
"...or wars in which children are enlisted as combatants"
The Third World Traveler website, in Rwanda's Secret War: US-backed destabilization of Central Africa, describes a history of political and military manipulations of Rwanda. The United Nations Security Council recognized in December last year (a month before Nkunda's fresh assault on D.R. Congo) that Rwanda was responsible for Nkunda's destabilization efforts in D.R. Congo - Final Report of the Group of Experts on the Democratic Republic of the Congo. What it doesn't clarify is what many have known for a long time (see Friends of the Congo blogpost "U.S.-British Ally Fuels Conflict in Congo", and other links provided above) - Rwanda's authoritarian military regime, led by U.S. ally Paul Kagame, is backed by the United States, among other Western countries. And it is backed in its pillaging of the neighbouring Congo, under the cover of the same 'ethnic tensions' that leaders like Obama continually trot out as explanations for central Africa's conflicts. Britain's threat to withdraw support from Kagame's regime forced Kagame to go after Nkunda; this could have happened at any time in the past decade, and saved the Congolese a lot of grief. It didn't until now, because D.R. Congo's grief leads to a great deal of benefit for the West.
Another violent African ruler supported by the US is Museveni in Uganda. One of the reasons the international community pays any attention at all to child soldiers in Uganda is that they are employed by the Lords Resistance Army, an anti-government militia opposing Museveni. Similar outrage accompanies news of the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka employing child soldiers - they are an official Western enemy; atrocities by the Sri Lankan government don't get the same coverage - just meek comments from the West which the genocidal Sri Lankan government knows it can safely ignore. Similarly in Africa, as soon as you look at child soldiers in non-dissident forces, leaders like Obama start to get bored.
Both Kagame's Rwanda and Museveni's Uganda have recruited child soldiers. Many of the factions in the region - some say all of them - use child soldiers. When Obama stated that the West was not responsible for child soldiers, or the "wars in which" they are used, he was outright lying. The U.S. is both responsible for fueling the conflict and creating the wars in the first place, and for funding and supporting the proxy armies that have fought on their behalf - who have used child soldiers.
"[T]the change which can unlock African potential [...] is a responsibility which must be met by Africans. ... Africa's future is up to Africa."
Obama's entire speech was geared toward the concept of African responsibility for African problems. But no U.S. administration - not even Obama's - has ever shown any interest in Africa's future being "up to Africa".
This is perhaps one of the most offensive, degrading aspects of Obama's 'pull yourselves up by your bootstraps' speech.
Contrary to the mythology that Obama invokes, Africans are not intellectually or spiritually inferior to Westerners. Their leaders are no more inherently corrupt than Western leaders (though Western leaders can be awesomely corrupt). They are quite capable of fighting for their rights. They are quite capable of attempting to seize their own future, their own destiny. They have fought for such things over, and over, and over, and over again throughout their history. The only reason they don't control their own future right now is the massive firepower arrayed against them - often literally. Surely we all remember that the ANC - Nelson Mandela's revolutionary group in apartheid South Africa - was classified as a terrorist organisation by the USA, and treated accordingly?
Even when Western powers accepted black rulers in African countries, only a certain kind of black ruler - right-wing, capitalist, and corrupt - would do. Patrice Lumumba was a Congolese leader in the early 60s, who spoke about using his countries wealth to create social programs for Congolese. He was assassinated. The US was jubilant. D.R. Congo was quickly placed under the control of Mobutu Sese Seko, a dictator who ruled the country for three decades and oversaw mass impoverishment and the development of countless unnecessary conflicts. And I've already mentioned what happened to Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe when he tried to "unlock African potential".
Black access to democracy in South Africa was eventually tolerated by Western countries - so long as those blacks in power bought in (and sold out) to a right-wing, poverty-generating economic system. Even something as radical as land reform was incorporated into a conservative economic structure: the World Bank fought for a "willing buyer, willing seller" model of land redistribution, the effect being that more than two decades after apartheid, almost none of South Africa's land (5%) has been redistributed to black South African interests.
And there is a debt burden placed on African nations, where the debt is often one incurred by former governments that the people living there never wanted. This helps to maintain poverty in Africa no matter who is in charge. Black South Africans, for example, are expected to bear some of the burden for paying off loans incurred by the racist, apartheid South African government. Just contemplate the absurdity of this situation for a moment. Such debts are illegal. They are known as 'odious debts', and Western powers such as the USA still demand that nations pay them off, law be damned. Add to the equation the fact that most of these nations have been bleeding wealth (often via precious minerals) overseas to the West, and the entire situation becomes even more ludicrous.
Local control and sovereignty in Africa is only tolerated when African leaders do what the West tells them to do. Nowadays, an international system exists specifically to advise governments to follow right-wing policies beneficial to the West, geared towards the continued extraction of resources from Africa, and the continued denial of the proceeds from those resources to the people who live there.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) is a Western-backed fund that grants money to countries that need it. But those seeking loans from the IMF are forced to accept their policy prescriptions as well, by the conditions of the loan. It's not enough to pay the loans off over time, like a loan you might get from a bank: loan-seekers at the IMF have to swallow their conservative ideology too (see the article Structural Adjustment Programs at http://www.whirledbank.org). They demand strict adherence to an economic "structural adjustment program", which seeks to eliminate socialistic policies from a nation's economy. This means cutting back social programs, lowering taxes, removing protections for workers and freezing wage rises, privatising public assets, and 'opening up' a country's economy to 'globalisation' (making it easier for transnational corporations to set up sweatshops and avoid genuine investment in any country in which they operate). These are generally unpopular policies, difficult for democratic governments to enforce without some degree of conflict - and for good reason. Many have documented the fact that these economic constraints work against the interests of a country's people, especially it's poorer people (e.g.// Bad Samaritans by Ha-Joon Chang, No Logo and The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein)**.
Initiatives such as the IMF's are decided on by the leaders of the wealthiest nations in the world, the G8. They meet every now and then, and dictate - without even a pretense of democracy - what should happen to the world's economy. Invariably, they decide on policies that benefit transnational corporations and their own countries economies, at the expense of everybody else. Obama attended the most recent G8 meeting, and should know as well as anyone else there that Africa's future was most certainly not "up to Africa."
And there are other ways in which international law has been dominated by un-elected Western officials who propose and then manipulate international agreements for the benefit of Western corporations (for example, see the book Where Is Uhuru? by Issa G. Shivji). Third World Countries are expected to simply fall into line with these developments, or they face "the sanction of retaliatory measures which, needless to say, only the strong can take against the weak." (Shivji)
"Yes we can!"
But he won't.
Barack Obama gave a speech in Africa that was very carefully worded, very carefully designed to spread borderline-racist myths about Africans - that they have failed to properly take control of their own destiny, that their complaints against the West are somehow outdated.
His line did not deviate from the rhetoric of George W. Bush, and, like everything that came out of that racist old bastard's mouth, Obama's comments were mostly lies. But he slipped them in there, and he presumably expected people to swallow it.
What does it mean that he feels he can lie so blatantly, so openly, so obviously about Africa? Is it simply that he is black, and expects to get away with it for that alone - expecting Americans to shy away from arguing with the son of a Kenyan about Africa?
Whatever it was that made him think he could stand up in Ghana and insult an entire continent, he's done it. The coup in Honduras, the ongoing US-supported dictatorship in Haiti, the G8 meeting decisions, the US public healthcare backflip, the war being waged against Pakistani civilians, and now the whitewashing of history and the obscuring of the present facts around Africa: this is turning out to be Obama's legacy.
Turns out "change" is just a word.
**In brief: fewer social programs and lower taxes are supposed to cut down government spending, while placing less of a 'tax burden' to discourage industrialists - but they also mean that less of the wealth harvested from working South Africans by the upper class is redistributed among lower classes. Fewer wages and work rights are supposed to make a country more attractive for businesses - but they really mean that the harvest is more effective, concentrating wealth among the already wealthy (even while that wealth is entirely generated by employees in the first place). Privatisation of assets is supposed to make them more 'efficient' - in reality, it sets up parasites on public industry to siphon money off as profit, and cuts away at services that necessarily must be run at a loss (such as public transport in Melbourne). The opening up of an economy is supposed to encourage investment - it means that money can move more easily offshore, via transnational corporations, making the wealth forever inaccessible to a government that might be inclined to redistribute it fairly. It also means that wealth-generating labour can be more easily harvested - if the unions are too strong in one country, just move your sweatshops to the next one.