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Understanding Obama's visit to Ghana, and US-Africa ties

Friday, July 17, 2009 | 12:29 p.m. CDT

Stuart Loory, Lee Hills Chair in Free-Press Studies, Missouri School of Journalism: President Barack Obama ended a weeklong foreign trip last weekend in Ghana, on the west coast of Africa. He received a rousing welcome; his message, however, was sobering. He told the Ghanaian Parliament that if the nations of Africa were going to raise themselves up, it would only be by doing away with oppression, corruption and otherwise undemocratic practices. Africa is a continent with more than a billion people, where there is starvation and hunger, civil wars, oppression and civil conflict. Now that Obama has returned to the U.S. to face problems of immediate concern in this country, the question is, what can and should be done in Africa to solve crisis situations there? What does Obama’s visit to Ghana mean there, as well as Africa in general?

Kwasi Gyan-Apenteng, communications consultant, former editor, West Africa magazine, Accra, Ghana: It was the most anticipated event for some years. Bill Clinton and George Bush Jr. have also visited Ghana. They both came towards the end of their presidencies; Obama has come at the beginning of his. Ghana is the first African country south of the Sahara to become independent and Obama is the first African-American president, an almost fated ordination. His speech was well received; some described it as what the thinking African already knew. Others described it as tough love. It has not been universally approved because not everybody wants to hear the truth. For example, he said an interesting sentence, “Africa does not need strong men, Africa needs strong institutions.” All over, Africa has the strong man syndrome, where a leader never goes away, wins all elections, dictates to the judiciary and represses the media. They are still there in the African Union — what are we going to do about it?

Loory: Tell us about that problem in Uganda and other countries of east Africa, and whether Obama’s speech had any impact.

Daniel Arapmoi, news and political anchor, WBS TV, Kampala, Uganda: This is the biggest problem facing Uganda, and it is a direct message to this country, where institutional building has been a problem and still continues to be. Uganda’s judiciary has cases where our courts were defeated by the military. We strongly believe that with a strong institution rather than strong men, Uganda can become a nation that people will live in peacefully. The concern for many people in Uganda is how Obama’s speech will be translated in countries that face institutional breakdown.

Loory: Did it have any impact in southern Africa and Zimbabwe?

Janine Willemans, Cape Town editor, Primedia Broadcasting, Cape Town, South Africa: Obama’s every move is closely watched, particularly in Africa and southern Africa. In South Africa, our fledgling democracy has made great strides in the past 15 years since it was installed. In the past two years, we have had issues around institutions, especially the judiciary, where just before the elections in April, our now-President Jacob Zuma was acquitted on a slew of charges. Lots of questions were asked about political interference. We had a specialized crime unit known as the Scorpions, which was dissolved by our houses of Parliament at the beginning of this year. It was replaced with a new unit, and more questions arise whether it will be as independent as the government would have us believe.

Loory: What about Zimbabwe — how is the coalition government working?

Willemans: There was a large fuss last year around negotiations to get the unity government going, which did eventually happen. Zimbabwe needs to be rebuilt. South Africa is one of the countries affected most by developments in Zimbabwe. We have three million Zimbabweans, some legal and some illegal, living and working in South Africa and crossing the border on a daily basis. Inflation numbers were off the charts for a long time, and they are hopeful that Western countries will come in and help them rebuild their country. Inflation has normalized somewhat. They have changed currencies, now using the South African rand, but there is still a very long road to recovery.

Loory: Tell us about the situation in Nigeria and whether there has been any impact by Obama’s visit to neighboring Ghana.

Ed Kashi, photojournalist, author of "Curse of the Black Gold: Fifty Years of Oil in the Niger Delta," Montclair, New Jersey: They felt slighted that he was not coming to Nigeria, and there was some implication that he didn’t feel that the government was legitimate. Nigeria reflects how a country suffers when there are not strong institutions and a lack of expectations. There is no clear way to funnel the positive energy; on top of that is the neo-colonial issue of a one-crop economy. In Nigeria’s case, it is oil. Oil all over the world is very pernicious and creates bad results for the people there, nowhere worse than in the Niger Delta. It is hard to see how things will improve without some kind of massive change, not just democratic institutions, but at the level of a ministry or company functioning without being riddled with corruption.

Loory: Do the major international oil companies have anything to do with this?

Kashi: It is the government that bears the greatest responsibility because ultimately they are the stewards of the land, people and national resources. Because everybody in that situation makes so much money, at least at the top — the oil companies and government officials — it is very hard to break this grip. They have generated over $700 billion in the 50 years that they have had oil, but there is nothing to show for it — certainly not in the Niger Delta. Africa needs to widen its industrial and economic development so they are not dependent on one or two resources. Which comes first, democracy or strong institutions, or do they come together?

Loory: What impact does the Western world have in Africa, and what should it be doing in Africa?

Jonathan Weisman, White House correspondent, Wall Street Journal, Washington, D.C.: After the Cold War ended, there was a precipitous fall in the amount of aid going to Africa. Then, the movement became debt forgiveness, then that spent its course. Under Obama, there is an effort to re-figure out how aid should flow to Africa. Africans still have an expectation that they will get assistance from the West. The Bush administration’s initiative on AIDS has had an impact, and there is an expectation that it can be widened. Instead of just dumping food onto the African market, they want to focus on rural development and livelihoods of rural farmers.

Loory: The indictment of the president of Sudan in the International Criminal Court and the question of AFRICOM, the American military unit that was set up to deal with Africa, are being repulsed by African leaders. How does the Obama administration feel about that?

Weisman: It feels the Africans are going to have to take the whole package. A strong constituency that helped elect President Obama feels strongly about the situation in Darfur. One of Obama’s few trips as a senator was to look at refugees from Western Sudan. He will not back away because the indictment of the president of Sudan is offending other leaders in Africa. He reiterated his commitment to AFRICOM while he was in Africa and said the U.S. military has to reorient itself and think differently about the continent.

Gyan-Apenteng: The indictment of President Bashir of Sudan is a huge talking point in Africa. It does look a bit curious that of the more than 3,000 complaints before the criminal court, the four indictees all come from Africa. AFRICOM is not popular at all. African leaders feel AFRICOM will get into battles that are not of their making. The Obama Administration cannot take an all-or-nothing approach. There are high expectations that this Obama government will listen and be sensitive and find a compromise.

Loory: There are two major civil wars in Africa — in Sudan and the Congo — and a lot of other fighting. What are African organizations doing to settle those conflicts?

Willemans: In the past, South Africa has been seen to be the mediator. Our incumbent Jacob Zuma, our previous president Thabo Mbeki and our previous president Nelson Mandela, all played various mediator roles in a number of conflicts on the continent. In terms of military power, the South African defense force is in dire straits, afflicted by HIV-AIDS to a large extent.

Arapmoi: The West giving Africa aid has been the biggest problem. African people looking at Barack Obama as their ultimate savior is one of the biggest mistakes that Africa is doing. Africa shouldn’t look to President Barack Obama as a solver of each and every problem. The future of Africa lies in Africans themselves.

Producers of Global Journalist are MU journalism graduate students Jared Gassen, Geoff George, and Brian Jarvis. The transcriber is Pat Kelley.

Stuart Loory, who holds the Lee Hills Chair in Free-Press Studies at the MU School of Journalism, is the moderator of the weekly radio program “Global Journalist.” It airs at 6:30 p.m. Thursdays on KBIA/91.3 FM or at globaljournalist.org.


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Comments

ahmed osman July 18, 2009 | 4:46 a.m.

If Obama wants to help Africans,is just do one thing; encourage Africans to negoiate among themselves to solve their every country's problems.Like what is happening in Sudan, he him self is not helping to solve the problem of Darfur, his envoy say something and he says totally different thing.Sudanese in majority they were very suspecious about the American role in fueling the darfur crisis,administration and groups.Double standards will not work and will not gain any respect including that comes from the Black Obama. Let The future of Africa lies in Africans themselves.

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