Beyond the big sticks, cheque book and gunboats: An open memo to President Barack Obama on the eve of his second visit to Africa
Shortly, you and your family will board Air Force One and head to Africa, on a journey that will take you to Senegal, Tanzania and South Africa. During your first term in the White House you visited Ghana, where you made the famous ‘Africa does not need strong men, it needs strong institutions’ speech, and Egypt, before it became engulfed in the Arab spring revolutionary fervor.
In a sense, you return to the same huge land mass (30.22 sq. km) comprising of 54 countries and a combined diverse population of 1.033 billion. It is the same Africa considered by many as the cradle of humankind, and one that has lured fortune hunters, be they slave traders, colonialists, vicious spies during the Cold War, or modern day states and corporate types in search of business and natural resources.
Being a good student of history, you are familiar with Africa’s contending narratives. Our continent falls perfectly within the ‘glass half-full or half-empty’ analogy. Of late, many among Africa’s ruling elite and the international community have amplified their voices; selling the idea that Africa is on the ascendancy, destined to become a powerhouse within the next few decades. To them, the glass is half-full. On the other hand, there are those who point to Africa’s sore spots and open wounds: poverty, HIV/AIDS, illiteracy, poor infrastructure, poor governance, human rights abuses, violent
conflicts and terrorism, failed or failing states, and environmental degradation. To these folks, Africa is your typical half-empty glass.
Between these two extremes of optimism and pessimism lies the true condition of the African people, which you are invited to seek to learn about, first and foremost. This is the world that, on behalf of the most powerful nation on planet earth, you can help overcome human suffering and shape the hopeful place of peace and prosperity that Africa desires
to become. History will, unfortunately, remind you that Africa is not particularly a place to secure a permanent positive legacy among great American Presidents.
Yet, for you, Mr. President, the stakes could not be higher, simply because of the initial high expectations that greeted your Presidency. Africans then expected, and remain hopeful, albeit with reduced expectation, that the first African-American U.S. President with a very recent African ancestry will do much more than his predecessors.
I am convinced beyond doubt that you have pondered this matter over and over again. How will you be remembered by Africans? How can this Africa visit create value for Africans and the American people?
Here is some open advice, assuming it gets past the gatekeepers at the White House and State Department to get to you:
First, be aware that the United States carries historical and current negative baggage in Africa in terms of its allies in Africa. Even as the Cold War recedes in the minds of the older generation, there is a discrepancy between what successive U.S administrations claim to be a values-driven foreign policy (freedom, democracy, human rights) and guilt by association with some of Africa’s most notorious dictators, as long as they serve ‘U.S. interests’. Without being
contrite, you may need to assure African people that the U.S will do no harm, and slowly disengage from the company of corrupt big men who usurp institutions and abuse people’s fundamental rights.
Second, the U.S should engage pro-democracy and modernizing voices among the political forces, civil society, women and youth organizations, academic institutions and communities. Out of these will emerge the new leaders and managers of Africa, just as an enabling environment allowed you to emerge as the U.S. President in 2008. The U.S. embassies in Africa should take the lead in this engagement. Historically, when these embassies are not compromised by the local ruling elite, or too involved on behalf of narrow U.S. security and economic interests, are often irrelevant because they are far removed from the ordinary lives of Africans. Instead of being a beachhead from which to deploy the whole of U.S. government and international power to make sustainable impact on the lives of Africans, and hence win their hearts and
minds, the embassy can become a theater for pitched battles among various departments and agencies. New and innovative marching orders to U.S embassies in Africa are long overdue, in terms who they serve and to what ends.
Third, be aware of revolutionary pressures that are building up within Africa’s youth bulge, the hundreds of millions of unemployed, unemployable, and often uneducated young men and women. Extremist ideologies and religious fanatics
find fertile ground among the marginalized. Of late, if your embassies and intelligence analysts are telling you (or know) the truth, there is a growing anti-American, anti-West, sentiment that is both concealed and open. The much publicized economic growth in Africa in recent years, largely from natural resources, hardly reaches the poor. The international community, United States included, does not significantly help willing countries to invest in higher education or
small and medium enterprises to create jobs and a motive to hope for the future among the jobless youth. You may wish to announce two bold and inter-related initiatives for higher education (especially in science, technology, innovation
and entrepreneurship) and, small and medium enterprises (SMEs), and mobilize the whole international community (UN, World Bank, EU, AU, Regional Trading Blocs, Bilateral organizations and Philanthropy) towards this goal. The resources could be pooled together regionally to motivate cross-border co-operation.
Fourth, invest in holistic women and children health at the community level, with HIV/AIDS, TB and Malaria integrated at this level, with a bias towards prevention. This year alone, over four million under-fives will die in Africa due to preventable conditions. It is estimated that in the same period more than a quarter of a million mothers in Africa will die during delivery. Africa’s future is bleak without putting women and children at the centre of the development and foreign policy agenda. Mrs. Michelle Obama and your daughters will be disheartened to learn about this unacceptable high death toll among Africa’s women and children.
Fifth, to help end and prevent conflicts in Africa, encourage, champion and support negotiations, accommodation and consensus-building, In particular, in the Great Lakes region of Africa, support Tanzania and the SADC initiative which calls on Rwanda, DRC and Uganda to hold talks with their armed and political opposition. Fortunately, your visit takes place a time when the United States is poised to talk to the Taliban. One makes peace with enemies. As the world holds its
breath during the recovery of Nelson Mandela, a legendary icon with a large African heart, bring it to the attention of Africa’s big men in the Great Lakes region that Africa is much better off when Africans talk to their fellow Africans, in the interest of African people.
Sixth, reign on your national security team. The hawks among them will insist that there is a red threat (China) looming over Africa, which must be contained or neutralized. Furthermore, these hawks argue, it is U.S. security and economic
interests that should take precedence over anything else, even if this means baby-sitting some of Africa’s most dangerous big men. The idealists in your team would love to re-invent Africa in a U.S. image. Both pathways are not only
undesirable but also unachievable and dangerous. Africa needs China, the United States and the rest of the world for mutual advantage. U.S, China and the rest of the world need Africa for the same reasons. The premium is on healthy
competition and co-operation.
Seventh, be aware of the rising tide of two world religions, Islam and Christianity, on the African continent. From the north to the south, east to the west, the ordinary people in every African country have generally lived together peacefully for centuries, as your 2009 speech in Cairo articulated. Both Islam and Christianity have largely been forces for good, and together they make Africa what it is and stronger. Everything must be done to prevent anything that would
put Muslims and Christians on a collision path, re-enacting the jihads and inquisitions of the past. Engagement and accommodation, rather than prejudice and isolation, should be the American way of navigating the ultra-sensitive
terrain of faith, in order to harness the most synergies for U.S. and Africa’s interests.
To summarize, Mr. President, as you travel around Africa, use your big stick, cheque book and the threat of America’s gunboats as arrows in your quiver, to be used wisely. If you have to promise a cheque, let it be to support Africa’s youth in education, small and medium enterprises, and women and children health. Disengage the U.S. from the cozy relationship with Africa’s big men, and engage to help create conditions for authentic pro-democracy African leaders to emerge. Tame the ambition and temptation for the U.S. to over-promise and over-reach, in search for enemies to contain or destroy, or in the hope of creating an Africa that is a replica of the United States. Promote negotiated and peaceful settlements, and reach out to the Mosques and Churches to promote inter-faith dialogue and co-operation.
Ultimately, it is out of the challenges and opportunities of today that Africans themselves must curve out the peaceful and prosperous Africa of tomorrow.
I wish you, your family, and the U.S. delegation a safe trip as you rediscover the magic of Africa.
Dr. Theogene Rudasingwa
Dr. Theogene Rudasingwa is a former Ambassador of Rwanda to the United States, and the author of Healing A Nation: A Testimony: Waging and Winning A Peaceful Revolution to Unite and Heal A Broken Rwanda