Obama team likely to shun corrupt African regimes

Sunday January 18 2009

ON TUESDAY, THE WORLD’S eyes will be focused on one man: Barack Hussein Obama. From Papua New Guinea to Portugal, people will be watching the inauguration of the 44th president of the United States.

The most unlikely candidate with the most unlikely name — a mixed race man whose father was Kenyan — will hold the world’s most powerful political office.

In Africa, songs will be sung and cows will be slaughtered in his name. Children will be named after a man who has defied all odds and shown the world that “the true strength of a nation comes not from the might of arms or the scale of wealth, but from the enduring power of ideals”.

Millions of Africans — stunted by years of exploitation and colonialism — will wear their blackness with pride.

They will finally come to understand what Obama’s white mother, Stanley Ann Durham, once told him: “To be black was to be the beneficiary of a great inheritance, a special destiny”.

Race will no longer define America, and African-Americans and black people all over the world will start to believe that anything is possible, as long as they “stay focused, stay calm, and organise”, a strategy that seems to have worked in Obama’s presidential campaign.

By winning the US presidency, Obama has broken barriers that seemed insurmountable just a few months ago.

He has demonstrated the triumph of hope (which Obama defines as “that thing inside us that insists that something better awaits us if we have the courage to reach for it”) over despair.

As Nigerian writer Reuben Abati put it, “(Obama) is a symbol of the hope for every minority person in the world who is trapped in situations of doubt and anxiety… of the belief that obstacles are, at best, challenges and that every man has within him the capacity to slaughter the dragon of doubt.”

But will the destiny of Africa change under an Obama presidency? This has been frequently asked, especially by African governments and by people involved in the development industry in Africa.

They assume that now that they have “one of their own” in the White House, aid money will flow freely to the continent, and Obama, like all African presidents, will give preferential treatment to his own people — i.e. the people of Kenya as a whole, and the Luo ethnic group in particular, especially those who live in and around his father’s village, Kogelo.

But so far, there is no indication that Obama is keen to make Africa his priority — at least not in the near future.

APART FROM A PLEDGE TO DOUBLE US foreign assistance to the continent to support “failing states” and to reduce poverty and disease, Obama has not made any other significant commitment to Africa. If anything, his policy towards Africa is likely to be less aid-focused.

Obama has consistently stated that corruption is the biggest cause of underdevelopment in the region, not lack of aid.

In the speech he delivered at the University of Nairobi in August 2006, he chided Kenyans for not creating “a government that is transparent and accountable — one that serves its people and is free of corruption”.

Obama further stated that “the struggle against corruption is one of the greatest challenges of our time” and that “while corruption is a problem we all share, here in Kenya, it is a crisis robbing an honest people of the opportunities they have fought for and deserve.”

Corrupt African governments should not expect bigger handouts from Obama’s government. If anything, they will see the donor-aid relationship come under more scrutiny as governments may be asked to be more accountable.

He is also more likely than former US presidents to understand the detrimental effects of aid on poor countries. For instance, in his book, Dreams from my Father, Obama questioned whether international aid merely “bred dependence in the Third World”.

He is likely to see poverty through the lens of human rights, rather than a misfortune that can be alleviated through charity.

Some analysts believe the US has never had a comprehensive policy towards Africa, and that this is not about to change under an Obama administration.

Besides, faced with a domestic financial crisis, the new US president’s energies will most likely be focused on dealing with an impending recession and growing unemployment.

This means that, in the short term, at least, he will work towards putting America back on its feet before he can engage meaningfully with other nations.

What African governments need to do is to clean up their act so that when the US is ready to engage with them, they are not treated as pariahs.

To paraphrase John F. Kennedy, Africans must not ask what Obama can do for them, but what they can do for themselves.

Ms Warah is an editor with the UN. The views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations.