The words had never been spoken by a U.S. president: “I have the blood of Africa within me.”
President Obama’s roots as the son of a Kenyan economist and his personal journeys to the continent over the last 25 years enable him to speak authoritatively about Africa in a way none of his predecessors could. It’s no surprise that his first presidential visit to sub-Saharan Africa filled many people in the vast region with hope and pride.
But being a “son of Africa” has also raised expectations. And even as he was flooded with a warm welcome on the streets of Ghana’s capital, Accra, his much-anticipated speech to the parliament Saturday left some Africa-watchers disappointed, questioning whether Obama is committed to making the continent one of his foreign-policy priorities.
“I didn’t see anything fresh or new,” said Kenyan political columnist Barrack Muluka. “It was the same things about good-governance and responsibility that we’ve been hearing since the 1980s.”
In his speech, an oratory heavy with references to his family history, Obama called on elected leaders across the continent to clean up their governments.
Obama spoke of how his grandfather worked as a cook for the British in Kenya and, though a respected elder in his village, he was called “boy” by his employers for much of his life.
Though only a peripheral player in Kenya’s struggle for liberation from British colonialists, Obama’s grandfather was imprisoned briefly.
But, Obama said, the West is not responsible for the destruction of the Zimbabwean economy over the last decade, nor for wars in which children are pressed into combat.
“In my father’s life, it was partly tribalism and patronage in an independent Kenya that for a long stretch derailed his career,” he said, “and we know that this kind of corruption is a daily fact of life for far too many.”
The future of Africa depends not just on free elections, Obama said, but also on what happens in the interim.
“No country is going to create wealth if its leaders exploit the economy to enrich themselves, or police can be bought off by drug traffickers,” Obama said. “No business wants to invest in a place where the government skims 20% off the top, or the head of the port authority is corrupt.
“No person wants to live in a society where the rule of law gives way to the rule of brutality and bribery,” he said. “That is not democracy. That is tyranny, and now is the time for it to end.”
Though inspiring in the way it laid out long-term goals, Muluka said, Obama’s speech was short on specifics for achieving them.
“I wanted to hear about the practical and tangible things that are going to be done in the U.S. engagement with Africa,” he said. “It was just window-dressing.”
You can’t blame Africans for being skeptical. Over the decades, many Western leaders have called for reforms and promised aid, yet the continent remains caught in a cycle of poverty and chronic violence.
George W. Bush won praise early in his presidency for committing $18 billion to combat HIV/AIDS in Africa, but the region largely fell off his radar after the Iraq war was launched.
Next, British Prime Minister Tony Blair convened a blue-ribbon Commission for Africa, but recommendations it made in 2005 remain mostly unfulfilled. That year, the Group of 8 leading industrialized nations pledged $21.5 billion in additional funds for Africa, but only $7 billion has been delivered, according to One International, an advocacy group.
That might explain why Obama avoided announcing new financial pledges or bold initiatives to combat poverty or improve healthcare. Nor did he lay out specific plans for helping restore stability in conflict-prone nations such as Somalia, Sudan or the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Addressing Ghana’s parliament from a stage draped with traditional kente cloth, Obama spoke briefly of violence in those regions, and promised that the United States would support those who “stand up to inhumanity in our midst.”
“It is never justifiable to target innocents in the name of ideology,” he said. “It is the death sentence of a society to force children to kill in wars. It is the ultimate mark of criminality and cowardice to condemn women to relentless and systematic rape. We must bear witness to the value of every child in Darfur and the dignity of every woman in Congo. No faith or culture should condone the outrages against them.”
But Obama did not dwell on what he called the “crude caricature of a continent at war.”
“I would have expected Obama to speak more on Darfur, but he just mentioned it,” said Eltigani Mohammed, 36, a Darfur intellectual, referring to the conflict in western Sudan.
Former State Department official John Prendergast, founder of the Enough Project, which works to end genocide and war crimes, said Obama has not backed up his words with concrete efforts to resolve conflicts in Africa, such as brokering peace talks, pressuring armed groups and building international coalitions.
“President Obama’s soaring rhetoric on resolving conflict has yet to be matched by the kind of leadership necessary to make a dent in the unparalleled suffering in Darfur and Congo,” he said.
The 24-hour trip to Ghana was the latest in a string of foreign policy initiatives by Obama in his six months in office. In Cairo last month, he spoke about forging a “new beginning” with the Muslim world. In Moscow he worked to “reset” the frosty U.S.-Russian relationship.
For Africa, Obama is calling for a “new approach” to dealing with its democratic and economic back-sliding.
Rather than look to the rest of the world, Africans should turn inward, Obama said.
“Africa’s future is up to Africans,” he said.
That’s a departure from the prescription offered by many anti-poverty advocates, who argue that Africa’s problems -- ranging from declining agricultural productivity to rising poverty rates -- could be solved with a dramatic boost in foreign development assistance. Blair’s commission, for example, called for rich nations to spend 0.7% of their gross domestic product on aid to Africa.
Rami Hayesh, an education consultant who watched the speech at the University of Nairobi in Kenya, agreed that it was time for Africans to stop blaming, or depending on, the West.
“African leaders should start looking at themselves,” he said. “They need to understand how we ended up where we are and how to pull ourselves out before taking help from the West.”
As Obama shook hands with Ghanaian lawmakers, a choir in the balcony sang, “Yes, we can, yes we can,” his campaign slogan, to the tune of the spiritual “Amen, Amen.”
Diana Hopeson, president of a Ghana musicians union, said she hoped leaders would take to heart Obama’s message about good government.
“Corruption makes things harder,” she said. “He is one of us, and he is able to say, ‘We need to strengthen our institutions.’ ”
But in Khartoum, Sudan, medical student Giel Thuok said his country and others continue to suffer the effects of Western colonialism.
“White people still have a lot of influence in Africa,” he said.
Umar Abbas, who has his own construction company in Accra, said the U.S. and Obama couldn’t solve Africa’s problems. “It has to do with us working it out ourselves. He sees it from his point of view. His role here is inspiration.”
Most agreed, however, that Obama’s criticisms and his message that Africans should pull themselves up by their bootstraps were more easily digested because of his heritage.
Adam Mohamed Ibrahim, a training coordinator in Khartoum, said, “People listen to him more because of his roots.”
And Ghanaian President John Atta Mills said Obama accomplished something just by setting foot in the country.
“This encourages us,” he said, “to sustain the gains that we have made in our democratic process.”
Sanders, currently on assignment in Jerusalem, is The Times’ Nairobi Bureau chief. Special correspondents Nicholas Soi in Nairobi, Kenya, and Alsanosi Ahmed in Khartoum contributed to this report.