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How Obama pardons capitalism for its misdeeds in Africa

By Emilie Tamadaho Atchaca (Benin), Solange Koné (Ivory Coast), Jean Victor Lemvo (Congo Brazzaville), Damien Millet (France), Luc Mukendi and Victor Nzuzi (Congo Kinshasa), Sophie Perchellet (France), Aminata Barry Touré (Mali), Eric Toussaint (Belgium), Ibrahim Yacouba (Niger)[1]. Translated by Maria Gatti

July 20, 2009 -- After the G8 summit in Italy, US President Barack Obama flew off to Africa with a so-called gift: an envelope of US$20 billion to distribute over three years, so that “generous” donors in the rich countries could “help” reduce world hunger. While the promise to eradicate hunger has been made on a regular basis since 1970, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) published a report last month indicating that the number of undernourished people has passed the 1 billion point, that is 100 million more than the year before. At the same time, the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) sounded the alarm bell and announced that it had to cut rations distributed in Rwanda, Uganda, Ethiopia, North Korea and Kenya (Obama’s paternal family’s home country), principally due to the reduction in contributions from the US, its main donor.[2]

Beyond the effect of President Obama’s announcement, the latest in a long list of good intentions that have done nothing to improve the current situation, it is worth recalling that the $20 billion aid figure over three years amounts to less than 2% of the sum the US spent in 2008-2009 to save the bankers and insurers responsible for the crisis.

After extending a hand to the “Muslim friends” in his Cairo speech (while continuing to destabilise the Middle East region behind the scenes), after a hand held out to the “Russian friends” (while maintaining his stance on building the Eastern European anti-missile shield), now Obama is extending a hand to the “African friends” (while keeping his neo-colonial cap firmly atop his head).

When Obama lets the rich countries off the hook

Obama’s long address in Accra, Ghana, follows up on a series of meetings with his counterparts abroad. Under the pretext of setting new bases for US relations with the rest of the world, once again Obama has excelled in the art of advocating openness and change, while continuing to implement his forerunners’ disastrous policies[3].

From the outset, he stated that it was “up to Africans to determine Africa’s future”. And yet, while everyone can agree with this statement, which makes perfect sense on the face of it, in reality this is not always put into practice, and the G8 countries over the past half-century have played a key role in depriving African peoples of their sovereignty. Obama doesn’t fail to remind us “I have the blood of Africa within me”, as if this automatically provided more strength and legitimacy to his message. In any case, the message was clearly conveyed: the colonialism their ancestors were victims of should no longer provide excuses for Africans. This is very similar to the speech France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy pronounced in Dakar a few months after his election. But Sarkozy’s speech sparked a wave of well-deserved protest, and so far Obama has miraculously averted such a response… But now we will do what it takes to end this injustice!

Straight off, Obama let the Western world off the hook for the current state of the African continent’s development. Declaring, “development depends upon good governance” and “that is a responsibility that can only be met by Africans”,[4] he started out from the false observation that the poverty plaguing Africa is primarily due to poor governance or the free choices of African leaders. In short, it is Africans’ fault. Nothing could be farther from the truth!

With affirmations such as “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”[5], President Obama is downplaying the rich countries’ central role in the course Africa has taken. And in particular the role of the major international financial institutions, starting from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, which are powerful instruments of the great powers’ domination organising the subjection of the peoples of the global South. This is done via structural adjustment policies (end to subsidies for staple goods, drastic cuts in public spending, privatisation of public companies, market liberalisation, etc.) that make it impossible to meet basic needs, spread deep poverty at breakneck speed, increase inequalities and make the worst horrors possible.

When Obama compares incomparable situations

To back up his statements, Obama compared Africa to South Korea. First, he explained that 50 years ago, “when my father travelled to the United States from Kenya to study, at that time the per capita income and Gross Domestic Product of Kenya was higher than South Korea's”, before he added: “There had been some talk about the legacies of colonialism and other policies by wealthier nations, and without in any way diminishing that history, the point I made was that the South Korean government, working with the private sector and civil society, was able to create a set of institutions that provided transparency and accountability.[6] Regular and attentive readers of Committee for the Abolition of Third World Debt (CADTM) publications choked on that one!

This is because South Korea’s supposed economic success[7] came about despite the recommendations imposed by the World Bank on most other developing countries. After the Second World War and up until 1961, the military dictatorship in power in South Korea benefited from significant donations from the United States, totalling the sum of $3.1 billion. This is more than all World Bank loans to the other Third World countries during the same period! Thanks to these donations, South Korea did not have to go into debt for 17 years (1945-1961). External borrowing only became significant from the end of the 1970s, once South Korea’s industrialisation was well under way.

So everything started out in South Korea through an iron-fisted dictatorship that implemented a statist and highly protectionist policy. Washington set up this dictatorship in the wake of the Second World War. The state imposed a radical agrarian reform under which big Japanese landowners were expropriated without compensation. The peasants took ownership of small plots of land (equivalent to up to three hectares per family) and the state expropriated the surplus crops, formerly pocketed by Japanese landowners when Korea was a colony of Japan. The land reform set stringent restrictions on the peasantry. The state set prices and production quotas, not allowing for the free play of market forces.

From 1961 to 1979, the World Bank backed South Korea’s Park Chung Hee military dictatorship although South Korea refused to follow the World Bank’s development model. At the time, the state was planning the country’s economic development with an iron fist. Industrialisation by substitution for imports and the overexploitation of the working class were the two ingredients in the country’s economic success. The World Bank did back the Chun Doo Whan dictatorship (1980-1987) although the bank’s recommendations were not always followed (particularly in terms of restructuring the automotive sector).

Thus when Obama declared, “the South Korean government, working with the private sector and civil society, was able to create a set of institutions that provided transparency and accountability”[8] he failed to mention that the private sector was clearly guided by the state and the Korean dictatorship “dialogued” with civil society by guns and cannons. The history of South Korea from 1945 until the early 1980s was marked by massacres and brutal repression.

It is also important to refresh Barack Obama’s memory as he refers to the Zimbabwean example to illustrate Africans’ failure and comparing it to the South Korean model. The year Zimbabwe achieved independence (1980) was marked by popular uprisings against the South Korean military dictatorship. These were crushed in blood; more than 500 civilians were killed by the military with Washington’s backing[9]. At this time, and since 1945, the South Korean armed forces were put under a joint US-South Korean command, itself under the control of the commander-in-chief of United States forces in South Korea. The massacres perpetrated by the South Korean army in May 1980 were completed by a massive repression in the following months. According to an official report dated February 9, 1981, over 57,000 people were arrested during the “Social Purification Campaign” underway since the summer of 1980. Almost 39,000 of these people were sent to military camps for “physical and psychological re-education”. In February 1981, South Korea’s dictator Chun Doo Hwan was received at the White House by the new US president, Ronald Reagan. Is this the example Obama wants to offer to the people of Zimbabwe and other African countries?

South Korea’s geostrategic position was one of its major assets until the end of the 1980s, enabling it to avert IMF and World Bank control. But in the 1990s, the entire geopolitical situation was in disarray following the collapse of the Soviet bloc. Washington’s attitude towards allied dictatorships shifted gradually, to the support of civilian governments. Between 1945 and 1992, South Korea lived under a military regime with Washington’s blessing. The first civilian opponent elected to the presidency in an open election was Kim Youngsam, who accepted the Washington Consensus and implemented a clearly neoliberal agenda (elimination of tariff barriers, multiple privatisations, liberalisation of capital movements), plunging South Korea into the 1997-1998 South-East Asian economic crisis. In the meantime, South Korea was able to achieve an industrialisation the rich countries refused in Africa’s case. We can thereby understand to what extent the South Korean model is unconvincing and can’t be reproduced everywhere.

Moreover, South Korea’s relative lack of natural resources paradoxically favoured its development because the country avoided transnational corporations’ resource lust. The United States viewed South Korea as a strategic zone from a military standpoint, facing the USSR bloc, not as a crucial source of supplies (as were Nigeria, Angola and Congo-Kinshasa). If South Korea had major reserves of oil or other strategic raw materials, Washington would not have allowed it the same elbow room to develop a powerful industrial complex. The United States ruling class is not prepared to deliberately foster the emergence of powerful competitors with both major natural reserves and diversified industries.

When Obama pardons capitalism for its misdeeds

As for the current economic crisis, Obama spoke out against the irresponsible risk taking of a few, sparking a recession that has swept the world. Thus, he conveys the impression that this crisis was caused by the irresponsibility of a handful of individuals whose excesses plunged the world into recession. This analysis eclipses the responsibility of those who have imposed financial deregulation for almost 30 years, above all the United States. It would be more precise to underline the productivist capitalist development model, painfully imposed by the countries of the global North, as the source of the many crises underway. These are not merely economic crises, but also food, migratory, social, environmental and climate crises.

All these crises originate with decisions made by imperialist governments in the North, and above all the United States government which controls both the IMF and World Bank, so it can impose conditionalities favourable to its interests and those of its major firms. Since the early 1960s, when most African countries achieved “independence”, the IMF and the World Bank have been a kind of Trojan horse to promote the appropriation of natural resources and defend creditors’ interests. By supporting dictatorships in many corners of the world (Mobutu in Zaire, Suharto in Indonesia, Pinochet in Chile and so many others), then by forcing the implementation of harsh antisocial policies, successive Western governments have never allowed the guarantee of basic human rights throughout the world. Expressions such as “right to self-determination”, “democracy”, “economic and political rights” are not realities in Africa, due to the crushing weight of debt repayments and contrary to the pleas of the starving.

When will African emancipation come?

Africa was broken by the devastating slave trade system in the context of the triangular international trade established by Europe and its settlers in the Americas from the 17th to the 19th centuries. Then it was held in trusteeship by European colonialism from the end of the 19th century until independence. Thereafter, Africa has been held in dependency through the mechanism of the debt and public development aid.

After African countries achieved independence, they were handed over to potentates (Mobutu in the Congo, Omar Bongo in Gabon, Etienne Eyadema in Togo, Amin Dada in Uganda …) most of whom were protected by the former European colonisers and by Washington. Several important African leaders who sought autonomous development that would promote their peoples were assassinated on the orders of Paris, Brussels, London or Washington (Congo’s Patrice Lumumba in 1961, Togo’s Sylvanus Olympio in 1963, Burkina Faso’s Thomas Sankara in 1987…). The African ruling classes and the political regimes they established have a very clear share in the responsibility for Africa’s litany of misfortunes.

Robert Mugabe’s regime in Zimbabwe is one of these. Today, the peoples of Africa are directly affected by the effects of the world crisis whose epicentre is in Washington and Wall Street, revealing that capitalism is up against an impasse unacceptable for peoples. Barack Obama’s African origins are a godsend for businesses in his country defending very specific economic interests in the exploitation of Africa’s resources.

This is a reality that Obama sweeps away with the back of his hand, as he continues a paternalistic and moralising path in order to convince Africans not to undertake the struggle for meaningful independence and real development, finally guaranteeing the full satisfaction of human needs.



[1] Emilie Tamadaho Atchaca is president of CADD Benin, Solange Koné is a women’s rights activist in Ivory Coast, Jean Victor Lemvo -Solidaire- Pointe Noire (Congo Brazzaville), Damien Millet is the CADTM France spokesperson, Luc Mukendi is the coordinator of AMSEL /CADTM LUBUMBASHI, Victor Nzuzi is a farmer, coordinator of GRAPR and NAD Kinshasa, Sophie Perchellet is a researcher at CADTM Belgium, Aminata Barry Touré is president of CAD-Mali/Coordinator of the Peoples’ Forum, Eric Toussaint is president of CADTM Belgium, Ibrahim Yacouba is a trade unionist in Niger, all are members of the international Committee for the Abolition of Third World Debt (CADTM) network, www.cadtm.org

[2] See the Financial Times (FT) June 12, 2009. According to FT, Burham Philbrook, the US Undersecretary of State for Agriculture declared that Washington could not guarantee funding of WFP at the level of 2008, during which the United States had brought 2 billion dollars to the WFP budget. Also according to FT, Philbrook suggested that WFP had to reduce its aid although he knew perfectly well that the number of hungry people increased in 2009.

[3] This continuity is also visible in Obama’s failure to take action in the putsch in Honduras. While denouncing it, he lets matters slide. Furthermore, the Pentagon is very close to the putschists. The latter would not remain in power if the Pentagon gave them the order to withdraw.

[6] From Obama’s statement at the G8 Summit in L’Aquila.

[7] See Eric Toussaint, World Bank : A Critical Primer, Pluto-Between the Lines-David Philip, London-Toronto-Cape Town, 2007, chapter 11, “South Korea: the miracle unmasked”. online: http://www.cadtm.org/spip.php?article1847

[9] Eric Toussaint, chapter 11, “South Korea: the miracle unmasked”, p. 117.

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Obama Hands Africa’s Responsibilities Back to Africans

ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE : Obama renvoie les Africains à leurs responsabilités

By Gaël De Santis

Obama Hands Africa’s Responsibilities Back to Africans

Translated Sunday 19 July 2009, by Claire Scammell

Before parliament in Accra, Ghana’s capital, the American president disposed of the role played in Africa by the major powers and called for the continent to take charge of itself in fighting against corruption.

“The 21st century will be shaped by what happens not just in Rome or Moscow or Washington, but by what happens in Accra as well,” read one of the SMS messages received by thousands of Africans on their mobile phones. This is an excerpt of the speech made by the U.S. President Barack Obama before the Ghanean parliament on his first presidential visit to Sub-Saharan Africa.

During his twenty-four hour visit, the President also visited Cape Coast, an historic departure point for millions of slaves bound for America. This trip “reminds us of the capacity of human beings to commit great evil,” were the moving words of the President, using the same terms as those heard during his visit to the Buchenwald Nazi extermination camp last month.

Africa the Patron

Barack Obama’s speech leaves African responsibilities lying at the feet of Africans. “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”, explained the President. Obama called for a a fight against corruption: “No business wants to invest in a place where the government skims 20 percent off the top”.

Turning his campaign slogan around to ‘Yes, you can’, he delivered the message “Africa’s future is up to Africans.” The U.S. will be there as a partner, to support the change. Arriving from the G8 in Rome where the decision was made by the major powers to pledge 20 billion dollars to a new “food safety” initiative, he announced in Accra an increase in development aid and investment in “public health systems”.

For his first presidential trip to sub-Sarahan Africa, Obama chose Ghana — a country which has experienced numerous political successions — to call for the development of democracy. The progress of good governance “may lack the drama of the 20th century’s liberation struggles, but…it will ultimately be more significant,” he said.

In the same way that Nicolas Sarkozy did in his speech to students at a University in Dakar on July 26th, 2007, Obama made the continent’s troubles out to be above all an internal problem. Although Tim Murithi, from the South African Institute for Security Studies, attributed value to Barack Obama’s speech which called for a ‘hand in hand’ approach, he regretted that the “commendable” speech was “short and (included) a certain number of omissions, such as the role of the US in the Cold War”.

It is not the first time a leader of the North has brought the challenge of developing democracy or the fight against corruption to the centre of discussion. As far back as 1990 François Mitterrand pin-pointed these objectives in his speech at the Franco-African summit in La Baule. But Mitterrand took the weight of the “debt” and the “colonialisme des affaires” (1) into account, issues dismissed by current leaders of France and the U.S. as belonging to the past.

A Subtle Strategy

Patrick Morris, head of Gold Star Resources, a company which explores oil fields in Western Africa, shared his delight over Obama’s forthcoming trip to Ghana in a company communication: “President Barack Obama’s trip to Ghana on July 10th-11th is a subtle White House oil strategy to secure another source of energy on the continent of Africa”. 15% of American oil imports come from this region, a share which could soar between now and 2020.

(1) In his speech at the Franco-African summit in La Baule, the former President of France & Socialist Party leader, François Mitterrand, argued that colonialism was not dead but that there was instead another form the ’colonialism of business’.

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