Obama in Ghana: The speech he should have made

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By Firoze Manji

July 16, 2009 -- The internet and wires have been burning with anger and disappointment at the speech made by US President Barack Obama on July 11 at the start of his visit to Ghana. Below is a speech Obama might have -- or should have -- made during his second visit to the continent in the space of a few weeks.

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Good morning. It is an honour for me to be in Accra, and to speak to the representatives of the people of Ghana. I am deeply grateful for the welcome that I've received, as are Michelle, Malia and Sasha Obama. Ghana's history is rich, the ties between our two countries are strong, and I am proud that this is my second visit to Africa as president of the United States.

Let me begin my admitting that the history of my country’s relationship with Africa has not always been positive. The United States government and its agencies have on a number of occasions undermined the legitimate democratic aspirations of African people, either by sponsoring opposition, destablising governments, assisting coups d’etat and, God forgive us, assassinating your elected leaders.

During my visit to Egypt, I offered my apologies for the role played by the CIA in the overthrow of a legitimate and democratically elected government in Iran. The litany of such actions taken by successive US governments, either directly or indirectly, would be too long to recount here. Suffice, for the moment, to mention Kwame Nkrumah, Patrice Lumumba, Thomas Sankara and the events in countries such as Mozambique, Angola and others where we have supported the use of terror against the liberation movements and the people, just as our government has done in many countries in Latin America. I could not legitimately place my feet on this beautiful continent, this land of my father, without my apologies.

I say this knowing full well the tragic past that has sometimes haunted this part of the world. I have the blood of Africa within me, and my family's own story encompasses both the tragedies and triumphs of the larger African story.

My grandfather was a cook for the British in Kenya, and though he was a respected elder in his village, his employers called him "boy" for much of his life. He was on the periphery of Kenya's liberation struggles, but he was still imprisoned briefly during repressive times. In his life, colonialism wasn't simply the creation of unnatural borders or unfair terms of trade -- it was something experienced personally, day after day, year after year.

My father grew up herding goats in a tiny village, an impossible distance away from the American universities where he would come to get an education. He came of age at an extraordinary moment of promise for Africa. The struggles of his own father's generation were giving birth to new nations, beginning right here in Ghana. Africans were educating and asserting themselves in new ways. History was on the move.

I do not see the countries and peoples of Africa as a world apart; I see Africa as a fundamental part of our interconnected world -- as partners with America on behalf of the future that we want for all our children. That partnership must be grounded in mutual responsibility, and that is what I want to speak with you about today.

We must start from the simple premise that Africa's future is up to Africans. This is the simple truth of a time when the boundaries between people are overwhelmed by our connections. Your prosperity has expanded America's. True, the Western world has contributed more than US$2 trillion in aid to developing countries over the last five decades. But at the same time, the West’s wealth has grown exponentially as a result of aid being used as fuel for the engine of wealth creation, taking many trillions of dollars out of Africa for the benefit of a few. If the West is able to find $18 trillion to bail out the banks from the result of a financial crisis that has been largely of their own making, it should not be difficult for us to raise much more to bail out Africans from impoverishment that has largely not been of their own making.

The greatest burden faced by African people is the burden of debt accumulated often as a result of the irresponsible lending surprisingly similar to those that led to the crisis in the housing market in the United States of America recently. I commit my government to calling on the G8 countries to cancel all debt – not just for the poorest countries. To be making money out of impoverishment should be unacceptable.

And if trade partnerships are to work, then there has to be an equality of opportunity in the market. I don’t believe that we will be able to stop subsidies to farmers in the USA in the immediate future. But I believe that one way forward is to ensure that African farmers receive a subsidy that is equivalent. Only then will the market work for the many, not just the few.

I am deeply aware of the increase in suffering through starvation that has affected the continent. By the end of 2008, the UN has reported, “the annual food import basket in [the least developed countries] cost more than three times that of 2000, not because of the increased volume of food imports, but as a result of rising food prices”. These developments added 75 million people to the ranks of the hungry and drove an estimated 125 million people in developing countries into extreme poverty. With record grain harvests in 2007, there was more than enough food to feed everyone at least 1.5 times current demand.

Globally, population is not outstripping food supply. We are seeing more people hungry and at greater numbers than before. There is food on the shelves but people are priced out of the market. So the problem is not that there is not enough food, but how it is produced and for whom. Rather than chaining African farmers to the agro-industrial complex of fertilisers, pesticides and genetically modified crops, my government will seek to learn from, and promote, African family farming systems that have thousands of years of experience of ensuring the production of nutritious and environmentally sustainable agriculture.

I believe that this moment is as promising for Ghana -- and for Africa -- as the moment when my father came of age and new nations were being born. This is a new moment of promise. Only this time, it will be the young people -- brimming with talent and energy and hope -- who can claim the future that so many in my father's generation never found.

To realise that promise, we must first recognise a fundamental truth that you have given life to in Ghana: development depends upon good governance. That is the ingredient which has been missing in far too many places, for far too long. That is the change that can unlock Africa's potential. And that is a responsibility that can only be met by Africans.

By good governance, I mean not only how citizens hold their elected governments to account, but also how citizens hold other institutions, including in the private sector, to account. Many US corporations have offered to help in Africa’s development by investing in oil, mining and other industrial ventures. But their capacity to ensure that the investment benefits the countries and the people requires active engagement of citizens in monitoring their behaviour. Just as having a written constitution ensures that there is a code of ethical behaviour that you expect your representatives to abide by, so you need to have a written code of conduct for the operations of foreign companies – whether they be from China, Europe or the United States of America. My administration has limited powers to enforce an appropriate code of conduct overseas. It is up to citizens in Africa to ensure that their governments enact legislation that ensures that foreign corporations prioritise benefits for the majority and ensure that we do not see the kind of environmental destruction that some corporations have been involved in in neighbouring countries. That is the heart of good governance. The US administration cannot do it from Washington. But together we can.

The actions and views of citizens are central to any effective democracy. In the United States, our citizens would not accept – under any conditions or for any reason – the presence of foreign troops on our soil. Yet it is a sad fact that current negotiations between a number of African governments and AFRICOM may indeed lead to the presence of such troops on your soils. How does that reflect on good governance, governance that is based on the will of the people? My father lived through the tragic times of foreign military occupation of much of the continent. It would be a tribute to his memory if I were to ensure that the future of Africa brings an end to such a situation.

The world’s attention has often been focused on the scale of corruption in Africa. Good governance requires citizens to hold to account those who take corrupt money for favours. But corruption is a two-way street, it is not just the taker but also the giver who has to be held to account. Where there is evidence of any US government or corporation that engages in this practice, my administration needs to know about it. But we depend on the citizens of Africa to police the behaviour of all those in positions of power.

I am aware that my election, as a son of Africa, to the office of the President of the United States of America has unleashed great hopes and expectations – most of which it is impossible for me to fulfil on my own. I am president of all citizens of the United States of America. But I also recognise that not all American citizens voted for me. My administration has to work within the constraints of building consensus for policies amongst people who have widely different aspirations. Policies that my administration adopts are frequently a reflection of the balance of forces of different constituencies. Until and unless there are strong voices expressed from American citizens in combination with the voices of the citizens of Africa, the policies of my administration will inevitably have shortcomings from the perspectives of Africa’s people. The same goes for claims for reparations that are demanded from the former colonial powers. Until and unless there is clear evidence of popular demand for reparations, and governments in the North recognise that there is no alternative but to concede, then individuals, no matter what position they hold, can do little to change the prevailing consensus. Let me repeat. Together we can.

So I do not see the countries and peoples of Africa as a world apart; I see Africa as a fundamental part of our interconnected world -- as partners with America on behalf of the future that we want for all our children. That partnership must be grounded in mutual responsibility.

As I have repeatedly said during my election campaign and since, we can change the world, together we can. My visit to the continent is about listening and working with you all to bring about that change, a change that benefits all, irrespective of our colour, class, creed or nationality. Above all, it will be the young people -- brimming with talent and energy and hope -- who can claim the future that so many in my father's generation never found. As for America and the West, our commitment must be measured by more than just the dollars we spend. I have pledged substantial increases in our foreign assistance, which is in Africa's interest and America's. But the true sign of success is not whether we are a source of aid that helps people scrape by -- it is whether we are partners in building the capacity for transformational change.

Visiting Ghana gives me great pleasure especially as Africa is not only the birthplace of my father, but also of humanity and some of the oldest civilisations of the world. That a continent with such a rich heritage should have been reduced to its current impoverished state in so short at period of time is unacceptable. I commit myself and my administration to building with you a world that respects that heritage and where the people of Africa will benefit directly from the wealth and richness of this continent.

Across Africa, we have seen countless examples of people taking control of their destiny, and making change from the bottom up. Young people, especially women, across the continent have risen up in the shack settlements, farms, cities and countryside to clamour for their rights, to claim their share of the fruits of independence. We all need to listen to their views, their vision of the future.

One area that holds out both undeniable peril and extraordinary promise is energy. Africa gives off less greenhouse gas than any other part of the world, but it is the most threatened by climate change. A warming planet will spread disease, shrink water resources and deplete crops, creating conditions that produce more famine and conflict. All of us -- particularly the developed world -- have a responsibility to slow these trends -- through mitigation and by changing the way that we use energy. But we can also work with Africans to turn this crisis into opportunity.

Together, we can partner on behalf of our planet and prosperity, and help countries increase access to power while skipping the dirtier phase of development. Across Africa, there is bountiful wind and solar power; and geothermal energy. These need to be harnessed primarily to bring benefits to the majority of Africans, rather than yet another resource that is sold to the developed world for a string of beads and benefits for a few.

From the Rift Valley to the North African deserts; from the Western coast to South Africa's crops -- Africa's boundless natural gifts can generate its own power, while exporting profitable, clean energy abroad. There has been much talk of the putative benefits of biofuels: but linking the price of food (already excessive) to the price of fuel would have disastrous consequences and result in escalating starvation. My administration is deeply concerned by the threat to the livelihoods of ordinary people by the large scale land-grabbing taking place supposedly for economic development.

We are today living in times of economic crisis. The policies of leaving everything to the market place, and expecting benefits to trickle down to the poor is now a discredited idea – it has failed to lift people out of poverty in Africa and even in the United States of America. We must seek an alternative way forward, one where the governments elected by the people take responsibility for ensuring that the economy is run to satisfy need, not greed. Together we can.

I remain ultimately hopeful of the capacity of Africa to show the way forward, to transform the landscape into what it once was – a land of plenty, a land that produced some of the world's finest art, literature, science and philosophy. It is to be part of that ambitious project that I am here today setting foot for the second time this year in this continent of hope, this continent of my ancestors.

Thank you.

[Firoze Manji is editor in chief of Africa-based Pambazuka News. Posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with permission.]