An Analysis of aspects of Obama's speech to Parliament

Mon, 13 Jul 2009 Source: Amponsah, John

by John Amponsah

Obama's speech was skilfully written, he is certainly an intelligent and capable speaker. It was however clear to me while I read through the transcript of his speech that he walks a fine line -- being a Westerner who has roots in Africa, he can make references to those roots as he tries to send his message across to us Africans. In this way, we may feel as if one of our own is speaking to us. Being the leader of the most powerful nation on Earth, he is in the position to make powerful speeches that can help define the course of action taken in Africa. In this article, I shall highlight ten selected quotations taken from Obama's speech and comment on how these quotations are relevant to Ghanaians in particular and to Africans as a whole.

1) "It is easy to point fingers, and to pin the blame for these [Africa's] problems on others. 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, or wars in which children are enlisted as combatants." --- Here Obama is walking a fine line. Essentially he is a Westerner who represents the powerful US, his role during this visit to Ghana has essentially been to tell Africans how to be more democratic, because the US has a history of being a democratic nation (although they've also allowed cheating in elections to happen without much of a fight -- reference to 2000 election where Bush was 'appointed' president). I do not agree with Obama when he says:

"But 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."

The West is indirectly responsible for Zimbabwe's crippled economy. Mugabe attacked the class issue, in a direct way, rather than subtly. Blacks took away lands from Whites, the West got pissed off and sanctions were imposed on Zimbabwe. The West avoided trade with Zimbabwe so their economy became crippled. So the West is not directly responsible for Zimbabwe's demise, but is indirectly responsible. If Mugabe had not attacked the Whites the way he did, perhaps Zimbabwe will not have been crippled.

Why are children enlisted as combatants? This is because greedy Africans wanting to make a buck or two become warlords. These greedy Africans are funded by an even greedier Western business enterprises that thrive on easy access to blood diamonds and cheap raw materials. So yes, the West is not directly responsible for children enlisting as combatants (fault of greedy Africans) but certain Western interest groups are indirectly responsible for funding these African "sellouts".

So Obama lied, but in a very skilful way. The West is indirectly responsible for Zimbabwe's crippled economy and for the existence of child soldiers but some Africans also hold part of the blame. He must however receive credit for speaking against the haphazard, somewhat thoughtless creation of African nations resulting from the scramble for Africa by the European powers, which occurred at the end of the 19th century.

2) "First, we must support strong and sustainable democratic governments. As I said in Cairo, each nation gives life to democracy in its own way, and in line with its own traditions. But history offers a clear verdict: governments that respect the will of their own people are more prosperous, more stable and more successful than governments that do not. This is about more than holding elections — it's also about what happens between them." --- In my view, this advice is sound and is based on reasonable political theory. Democracy is meant to work in a proactive way, in the sense that people being governed must continue to engage the government they elected to represent them. The way we Ghanaians are so passionate about our elections, if we are able to maintain the same level of alertness and zeal throughout the tenure of each government, our democratic credentials will surpass that of even the US (as it has been in current times) and then perhaps a Ghanaian president can give a lecture at the US congress admonishing Americans to return to their democratic roots. That is what the statement "This is about more than holding elections — it's also about what happens between them" brings to mind, and I think we can do this here in Ghana.

3) "America will not seek to impose any system of government on any other nation — the essential truth of democracy is that each nation determines its own destiny. What we will do is increase assistance for responsible individuals and institutions, with a focus on supporting good governance — on parliaments, which check abuses of power and ensure that opposition voices are heard; on the rule of law, which ensures the equal administration of justice; on civic participation, so that young people get involved; and on concrete solutions to corruption like forensic accounting, automating services, strengthening hot lines and protecting whistle-blowers to advance transparency and accountability." --- This all sounds good in theory and indeed the true spirit of democracy reflects the ideas above. It is however unfortunate that Obama has been put in a position to lecture Africans on this particular point. Looking at the recent and past history of America, the Americans have been doing the exact opposite of what Obama says here. In fact there are indications that the recent coup d'etat in Honduras was carried out by military officers trained by the Americans. America invaded Iraq and imposed a democratic government on that country. America invaded Afghanistan and imposed a democratic government on that country. As to whether or not these actions were right or wrong can be debated, however the facts are what they are (in the case of Iraq and Afghanistan at least).

So in this case, Obama issued a 'subtle lie', but is rather referring to the principles of democracy, which one may say probably go as far back as the time of the ancient Greeks, and is not a new idea invented by the Americans. Again, ironically, a country like Ghana is in a position to turn these principles into reality, and then perhaps we can lecture the American congress at some point in the future, just as Obama has come to give us a lecture (only that our lecture will reflect our experiences in democracy, rather than the theory).

4) "America can also do more to promote trade and investment. Wealthy nations must open our doors to goods and services from Africa in a meaningful way. And where there is good governance, we can broaden prosperity through public-private partnerships that invest in better roads and electricity; capacity-building that trains people to grow a business; and financial services that reach poor and rural areas." --- This seems to be a dream that many Ghanaians hold and hope will result in a real and tangible way from the publicity and praise we as a nation have received from Obama's visit. I tend to agree with Obama on this one but hope that socio-economic development in Ghana will have a flavour peculiar to Ghana and to Ghanaians, rather than not.

5) "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; geothermal energy and bio-fuels. 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. " --- This right here is in my view an excellent vision of Obama's that could easily be a big part of the legacy he could leave behind as the 44th US president. Africa has the unique opportunity to develop in ways that take advantage of all the accumulated knowledge and experiences of other more technologically developed regions of the world without repeating the mistakes of these regions. Sustainable development can happen in a cost-effective way, and there are African specialists who can help in this regard. Production, management and export of energy as a commodity could increasingly take a more important place in a future world where greater advances in civilization may likely demand increased sources of power. Good one, Obama, and it will be great to see Africans partner with other countries and regions of the world to take full advantage of this exciting prospect.

6) "America will support these [Health care] efforts through a comprehensive, global health strategy. Because in the 21st century, we are called to act by our conscience and our common interest. When a child dies of a preventable illness in Accra, that diminishes us everywhere. And when disease goes unchecked in any corner of the world, we know that it can spread across oceans and continents." --- Many expected Obama to make reference to his ideas and vision on health care. Like his predecessor Bill Clinton, Obama seems to realize the importance of this. As Obama mentioned elsewhere in his speech, empowerment is more about "building" people and infrastructure, rather than giving 'handouts'. The keyword here is 'support'. Education and healthcare go hand in hand, in the sense that an educated population is more likely to be more aware of healthcare pitfalls and also more likely to take action.

7) "Now let me be clear: Africa is not the crude caricature of a continent at war. But for far too many Africans, conflict is a part of life, as constant as the sun. There are wars over land and wars over resources. And it is still far too easy for those without conscience to manipulate whole communities into fighting among faiths and tribes." --- I think the key sentence in the above quote is "And it is still far too easy for those without conscience to manipulate whole communities into fighting among faiths and tribes." In this quote, it seems to me that Obama has a veiled message directed both at those western interests who have exploited African divisiveness for their own economic benefit, and those Africans who have played along with such exploitation to victimize their own people. In all of his speech, this reference to the exploiters of Africa is perhaps the only time he seems to be directly rebuking the real exploiters of Africa: some Western mining, petroleum and agri-business industries and the private armies who work for them. But yet again, we see that Obama walks a fine line in making this ambivalent statement, not quite being clear who exactly he is rebuking.

8) "As I said earlier, Africa's future is up to Africans. The people of Africa are ready to claim that future. In my country, African-Americans — including so many recent immigrants — have thrived in every sector of society. We have done so despite a difficult past, and we have drawn strength from our African heritage. With strong institutions and a strong will, I know that Africans can live their dreams in Nairobi and Lagos; in Kigali and Kinshasa; in Harare and right here in Accra." --- This is good advice and it was expected of Obama to give Africans this kind of advice. The key message here is for other African countries to take a cue from the democratic success story of Ghana in order to better manage their own affairs. This idea can be said to be pretty much widely accepted by many Ghanaians, it will be a happy period for Africans to wise up and rise up, for our own good and for the good of generations to follow us. Ghanaians will surely be glad once Nigeria becomes a more formidable, more organized and more 'politically prosperous' nation than it currently is, we shall be happy for Kenyans and certainly we shall be happy for the exploitation and suffering in the Congo to come to an end. So let it be!

9) "And I am particularly speaking to the young people. In places like Ghana, you make up over half of the population. Here is what you must know: the world will be what you make of it. You have the power to hold your leaders accountable and to build institutions that serve the people. You can serve in your communities and harness your energy and education to create new wealth and build new connections to the world. You can conquer disease, end conflicts and make change from the bottom up. You can do that. Yes you can." --- Yes, they can, and they shall! As many Ghanaians have noticed, the younger generation are already gearing up to make this big leap. In twenty years time, Ghana will be a very different place and that will be because of the enterprise and ambition of the younger generation. It is my hope that the younger generation will be as smart and savvy as they appear to be ambitious and enterprising, that they will first lead Ghana to great heights, then work with their African brothers and sisters to make much more out of the lot of African people. So bravo, Obama. This is good advice. And for the younger generation: Ready! Set! Go! Go! Go and claim the greatness that Ghanaians and Africans deserve!

10) "But these things can only be done if you take responsibility for your future. It won't be easy. It will take time and effort. There will be suffering and setbacks. But I can promise you this: America will be with you. As a partner. As a friend." --- Thank you, Obama, and we shall hold you, as well as Americans present and future, to these words of high ideals that you have spoken. We shall hold you to your promise. We know it will not be easy and we hope that you will avoid negatively interfering with us as we forge forward. Certainly, we will not only hope for it, we shall make sure of it! But thanks for your support and dignified words ("As a partner. As a friend"). Ghana, as a nation, will not forget these words. Thank you.

Columnist: Amponsah, John