Barack Obama Versus African Hypocrites and Apologists
The American president urged African leaders to support freedom of expression as a key to democracy. Will they listen, or will his words bolster authoritarianism?
A Savior of Africa?
With his uniquely comprehensive command of Africa’s problems and solutions, the United States President Barack Obama gave wonderful speeches at the African Union Headquarters in Addis Ababa to African leaders during his July visit. President Obama spoke the truth candidly to the authoritarian African hypocrites and apologists. Among other things, he called for African countries to support freedom of expression, saying free and fair elections, freedom of speech and the press, and freedom of assembly are the “ingredients of real democracy.”
- This column’s topics will include literature, art, education, history, and political culture in Ethiopia, as well as society and politics in the Horn of Africa. Moreover, I will address the tribulations of journalists and the ill-fated constitutional right of freedom of expression under Ethiopia’s deceptive authoritarian regime. I will try to be the voice of the voiceless, be it persecuted journalists at home or exiled journalists abroad. These themes will make Ethiopia’s uniqueness and absurdities evident.
- Chalachew Tadesse is an Ethiopian journalist and columnist. He has previously worked as a full time journalist for The Reporter and The Sub-Saharan Informer English newspapers. He was also a columnist for the much-acclaimed Fact magazine, before the Ethiopian regime closed it in October 2014. A political science student by training, he works as a university lecturer and is known for his sociopolitical commentaries on the Ethiopian private press.
Ironically, the American president spoke on a stage inside the marvelous African Union Headquarters, built by China as a gift to “Sino-African solidarity.” At least, that is what African leaders would have us believe. Or it may be, as cynics would say, a Chinese gift for dubious purposes. But the stark contrast between the Chinese and the Americans is that the Chinese government tries to influence Africans with money. President Obama did it with a powerful speech that combined both candid criticisms and praises. Yes, no doubt prominent speeches have changed world history and politics.
At the African Union hall, warm and frequent applause greeted Obama’s words. The applause mostly came from young journalists, civil society members, and youth representatives gathered from across the continent. With some hesitation, the half-hearted applause of African leaders followed. Certainly, President Obama stood between two worlds that were poles apart: the world of aging hypocrites and apologists, versus that of a vibrant and promising young generation. Obama seemed like a savior sent to redeem the continent.
Mockingly, the American president told Africans that he would win a third term if it wasn’t for the US constitution. By this he was certainly referring to the stubborn leaders who have clung to lifetime presidency at any cost: Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe, the leaders of Congo Brazzaville, Uganda, Rwanda and Equatorial Guinea. More than half a dozen leaders of other countries are warming up to the idea of scrapping term limits from their constitutions.
Thanks to excessive lust for power, many of these leaders were at the helm of power even before Barack Obama went to college. Without a doubt, they will be there when he comes back to Africa as a private citizen after completing his two term presidency.
Many people have debated whether Obama’s visit would bolster authoritarianism in Africa, including Ethiopia. Not necessarily. In my opinion, the visit showed his firm belief in continuous and constructive engagement with all Africans to bring about positive changes. And above all, it demonstrated his belief in the rhetoric of “African solutions to African problems,” which has sadly been misrepresented. And yet, cognizant of the selective reading obsession of most African leaders, Obama candidly asserted that Africa could never shy away from the universal values of democracy and human rights under the guise of “African solutions to African problems.” Unfortunately, that is what the new Ethiopia, the new symbol of authoritarianism, and a number of other African counties are doing.
In fact, it would be naive to expect Obama’s speech to usher in a new glimmer of hope for democracy. Even in his 2010 Ghana speech, Obama had said: “Africa needs strong institutions, not strong leaders.” Few African countries have since vindicated his dictum, for several African leaders are still anathema to democratic institutions. Yet it must be pointed out that the United States still has some leverage to use both the carrot and the stick on African countries, unlike China’s use of the carrot alone.
Sarcastically, Obama also asked why many African leaders cling to power for so long, even when they already have lots of money. Inarguably, he was referring to leaders who stash millions of dollars in the Swiss banks while in office. Alas, even when the sizeable five million dollar initial prize money, accompanied by a $200,000 annual stipend for life, provided by the London-based Moh Ibrahim Foundation Prize for Achievement in African Leadership allocated for African leaders who leave office when their terms expire couldn’t attract many leaders.
Bondage of Blood and History
No doubt Obama’s first “homecoming” to Kenya had an emotional aspect given his lineage. Yet because he is a leader never short of memorable phrases, Obama warned Kenyans candidly: “A politics that is based on solely on tribe and ethnicity is a politics that’s doomed to tear a country apart. It is a failure—a failure of imagination.” Alas, even his educated father was a victim of the notorious Kenyan tribal politics, which is still dragging the country from progress. In fact, this warning equally applies to Ethiopia, which has been bedeviled by ethnic politics since 1991. Obama’s words will definitely go down in history as a famous prophecy unless the current tide of tribal/ethnic fanaticism changes for the better.
No doubt, Kenya vindicates the Obama dream more than Ethiopia, for it enjoys a strong civil society, an independent judiciary, and a debating parliament (sometimes involving physical confrontations). Above all, a vibrant independent press serves as a bulwark against the excesses of power. In what is uncommon in much of Africa, the press even enjoyed the freedom to reflect on whether Obama would have met Kenya’s Deputy President William Ruto (Obama did meet him, of course), who presently faces pending charges at the International Criminal Court.
Hence, in many respects, Obama’s trip from Kenya to Ethiopia was a trip from a “Republic of Hope” to an “Orwellian Republic of Fear.” Yet I don’t necessarily oppose Obama’s visit to the repressive Ethiopia, where the ruling party won 100 percent of the seats in the federal and regional elections last month. But what matters most is the content of his message to the incumbents.
Setting foot in Ethiopia has in fact a historical and spiritual significance for Obama. No doubt, Ethiopia’s unique independence in Africa (as epitomized at the 1896 Adwa Victory against Italian colonialism) was a source of black consciousness in America. Ethiopia inspired Marcus Garvey, Martin Luther King Jr., and of course Barack Obama himself, the first black president of the United States. But now Ethiopia has been diminished from a black “El Dorado” to a dystopia under the current repressive regime.
True, many Ethiopians see the United States as a harbinger of freedom and liberty. For over a quarter of a century, however, a sense of resentment among Ethiopians has been boiling beneath this. When the Soviet-backed military regime crumbled in 1991, Americans gave the green light undeservedly to the then armed rebel Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF)—a pro-Albania, leftist group that practices ethnic politicization—to solely assume state power in Addis Ababa. By then, the American communist hysteria had vanished into thin air. For Ethiopians, that was therefore the “Original Sin” responsible for the country’s present abyss.
With or without a visit from President Obama, African countries have a long way to go to attain democracy. More than ever before, Africa is at a crossroads: a new wave of democratization is juxtaposed with a slide to authoritarianism. But Africans must understand that democracy should ultimately come from within. The West can only be on our side when we enkindle an inextinguishable flame of democracy.