Obama’s Africa safari, triumph of symbolism
UNITED States (U.S.) President, Barack Obama, is heading to Kenya – the birthplace of his father – on 24-26 July. He will co-host the 2015 Global Entrepreneurship summit. This first presidential visit to his ancestral home at the fag-end of his second term, is the ultimate triumph of the “politics of symbolism” that has characterised Obama’s engagement with Africa. U.S. policy towards Africa still lacks consistent support from those who hold the purse strings in the American Congress. This has often reduced Obama to symbolic gestures rather than substantive policies. He will also travel to the Chinese-built Africa Union (AU) headquarters in Ethiopia, reinforcing the symbolism of America’s first black president visiting the seat of Pan-Africanism.
In understanding the symbolism of Obama for the continent, it is essential to revisit his African heritage. His elegant 1995 memoir, Dreams from My Father, describes a painful quest for identity and a vulnerability triggered by the death of an arrogant, impulsive, but determined Kenyan father (in a car crash in 1982) who left his family when Barack was only two years old. Obama met him only one other time, when he was 10. Yet he still idolised his father, Barack Hussein Obama Sr., whose example inspired him to study at his alma mater: Harvard University.
Obama clearly identifies with Africa, as is evident from his journey of self-discovery to Kenya as a 26-year-old. As he put it: “The pain I felt was my father’s pain. My questions were my brothers’ questions. Their struggle, my birthright.” But like many African Americans, Obama had a somewhat romanticised view of Africa before he arrives, noting that the continent “had become an idea more than an actual place, a new promised land, full of ancient traditions and sweeping vistas, noble struggles and talking drums”. Once in Kenya, Barack feels his father’s seemingly ubiquitous presence. He is nostalgic about Obama Sr.’s life and times, seeking to recreate a sometimes mythical past that he never knew, but so badly needs to understand and feel a part of.
Having struggled to become an African American in the U.S. in order to overcome his painful, fatherless childhood, it is as if Obama now wants to don the robes of an African identity. In Kenya, he meets, and enjoys the extravagant hospitality and warmth of, his large extended family; he speaks a bit of his native Luo; he is exposed to the corruption and ethnic tensions of Kenyan politics; he rides in matatus (rickety taxis); he eats goat curry and ugali (corn meal); he goes on safari, discovering the beauty of the historical site of the biblical Garden of Eden; and he is appalled by the pernicious socio-economic impact of British colonialism on Kenya.
When Obama visited Kenya as a U.S. Senator in 2006, he was enthusiastically received like a rock star and returning “son of the soil”. His condemnation of human rights abuses and corruption in Africa was widely applauded. When, two years later, he was elected as the first black U.S. president, a wave of “Obamamania” again swept across Africa. He visited Egypt and Ghana in 2009 to call for democratisation in Africa and the Middle East, noting that Washington would support “strong institutions, and not strongmen.”
In Ghana, Obama also visited the Cape Coast castle: a major slave post from which human cargo was transported to the Americas and the Caribbean. The symboli-sm of the first black American president at the site of a tragic and sordid historical monument to a trade in which an estimated 20 million Africans perished, was particularly poignant.
However, by the time Obama visited South Africa, Senegal, and Tanzania in 2013, the “Cinderella syndrome” had worn off. The unrealistic expectations that the U.S. president would transform American policy towards Africa had not even come close to being fulfilled. In a touching but again symbolic event involving the first black presidents of America and South Africa, Obama delivered the most eloquent eulogy at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service in Johannesburg in 2013, describing the Nobel peace laureate as “a giant of history, who moved a nation towards justice, and in the process moved billions around the world…the last great liberator of the 20th century”.
Despite Obama’s African ancestry, as president, he has had other pressing priorities such as the economy, Russia, China, Iraq, and Afghanistan. He also successfully concluded the most sweeping health-care reform in U.S. history; renewed long-frozen diplomatic ties with Cuba; and recently clinched a nuclear deal with Iran. Although he hosted the first U.S.-Africa summit in Washington D.C. last August, this was effectively a “talking shop” involving empty pledges. His “Power Africa” promised electricity to 20 million Africans, remains largely unfunded.
Obama has, in fact, continued several of the truculent George W. Bush’s most egregious policies: 1,500 American soldiers remain in Djibouti in a never-ending “war on terror”; U.S. drones continue to rain death on Somalia and Mali; while Obama participated in the 2011 Anglo-French-led intervention in Libya that has left that country anarchic and spread instability across the Sahel region. Despite the regime of Egypt’s General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi killing 1,000 Muslim Brotherhood protestors, and organising sham presidential elections last year, Obama has continued to supply arms to el-Sisi and to condone his human rights abuses: a strongman has yet again trumped strong institutions.
More positively, Obama has continued the generous funding of AIDS programmes in Africa began under his predecessor, increasing the number of people receiving treatment from 1.7 million in 2008 to 6.7 million by 2013. He showed strong leadership during last year’s Ebola crisis, deploying a 3,000-strong military contingent to build hospitals and train healthcare workers in Liberia. In true African tradition, we should welcome Obama back to the ancestral home, but we must continue to hold his feet to the fire and not confuse symbolism with substance.
• Dr. Adebajo is Executive Director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution, Cape Town, South Africa, and editor of Africa’s Peacemakers: Nobel Peace Laureates of African Descent (Zed, 2014).