United States President Barack Obama’s tour of Africa, which ended last Wednesday, was hallmarked by the town hall meeting he had with the youths of the continent in Soweto, South Africa. Will the hopes raised during his engagement with the youths meet expectations of raising a new generation of leaders for the continent, Godwin Haruna asks
In the final days of his campaign to become the first black president of the United States in 2008, Barack Obama held a lot of promise for the Africans. Even without being eligible to cast their ballots for him, his appeal, especially among the youth population was huge across the continent. With his victory at the election, many of the continent’s youths looked forward eagerly to President Obama’s policy direction to change the course of their destinies.
Indeed, one widely acknowledged assessment of Obama’s first term was that he had been a good foreign policy president. Certainly that’s what the American public believes. That had undeniably given him high marks in the eyes of the people, especially with the successful operation that killed the Al-Qaeda leader, Osama bin Laden, and the disengagement of American troops from Iraq.
Last week, Obama himself confirmed that, when he told young Africans at an interaction televised live on CNN and some local televisions: “I am elected to end the wars.”
But more than that for Africans was the expectation that American foreign policy under Obama would help empower young Africans to achieve their dreams for the continent. Yet, since his first tour of Africa, which provided him the opportunity to visit Ghana briefly during his first term in office, not much has happened to meet this expectation.
Now he has rounded up a second tour of the continent with visits to Senegal, South Africa, and Tanzania, which is coming early in his second and final term.
He did promise at the at the town hall meeting last Saturday with the African youths that he would likely visit the continent again before his current term expires. Perhaps, the U.S. president’s just-concluded African tour offered some of the youths the opportunity to express their fears and aspirations as a people, in contrast to the time he made his first official visit to Africa.
At the Town Hall Meeting held at the University of Johannesburg, about 600 youth leaders from South Africa were present with other young people participating via video conference from Nigeria, Uganda and Kenya, which is Obama's ancestral homeland. Nigeria’s centre was coordinated by the brilliant presenter with Channels Television in Lagos, Ms. Maupe Ogun and a line-up of other guests composed mainly of women. Maupe’s joke to Obama when they started was he should not be intimidated by their presence. The U.S. president responded humorously that he would not be the one to be intimated by the women because he lives with three other women (his wife and two daughters) who are quite opinionated.
Obama got a warm welcome the moment Nkepile Mabuse, a correspondent for CNN who coordinated the event announced his name and invited him to the podium. Once on the podium, Obama’s speech was beamed live into living rooms of Africans through cable television. He used the opportunity to announce a new fellowship that will initially take 500 young African leaders to the United States every year for academic and leadership training. That, he called the Washington Fellowship for young African leaders. While encouraging the youths to apply for the annual fellowship, Obama said the programme was very dear to his heart in order to raise a new generation of African political and entrepreneurial leaders who will come back to influence the fortunes of the continent.
Before he fielded questions from the audience and the three countries via satellite, Obama told the youths that the future of the continent was in their hands and urged them to use the former South African President, Nelson Mandela, as a model for political leadership.
“The future of this continent is in your hands,” Obama said. He urged young people in Soweto and those watching the town hall meeting in Kenya, Nigeria and Uganda to take inspiration from Mandela’s refusal to be cowed by 27 years in jail.
“Think about 27 years in prison. Think about hardships and the struggles and being away from family and friends. There were dark moments that tested his faith in humanity, but he refused to give up. In your lives there will be times to test your faith,” Obama said.
One of the young people from Lagos, Aisha, asked Obama two quick questions. She spoke about the huge potential of human capital on the continent and asked what the president was doing to develop it. She also asked about progress being made on war on terror. She said despite tremendous resources deployed on war on terror worldwide by the U.S., new terrorist groups were springing up with particular reference to Boko Haram in Nigeria. She then posed the question on whether the U.S. was winning the war on terror.
In his response to the first question, Obama agreed with Aisha that human capital development was central to the development of the continent’s resources. He said that was why he had initiated the fellowship he introduced earlier was in order to build the capacity of young Africans so that they could come back to establish enterprises to create job opportunities for Africa’s teeming population.
Obama noted: “In terms of human capital and young people, I think the greatest investment any country can make, not just an African country, is educating its youth and providing them with the skills to compete in a highly technological, advanced world economy.”
He added: “Countries that do not do that well will not succeed,” noting that countries with limited skills will have “problems” in drawing international businesses.â€¨
“This is a problem in the United States and not just a problem in Africa,” he confirmed.â€¨â€¨
He said the U.S. was willing to collaborate with Nigeria to train teachers and incorporate technology in the education system.â€¨“Across board, we are having a rethink in education and workforce training. And one of the things we want to do is to partner with a country like Nigeria and identify ways that we can provide direct value added, whether it is in helping to train teachers or helping to incorporate technology into the education process.”â€¨â€¨
Responding to the second question, Obama said it was true that new terrorist groups were emerging like the Boko Haram in Nigeria and added that the U.S. had done so much to limit the damage of such groups anywhere in the world. He cited the war against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan as places where there had been successful efforts to contain extremism.
Having said that, the U.S. president noted that terrorism thrives in countries where the government has failed to deliver to its people. “Countries are not delivering for their people and there are sources of conflict and underlining frustrations that have not been adequately dealt with,” he said.
He added that the employment of military option in tackling internal terrorism shouldn’t be the first approach and urged governments “to give people opportunities, education and resolve conflicts through regular democratic processes.” He said these options would make terrorism less likely to take root.
The U.S president said his government had made considerable effort in tackling insecurity and curbing terror with the death of Osama Bin.â€¨“There is no doubt in the progress we have made in dealing with some extremist groups, for example core Al Qaeda and Bin Laden” stressing that “they have been greatly diminished.”
He agreed that there are more regional terrorist organisations like Boko Haram in Nigeria espousing an extremist ideology, showing no regard for human life.â€¨He said despite not having the transnational capacity like the other organisations, “they are doing great harm in Africa and in the Middle East and in South Asia”.â€¨â€¨
To curb such uprisings, Obama said: “we have to build institutions, a lot of what we talked about in terms of responsiveness, governance and democracy; those things become defence mechanisms against terrorism, they are the most important defence against terrorism.”â€¨â€¨
Obama urged the African Union to send peace keeping missions to countries that are likely to have such terrorist cells come up and nip them in the bud before they cause harm, adding: “We can provide advice, training and in some cases equipment.”
The youths who joined the town hall from Nairobi, Kenya were ecstatic and the question was pointedly asked why the U.S, president had snubbed his “homeland” in the current African tour. Kenya's current political environment obviously made it impossible for Obama to visit the country where many of his relatives live.
The International Criminal Court is prosecuting Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta for crimes against humanity, including murder, deportation, rape, persecution and inhumane acts allegedly committed by his supporters in the aftermath of Kenya's 2007 disputed elections.
“The timing was not right for me as the president of the United States to be visiting Kenya when those issues are still being worked on, and hopefully at some point resolved,” said Obama, though he added that he planned to make many more trips to the East African nation.
Away from the town hall meeting, he paid tribute to his personal hero, Mandela, and met privately with his family as the world anxiously awaited news on the condition of the ailing 94-year-old anti-apartheid leader. Obama, who spoke movingly about Mandela throughout his trip to Africa, praised the former South African president's “moral courage” during remarks from the grand Union Building where Mandela was inaugurated as his nation's first black president.
The U.S. president also called on the continent's leaders, including in neighbouring Zimbabwe, to take stock of Mandela's willingness to put country before self as a president who stepped down after one term despite his immense popularity.
“We as leaders occupy these spaces temporarily and we don't get so deluded that we think the fate of our country doesn't depend on how long we stay in office,” Obama said during a news conference with South African President Jacob Zuma.
However, Obama’s visit to Africa has been described as meaningless. According to human rights lawyer, Mr. Femi Falana, Obama should be told that “he has dashed the hopes of millions of Africans who had expected him to lead the battle against poverty in the world. But due to the implementation of neo-liberal policies being championed by the United States, poverty is on ascendancy.”
Falana justified the protests that greeted Obama’s visit to South Africa saying, “he has not changed his reactionary views.”
“When President Barrack Obama visited Ghana for a few hours in 2009 he blamed African leaders and exonerated imperialism for the underdevelopment of the African continent. I had cause then to join issues with the American leader over his simplistic and escapist position which has informed his dangerous African policy.
“Since the bulk of the wealth stolen from Africa is lodged in the vaults of western banks and other financial institutions, I challenged President Obama to join the peoples of Africa to ensure the repatriation of such looted wealth for development,” he said in a statement.
Falana added: “While it is noted that the Obama administration has promised to reward handsomely those who can provide information leading to the arrest of some Boko Haram leaders, it is not prepared to provide funds to combat poverty, illiteracy and ignorance which are largely responsible for breeding terrorism in Nigeria.
“Instead of allowing themselves to be deceived by President Obama’s rhetoric of political slogans, the African people should take their destiny in their hands.
“It is high time the governments of African states are compelled to comply with article 21 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights which has imposed a duty on them to freely dispose of the wealth and natural resources of Africa in the exclusive interests of the people and eliminate all forms of foreign economic exploitation particularly that is practiced by international monopolies so as to enable their peoples to fully benefit from the advantages derived from their natural resources.”
In separate commentary, an environmentalist and social good campaigner, Ibrahim Megida stated, “Obama’s motive of visiting Africa needs an x-ray. It’s nothing more than a visit to advocate same sex marriage. It may not have been so pronounced, but telling Africans to develop intra-African trade and redesign its school to meet the current challenge and advocating for same sex marriage is counter-productive.”
Similarly, in South Africa, the Young Communist League (YCL) National Secretary Buti Manamela said those who had hoped U.S. the president term of office would be different had been disappointed. He was quoted in City Press as saying Obama’s three-nation tour, was a one-sided affair for the U.S.’ benefit.
“In reality, Obama is here for trade relations, not for the benefit of the continent, but the gains of United States imperialism. The benefit of American companies to continue reaping our mineral resources,” Manamela said.
Ahead of Obama’s arrival in the country, Manamela and other members of his group led more than a thousand activists in a march to the U.S. embassy in Arcadia, Pretoria. “We are here to display our anger and frustrations in relation to continued U.S. domination, not only of the economy, but the political sphere as well,” he said.
He added: “We had hoped that with his election those things would come to a decline.”
Also, a group of protesters gathered outside the University of Johannesburg’s Soweto campus, where the president was speaking to young South Africans. Protesters said they opposed Obama’s foreign policy and criticised his performance on human rights issues.
Perhaps, Obama’s renewed interest in Africa, especially with a focus on the development of its huge young population will be the way to go, if it is sustained in the coming years before Obama steps down as the U.S. president. He was rapturously welcomed everywhere he went on the three-nation tour from Dakar to Soweto. But it is hoped that promises will match expectations when the chips are down.