OBAMA TRIP TO AFRICA WAS GOOD FOR KINSHIP BUT BAD FOR DEMOCRACY
By Tony Sisule
Kenya has been waiting for Obama to visit with barely bated breath for the last 6 years since he became President of the United States of America and, therefore, the most powerful person on earth. Kenyans were waiting for him because, in his own words, he is the first â€˜Kenyan-Americanâ€™ to become President of the US. Many Africans also feel a kinship with Obama being a son of a Kenyan father.
Kenya and Africa therefore expected him to be, as he stated in an interview with the BBC on the eve of this trip, â€˜blunt and candidâ€™ by praising Governments and people where they had done well, and pointing out where improvements were needed. By and large, Obama did not disappoint in this expected mission.
He was full of praise for young people and entrepreneurs for being smart and innovative in solving problems and making money. He praised Government policies that were encouraging business, developing infrastructure and fighting terrorism. He vociferously spoke against corruption in the Government and called for â€˜visibleâ€™ prosecution and lifestyle audits of people in high places who are stealing from Kenyans asserting that â€˜people are not stupidâ€™ and can see the theft that is going on.
He advocated for equal treatment for minorities like gay people. His most eloquent speech was at Kasarani in Nairobi where he made a powerful pitch for creating equal opportunities for women so that Kenya and Africa can make progress. It was Obama at his best and for a moment he made us forget that he has done little for Africa compared to George W. Bush, who massively expanded support for the fight against HIV/Aids, worked with other leaders to provide debt relief, opened up trade and supported democracy in Africa helping stabilize countries like Liberia.
In fact, hitherto, Obamaâ€™s most significant action in Africa was bombing Libya and ousting Gaddafi, who history has already proven was a better leader than the crazy terrorists running lawless Libya now who even killed the US ambassador right in Benghazi, the city Obama had claimed he was saving from Gaddafi. No wonder Obama never talks about Libya these days because he knows he was utterly wrong to bomb the country.
However, Obama made a major gaffe on the trip, which I would be surprised if he does not regret it later. He brazenly and falsely claimed that the current Ethiopian Government was democratically elected, with the ruling party in Ethiopia holding all seats in Parliament, thanks to brutal incarceration, abuse and exiling of opponents and journalists.
That was simply outrageous and will embolden repressive regimes in Africa and the world as they know the US is now pursuing a policy of not saying or doing anything when these regimes brutalise their own people. Many Ethiopians are running away from their country, dying in harsh terrain, deserts and the Mediterranean sea going into exile in Kenya, South Africa, Europe and the US.
Citizens, journalists and politicians cannot dare criticize the Government in Ethiopia as they would surely end up in prison. To characterize such a Government as democratically elected was an affront by Obama to all Africans who have suffered centuries of repression by colonialists, the apartheid regime in South Africa and dictators like Jomo Kenyatta, Daniel Arap Moi and Mobutu Sese Seko, among others.
In Kenya, Obama was right to assert that the US will work with the legitimate Government but listen to all voices. Kenya is clearly more democratic than Ethiopia and, despite weaknesses in the electoral system that failed to work well in the 2013 polls, we have a Government that even the opposition parties recognize. However, Obama then made another gaffe on his last day in Kenya by telling the opposition to work with the Government, rather than do its job in a democracy, which is to challenge Government policies and offer their alternatives. That is what a democracy is all about, a competition of ideas with the citizens choosing the leaders they believe have the best ideas in a free and fair election.
If the opposition became a supporter of Government policies then who would check Government excesses and offer alternative policies? Obama got elected by opposing the policies of George W. Bush on the war in Iraq and Afghanistan and on domestic issues like universal access to affordable healthcare. Had he supported Bushâ€™s policies he would not be President of the US today.
Had Nelson Mandela supported, rather than opposed, apartheid policies, he would have died in prison and black South Africans would still be under the brutal apartheid regime today. Had Mahatma Gandhi and Kenyan founders supported the British colonialists, the English would still be running Africa and India oppressing us. Had Martin Luther King supported the segregationist policies of erstwhile US Administrations Obama would never have voted, let alone become the first African-American President of the US. Had the likes of Raila Odinga and Martha Karua not opposed Daniel Arap Moiâ€™s repression of Kenyans, with Raila spending 8 years in detention without trial, Kenyans would still be living under oppression by Moi today.
It was therefore in extremely bad test for Obama to insinuate that the Kenyan opposition should not oppose Government policies. Out taxes fund opposition political
parties, MPs, Senators and MCAs so that they can oppose Government policies and hold Government to account.
So let us celebrate the visit by Obama as the first seating President of the US to visit Kenya and Ethiopia but we should not be carried away by the euphoria.
The task of transforming Kenya and Africa into better democracies and prosperous societies for posterity depends on us the citizens and we may not have much support in this task from President Obama.
Tony Sisule is a Kenyan economist and lawyer.