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President Obama in Africa: Taking responsibility begins at home

July 12, 2009

by Nicole C. Lee, NNPA Columnist

Gold is the symbol of wealth, but no value is placed on the lives of these gold miners, a few of the 20,000 working at the AngloGold Ashanti (AGA) mine in Mongbwalu, Congo. Forced to use cyanide to extract the gold, they earn little but an early grave. Exploitation of African people and resources to feed Western greed has changed little since the days of King Leopold. – Photo: CAFOD
Gold is the symbol of wealth, but no value is placed on the lives of these gold miners, a few of the 20,000 working at the AngloGold Ashanti (AGA) mine in Mongbwalu, Congo. Forced to use cyanide to extract the gold, they earn little but an early grave. Exploitation of African people and resources to feed Western greed has changed little since the days of King Leopold. – Photo: CAFOD
While discussing Africa ahead of his trip to Ghana, President Obama stated he is not a big believer in excuses. I understand the president’s frustration.

It pains me to see the same stories of poverty, violence and corruption play out time and time again. As a native son, the president has a unique and daunting opportunity to leave the African continent in a better position than when he took office. However, unlike the messages being sent to the people of the Middle East, Latin America or even Russia, President Obama is taking what some in the administration have called the “tough love” approach toward Africa.

But if we are going to demonstrate “tough love,” we also need to talk about the facts.

The fact is that the U.S. behaves badly in Africa. Not 20 years ago. Not five years ago. I am talking about today. The fact is that the U.S. has historically and repeatedly undercut Africa’s ability to develop real democracies and sustainable economies. During the Cold War, the U.S. hand-picked and supported several dictators. In the aftermath, we left Africa to deal with the mess and the debts of those dictators. We demanded repayment of the debts in full despite widespread poverty and a growing AIDS pandemic.

The fact is that the U.S. dumps underpriced food into many African nations, undercutting indigenous farming and perpetuating a culture of dependence. Under our current trade policies, we demand African markets stay wide open to our imports, while refusing to allow one African banana through customs.

At the G-8 summit in L’Aquila last week, President Obama spoke of the global hunger crisis and stated that wealthier nations have a moral obligation to address the issue. He talked about the villages in Kenya where his family lives and suggested that people on the ground believe that the institutions and governance aren’t working for ordinary people and must be addressed.

How are we to address those issues if we are behind the governance problem which suppresses so many African people?

We don’t have to look all the way back to slavery, colonialism or the overthrow of democrats like Lumumba. Even today, U.S. corporations act with impunity in many countries of the continent because the governments are too impotent to stop them. Bono, in writing about Obama’s message to Africa, said: “Corruption stalks Africa’s reformers. ‘If you fight corruption, it fights you back,’ a former Nigerian anti-corruption official said.” Well, this is very true, but we cannot ignore the fact that behind the corruption, it is too often an American policy or corporation pulling the strings.

Admittedly, these facts do not play well in a sound bite. It is easy to blame Africans for “their problems,” but the U.S. seems unwilling at times to admit our own responsibility in the creation of those problems.

If we demand a trend of responsibility, then the U.S. should lead the way by doing just that. We must take responsibility for our fiscal and trade policies which have undercut vital reform in Africa. We must also take responsibility for our involvement in funding corrupt leaders to help them stay in power, which further destroys organic progress and development.

A new day seems to be dawning as we explore a new way forward with the Middle East, Latin America and Russia, yet our relationship with Africa seems to lag behind. While I genuinely believe that there is a will to produce a sound partnership based on trust and common values, many in Africa must wonder how these promises will differ from those they have heard before.

Taking responsibility begins at home, and there is no excuse for the U.S. not to own up to our own past. We must acknowledge the negative effects of so many of our current policies. Then, and only then, can we strive to lead from a place of virtue and not of sympathetic condescension.

Nicole C. Lee is executive director of TransAfrica Forum, having been appointed in 2006 by the board of directors chaired by Danny Glover. After earning her law degree, she worked in Haiti investigating and prosecuting the human rights violations committed by the military during the 1994 coup. NNPA, the National Newspaper Publishers Association, serves over 200 Black newspapers. Read more stories from the Black press at www.BlackPressUSA.com.

2 thoughts on “President Obama in Africa: Taking responsibility begins at home

  1. Rev. Mmoja Ajabu

    In his speech in Ghana President Obama mentioned Zimbabwe three times. It appears that he is trying to make the case that American sanctions is not the cause of Zimbabwe’s present economic condition. Sanctions may not be all at fault but they are definitely making a contribution that is causing innocent men, women and children to die of starvation. Call the white house and your congress person and ask them to support House Resolution 238 as it has been changed below:

    H.RES.238
    Recognizing the threat to international security and basic human dignity posed by the catastrophic decline of economic, humanitarian, and human rights conditions in the Republic of… (Introduced in House)

    HRES 238 IH

    111th CONGRESS

    1st Session

    H. RES. 238

    Recognizing the threat to international security and basic human dignity posed by the catastrophic decline of economic, humanitarian, and human rights conditions in the Republic of Zimbabwe.

    IN THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES

    March 12, 2009
    Ms. ROS-LEHTINEN (for herself, Mr. ROYCE, Mr. SMITH of New Jersey, Mr. MCCOTTER, Mr. BURTON of Indiana, Mr. ROHRABACHER, Mr. FLAKE, Mr. INGLIS, Mr. BILIRAKIS, and Mr. WOLF) submitted the following resolution; which was referred to the Committee on Foreign Affairs

    ——————————————————————————–

    RESOLUTION

    Recognizing the threat to international security and basic human dignity posed by the catastrophic decline of economic, humanitarian, and human rights conditions in the Republic of Zimbabwe.

    Whereas a number of circumstances have contributed directly to the collapse of the Republic of Zimbabwe’s economy, public health care, and education systems, and other basic social services;

    Whereas water treatment and delivery have dramatically declined, and many other basic social services, such as trash collection, have effectively ceased in urban areas, posing significant health risks due to poor sanitation;

    Whereas, with the unemployment rate at 94 percent and with food and fuel in short supply, Zimbabweans now contend with widespread malnutrition rates and outbreaks of infectious diseases;

    Whereas according to the World Food Program, almost three quarters of the population, nearly 7,000,000 people, will require emergency food aid in the coming months;

    Whereas, in a country that was once heralded as the breadbasket of Africa, a higher percentage of its citizens now rely on food aid than in any other country in the world;

    Whereas, with limited access to food, health care, clean water and basic sanitation, life expectancy in Zimbabwe has fallen from 62 years in 1990 to just 34 years today;

    Whereas as a result of the political and economic crisis, and subsequent flight of trained health professionals, public hospitals and clinics throughout the country have been forced to close their doors, leaving most Zimbabweans with little to no access to health care;

    Whereas Zimbabwe has one of the highest HIV prevalence rates in the world;

    Whereas HIV clinics in Zimbabwe increasingly have had limited-to-no access to test kits, blood sample kits, and drugs to treat opportunistic infections, and high malnutrition rates have rendered many suffering from AIDS unable to take the necessary antiretroviral medications;

    Whereas, as a direct result of the collapse of Zimbabwe’s health and sanitation services, the country is in the middle of a nationwide cholera epidemic, with over 89,000 cases reported and over 4,000 dead;

    Whereas the spreading of this disease was preventable and has since become a regional problem, with cases reported in all of Zimbabwe’s neighboring countries; and

    Whereas, in addition to cholera, HIV/AIDS, and tuberculosis, Zimbabwe’s crumbling health infrastructure is now also challenged by the emergence of several hundred human cases of anthrax, which were reportedly contracted as a result of starving Zimbabweans eating carrion, or dead and putrefying animals: Now, therefore, be it

    Resolved, That the House of Representatives–

    (1) recognizes the threat to international security and basic human dignity posed by the catastrophic decline of economic, humanitarian, and human rights conditions in the Republic of Zimbabwe;

    (2) deplores the current crisis and untold suffering which is upon the people of Zimbabwe;

    (3) urges all responsible nations to join the United States in providing urgently needed humanitarian relief to the Zimbabwean people, as necessary and appropriate, with a particular emphasis on food, clean water, and basic sanitation, in an effort to ameliorate the ongoing humanitarian emergency and confront the cholera epidemic which now poses a transnational threat;

    (4) requests that nongovernmental organizations engaged in humanitarian relief activities be given sufficient space to operate; and

    (5) request that all political prisoners be released immediately and all spurious charges unjustly leveled against them be dropped.

    (6) and demands that the sanctions upon Zimbabwe be immediately lifted so this tragic situation can be resolved as soon as possible.

    Reply

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