Sunday 12 July 2009

Ghana: No antibodies for this virus - Obama's speech

Not the miracle speech

Commentary has been flowing online and on the airwaves about President Barack Obama’s speech to the Ghanaian parliament.

I attentively listened to what he had to say and then read through the transcript of his speech just to corroborate what I heard with what was said.

I was almost annoyed with the bellyaching that has come from some who seemed to be expecting this speech to end all speeches, a work of oratory to make Pluto a planet again, words that would change Africa like Jesus said “Rise up and walk”.

Indeed, there were so many looking to be impressed and bowled over that they might just have lost the significance of the visit to Ghana and the speech itself.

Ghana was really second in Africa

Africa has 53 countries and in the run up to President Obama’s visit to Ghana we had all been made aware of the reason why Ghana was chosen as the second African country not as the first African country to be visited by him, that was Egypt – we sometimes forget that Arabian North Africa is very much part of Africa, the Middle East is geo-political moniker, not a continent.

It is clear that President Obama was persuaded of strong democratic institutions and reforms that engender development and opportunity. It would also appear that he had only had two countries to mind that met that basic qualification for validation in those terms and he mentioned them in his speech as Ghana and Botswana.

No antibodies for this virus

However, what must not be lost as the significance of this visit to Ghana must be the fact that President Obama in his status, stature and progeny represents by analogy for the first time ever a virus against which the pachydermatous and megalomaniacal leaders of Africa have no antibodies.

One glaring fact is exemplified in this statement made in his speech, “the West is not responsible for the destruction of the Zimbabwean economy over the last decade”. Imagine the deluge of condemnation and contempt that would have swept over him from the Grand Despot of Africa if this statement had been made by any other leader.

In other words, President Obama was laying down the ground rules for constructive engagement with a changing world, but most importantly declaring the fact that the responsibility for change in Africa is squarely in the hands of Africans themselves. The fallback excuse of the legacy of colonialism can no more hold water just as neither the Japanese nor the Germans can blame anything in their countries today on the losses they suffered in the Second World War and occupation by the victors of that war.

Changing focus of aid

However, I have digressed, what I take from this speech is the radical change in the way aid is distributed and used in Africa – rather than having aid bolster businesses and bureaucracies of the donor countries, it would be geared to helping build capacity in recipient countries by engaging local resources and expertise allowed for a greater percentage of the aid to reach its intended purpose.

This I think would appeal to the Dead Aid bandwagon that have argued that the aid industry itself absorbs most of the aid reducing the amount of aid that is supposed to reach the intended causes for which aid has been raised.

Democracy and the opposition

Meanwhile, President Obama has not redefined democracy but he has clearly indicated that it is definitely more than the sprinkling of elections, there is a governance, accountability and responsibility to being in government by the consent of the people and for the good of all the people for the duration of the term for which that government has been elected.

However, more tellingly about the state of affairs in Ghana is the way the President of the United States of America was greeted by both the government and members of the opposition. The end of brinkmanship politics based on difference, rancour, power and abuse needs to be in sight for things to progress throughout Africa.

Speaking to a greater multitude

President Obama might have been speaking to the Ghanaian parliament yesterday but he was finger-pointing at a good deal of leaders not only in Africa but all around the world which includes those who “change constitutions to stay in power” as in Venezuela, Niger, Ecuador, Peru, the botched attempt in Nigeria and the failed attempt in Honduras – your books are marked.

I was not expecting the speech to be the beatitudes or the Hippocratic Oath of democracy, rather, the speech struck the right balance as an introduction to what is expected of those in leadership and those who seem to be in power but not in office – for some listeners however, it was the Riot Act and it probably would have smelt like tear gas to them.


Obama in Ghana file, PDF with pictures and transcript of speech available from

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