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President Obama’s Ghana Speech

During his visit to Africa, on July 11, 2009, President Barack Obama addressed Ghana’s parliament. His speech cannot have been easy to write or to give. Courtesy alone suggested that in the presence of politicians likely to be stung by his remarks, diplomatic discretion was required. Nevertheless, after decades in which the continent’s problems have been treated with a mixture of embarrassed silence or cynical indifference, Mr Obama spoke with refreshing bluntness about the state of affairs in Africa, and about the affairs of Africa’s states.

He said that Africa’s future is up to Africans. He said that aid is not an end in itself, and that “the purpose of foreign assistance must be creating the conditions where it is no longer needed.” He said that the time for blaming the West and colonialism is long past, and that “the West is not responsible for the destruction of the Zimbabwean economy” or for “wars in which children are enlisted as combatants.” America would continue to help, but what it expected was democracy, not tyranny, and certainly not countries where government corruption ensured that 20 percent is skimmed off the top when anyone tries to invest.

In the 21st century, capable, reliable and transparent institutions are the key to success — strong parliaments and honest police forces; independent judges and journalists; a vibrant private sector and civil society…
People everywhere should have the right to start a business or get an education without paying a bribe.

Some say the president is just a speech-maker. They say that making speeches is what he likes to do and what he does best. They say this was just one speech among others. But what he said in Ghana carried unusual conviction, spelling out a number of things that should have been spelled out long ago. For trying to introduce some realism into our understanding of Africa we wish him well.

The essays collected here in the “Africana” section discuss various matters the president touched on. Out of Africa wonders why exactly the “international community” should have an obligation to enter African countries, at huge expense, in order to militarily stop internecine or intertribal conflicts that are endemic, ancient, and that most of the time cannot be settled by force — let alone by outsiders. Dereliction Express looks at the way so many roads and buildings and machines in Africa are habitually neglected, and suggests the problem of maintenance is more than just a matter of cash or know-how: entrenched attitudes are also involved.

Can Sudan be Saved? asks whether the food problem in many places is economic, or is it because marauding bands of lawless militias have created such fear and instability that farmers give up trying to grow and harvest crops. Well-meaning intervention in Africa goes back a very long way. Starting with an effort to suppress the slave trade in the 1860s, Humanitarian Disasters tells how there has been a series of Western campaigns to improve the prospects of the peoples of Sudan. Although vast sums have been spent there is very little to show for it today.

Posted in Africana.