In Africa Obama Message Should Be: Democracy, Youth, Women, And Enterprise

[Publisher’s Comment]

President Barack Obama is traveling to Africa at a time when media reports show that Nelson Mandela’s health is fading. The development has cast a thick cloud over the president’s trip to the continent and Mandela’s condition is likely to dominate the news.

Still, Obama’s trip is critical and comes at a time when the U.S. is seeking a more meaningful relationship with the African continent that goes beyond cooperation only on issues that affect American military national security concerns. This is primarily because China has deepened its economic relationship with Africa in recent years, leaving the U.S. to catch up.

The obama administration argues that unlike China, the U.S. does want to increase trade with the continent, while working with emerging democracies in Africa; this position has been mostly rhetoric and needs to be turned into reality. The approach if adopted would be more enduring strategy in the long run and beneficial for both the U.S. and African countries.

Africa has always been poised for growth. As the Economist recently reported ” Six of the world’s ten fastest growing economies of the past decade are in sub-Saharan Africa. A clutch of countries have enjoyed growth in income per person of more than 5% a year since 2007.”

Here are some things the U.S. could do:

President Obama should repeat the core substance of his 2009 Accra, Ghana, speech. He said the days of tyrants were over in Africa. That the U.S. would work with countries that respect the rule of law, the constitution, and presidential term limits — that institutions of state should replace individuals, meaning there should be an end to indefinite or Life Presidencies. That’s why the president selected Senegal, South Africa, and Tanzania for his June 26 to July 3 trip.

In Senegal last year voters elected Macky Sall over  Abdoulaye Wade, who’s believed to be in his 80s, had served out his terms then tinkered with the constitution so he could extend his rule.

In South Africa President Obama plans to address the youth. Obviously his plans could be diverted depending on Mandela’s health. Still, the approach is right. In some African countries more that 44% of the population is under 15 years old. The future of Africa is in the hands of the youth but unemployment is high and there’s need to create more jobs. Youth all over the world are relatively tech savvy so focusing on seeding youth enterprises should be an area where the U.S. could encourage any investments from here on the continent.

South Africa has major challenges to address, such as land and wealth redistribution, and creation of decent housing for as many as 8 million South Africans who lack such dwellings.

Obama’s trip there highlights the fact that if South Africa, which is still dealing with the ugly vestiges of Apartheid can address it’s problems in a democratic environment with the rule of law, no African country can justify resorting to tyranny and denying people the right to elect their leaders.

Obama should speak in direct language to the Youth as he did when he was in Egypt in 2009. Africa’s youth must be at the forefront of reshaping Africa: in business, in education, in the sciences, and in political leadership as well.

In Tanzania President Obama reportedly plans to address a major business gathering while First Lady Michelle will meet with leading women leaders from around Africa.

China does about $300 billion in trade with Africa while the U.S. lags at about $100 billion. Americans will now take a more careful look at business and investment opportunities in Africa as Obama will make this a major focus of a U.S. presidential trip for the first time.

What’s more, by selecting Tanzania, the president is endorsing the country’s leadership for maintaining the most stable democratic environment in East Africa. It’s the home of the later revered President Julius K. Nyerere who was a visionary intellectual.

Also in East Africa President Obama should make a clear statement about Africans having the right to choose their leaders. Neighboring Uganda chafes under the dictatorship of Gen. Yoweri K. Museveni who’s been in office for nearly 30 years now. The dictator was favored by the U.S. because he stationed Ugandan troops in Somalia, which the U.S. feared would be overrun by al-Qaeda affiliated armies.

In Rwanda Gen. Paul Kagame has locked up his major political challengers and his militaristic regime has been characterized by repeated invasion of the DR Congo, together with Uganda, to loot that country’s rich mineral resources. Both Gen. Museveni and Gen. Kagame are in essence unindicted war criminals for their destruction of Congo.

The attendant wars have led to almost 10 million Congolese deaths. The U.S. has been a major financial and military supporter of Rwanda’s regime. In December in a phone call Obama urged Kagame to withdraw from Rwanda. He should now call on Gen. Kagame to release political prisoner Ms. Ingabire Victoire Umuhoza. Many people believe she would have won the last presidential elections had she not been locked up on trumped up treason charges.

Reconciliation in Rwanda can only occur once all political prisoners are released and all allowed to participate in the nation’s destiny.

Kenya is heading in the right direction. While the March elections were flawed, the violence that accompanied the vote five years ago was avoided. Raila Odinga accepted the Supreme court’s ruling affirming Uhuru Kenyatta’s election as valid.

Michelle’s meetings in Tanzania will highlight the emergence of women in Africa. The continent now has female presidents in Liberia and in Malawi; still a small number when compared with the totals but still an improvement from just 10 years ago. Giving global visibility to women leaders in Africa will help accelerate the acceptance of women’s rights in general throughout the continent.

The African continent is endowed with all the resources needed to fuel development on the continent and in the rest of the world. The continent has been held back by bad leadership and tyrants who embezzle resources, together with their foreign partners.

The U.S. could also encourage a “Club of Democrats” made of African countries that have embraced or have embarked on an irreversible road towards rule of law and work closely with these countries and invite the leaders to regular high level meetings.

The best thing the U.S. can do for Africa is to stop support for African dictators and allow democratization throughout the continent. This would pave the way for Africa’s youth and for Africa’s female leadership as well.

President Obama should ensure that the message he once sounded in Accra is turned into reality going forward.

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