Thursday, July 09, 2009

Obama's Africa Visit Must Be About More Than Promises

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

President Obama’s two day visit to Ghana is history making only in the sense that he’s the first African-American president to visit the continent. President Clinton and Bush also made extended trips to African nations during their presidency. And both former presidents made big promises to boost trade, business ties, aid dollars, and wage an aggressive battle against corruption and disease, and to promote democracy. Though Clinton and especially Bush did substantially boost cash to fight HIV-Aids and other diseases, the score of other promises they made was just that promises.

Now Obama has a chance to add real body to those promises. He talks of a new partnership with Africa. This implies that the U.S. will bump Africa higher up on the White House’s radar scope. He must be true to his word.
This means more than uttering a few platitudes about the crime of slavery, the devastation of AIDS and other diseases, making more promises of a bigger role for the U.S. in ending the slaughter in Darfur and the Congo, and a saber-rattle of Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe.

United Nations reports continue to tell a dire story about the plight of the continent. 20 African countries have repeatedly ranked dead last on a list of economic development rates for the world’s nations. At their present rates of growth it will take these nations a century to achieve universal primary education, and 150 years to cut poverty in half and child mortality by two-thirds.

Much of the blame for the famine, disease, poverty and corruption that seem endemic to many African countries can be dumped squarely on the backs of a long parade of African dictators, despots and demagogues. While Ghana, Obama’s host country, is a stable, functioning democracy, and has a relatively good human rights records, it’s an aberration among many African nations. Africa’s dictators have killed, maimed and terrorized their citizens, rigged or rejected free elections and systematically looted their countries’ treasuries while living in palatial splendor. Their greed and dictatorial rule have locked many of the nations into destructive and near permanent cycles of poverty, war, disease and dependency that have become Africa’s trademark.

Meanwhile, Africa’s military rulers have squandered millions of their countries’ meager funds on sophisticated weapons, mostly to keep themselves in power. They have turned the Congo, and for a time Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Liberia into killing fields.

Then there’s the AIDS epidemic. Nearly 70 percent of the millions worldwide afflicted with AIDS/HIV are in sub-Sahara Africa. In South Africa, more than 10 percent of the total population has HIV/AIDS. Only a tiny fraction of those with the disease have any hope of getting the potential life-sustaining anti-retroviral drugs. Bush’s pledge of $15 billion to fight AIDS and other diseases in Africa and the Caribbean during his White House tenure helped. But more money is still needed.
Also, Bush proposed a $5 billion to fund a Millennium Challenge Account to spur development in poor nations. The hitch was that Congress had to approve the funds, and even if it had, the money was not exclusively earmarked for African nations. Still, this is a proposal that’s worth revisiting. Obama should also call on Japan and the wealthier European nations to increase their aid to Africa. According to U.N. reports, these nations could and should double their foreign aid to spur African development.

The crucial need for Obama to put muscle into the pledge to provide more political and economic support to African nations is not based on charity, morality, or simply being a good contineantal neighbor. Africa is of vital potential economic and strategic importance to the United States. It contains a vast portion of the world’s copper, bauxite, chrome, uranium, gold and petroleum supplies. The growing list of pro-U.S. African client states provide Obama with reliable political allies in his war against terrorism and the fight against Muslim fundamentalism, as well as potential military bases.

African nations remain firmly locked in the grip of terrible poverty, disease, war and autocratic rule. The United States and wealthy nations can help lift that grip by massively increasing investment in African agriculture, transportation, manufacturing and technology; restructuring Africa’s crushing debt; encouraging greater regional integration and cooperation; condemning African nations’ disastrous military arms race; and, most important, challenging African nations to establish real democratic rule. Obama’s can truly make history with his Africa visit with a real start toward making this happen.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His weekly radio show, “The Hutchinson Report” can be heard on weekly in Los Angeles on KTYM Radio 1460 AM and nationally on