Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Africa goes to Washington

    Tom: I can’t tell you how many times your father and I have discussed your future.
    Michael: You and my father discussed my future?
Tom: Yes, many times.
 Michael: But I’ve got my own plans for my future.
                                                                                                             The Godfather

Africa went to Washington last week and The Washington Post had a field day with the assembled delegates, or at least their consorts. Leading the pack was Mrs Biya – ‘The first lady of Cameroon and her hair have touched down in D.C.’ – which extolled the achievements of Madam’s ‘bouffant’, which was ‘a beauty school master’s thesis in contradictions,’ somehow managing to be ‘short and long, rebellious yet elegant, unruly but controlled.’ Mauritania’s ‘chic’ Lady Tekber Mint Melainine Ould Ahmed managed to make ‘wearing aviators at night look cool.’ Not to be outdone was the Rwandan president’s daughter, who towered above everyone else and so could afford a more demure look. Sadly, our own Patience wasn’t in attendance, although this might have been just as well.
It seems that some serious discussions did occur in the course of the three days, things like encouraging ‘progress in key areas that Africans define as critical for the future of the continent,’ things like ‘expanding trade and investment ties,’ things like ‘engaging young African leaders, promoting inclusive sustainable development, expanding cooperation on peace and security, and gaining a better future for Africa’s next generation,’ in the words of the White House press release.
These are all doubtless laudable ambitions but not a few raised sceptical voices. One of them, Mukoma Wa Thiong’o, likened the event to ‘a father calling his children to discuss their futures,’ which some thought a cheap jibe. Another, Mo Ibrahim, the British-Sudanese businessman who offers an annual $5mn reward for African leaders who pass the sobriety test, i.e. leave office without falling or being pushed (but which, significantly, has not been awarded in the last two years). As he bluntly put it:
Everywhere in Africa there are Chinese businesspeople, there are Brazilian businesspeople. None of us went to Brazil or to Asia or to China to tell them, look, come and invest in Africa. They found out themselves and they come and invest. That’s how basic business people behave. Why do we need to come and inform these misinformed American businesses? You know, you guys invented Google. Use it please.

China, as everyone pointed out, was the great bugbear behind this sudden rush to do something about Africa, as indeed Obama confirmed in an interview with The Economist of London the previous week: ‘My advice to African leaders is to make sure that if, in fact, China is putting in roads and bridges, number one, that they're hiring African workers; number two, that the roads don't just lead from the mine to the port to Shanghai.’ The US, by contrast, doesn’t ‘simply want to extract minerals from the ground for our growth’ but to ‘build genuine partnerships that create jobs and opportunity for all our peoples and that unleash the next era of African growth.’ Not everyone was convinced. A sulking Zimbabwe, one of the three countries barred from dinner on account of its human rights record, understood the gathering to be ‘America pursuing its interests, afraid that China has made headway,’ according to a statement by that country’s information minister.
But there was also something about Obama needing to leave behind an African legacy, which seems to have become de rigueur for American presidents. Both his predecessors had staked their own claims, Clinton by negotiating the African Growth and Opportunity Act, George W. Bush by throwing money at HIV/AIDS (along with his country’s pharmaceutical industry), yet neither had their successor’s continental roots, and which Obama himself was now –belatedly - claiming: ‘I also stand before you as a man from Africa. The blood of Africa runs through our family.'
Unfortunately, the blood line didn’t extend beyond the distinguished guests. At the closing press conference, to which he turned up over an hour late, the White House press corps was given front-row seats while the African journalists ‘scrabbled for space behind the cameras’ and never got a chance to ask any questions before Oga was ‘whisked out of the building,’ leaving one of the African journalists to wonder, ‘What did we come all this way for?’
In fact, much the same question might have been asked by the assorted heads of state (and their consorts) had they been able to see beyond the fancy dinner. When all the noise had died down, Obama announced a $14bn investment pledge by US companies. To put this into context, the US has blown $104bn in Afghanistan alone, but the real question is: Was it necessary for all those African heads of state – and never mind the journalists - to travel to Washington en masse in order to secure such a risible sum, less even than the former Central Bank governor accused our very own NNPC of purloining under the leadership of a minister known for her financial recklessness?
One wonders for how long we here in Africa will continue to look to the foreigner to save us from ourselves. Five centuries and more of slavery, colonialism and exploitation – whether from Europe, the US or China – have still not convinced us that the solutions to Africa’s many problems lie with us, not them. To that end, we have been given all the resources we need, the very resources Europe, the US and China are here for in the first place. That our heads of state – and their consorts – even honoured the invitation to have dinner in the White House is a measure of how far we still have to go. Well, so be it. One day we will wake up to the realisation that we need our own plans for our future. Until that day, we will continue to go a-begging in the vain hope that foreigners really do have our best interests at heart.
© Adewale Maja-Pearce

Adewale Maja-Pearce is the author of several books, including Loyalties
and Other Stories, In My Father's Country, How many miles to Babylon?, A
Mask Dancing, Who's Afraid of Wole Soyinka?, From Khaki to Agbada,
Remembering Ken Saro-Wiwa and Other Essays, A Peculiar Tragedy, and
Counting the Cost, as well as the 1998 and 1999 annual reports on human
rights violations in Nigeria. He also edited The Heinemann Book of African
Poetry in English, Wole Soyinka: An Appraisal, Christopher Okigbo:
Collected Poems, The New Gong Book of New Nigerian Short Stories,
and Dream Chasers. The House My Father Built, a memoir, will be
published later this year.

Click here to see Maja-Pearce's
amazon.com page: http://www.amazon.com/Adewale-Maja-Pearce/e/B001HPKIOU


  1. Well said.

    Obama may yet leave behind an African legacy if ZMapp becomes the drug that put an end to an epidemic.

    But it is all in the timing as unfortunately the death toll from EVD rises alarmingly as America works with commercial and government partners to quickly increase production of the drug.

    Am afraid that some obscure country will emerge with both a vaccine and a cure and upstage the US as local champion.

    Whether we like it or not we do need a savior at this time.

  2. We do indeed need a saviour. We look forward to the day when one will emerge from among us.