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Dear Obama: Corruption Isn’t Just Africa’s Problem

What the U.S. president didn’t say in his big Nairobi speech.

Howard French
Howard French
Howard W. French
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy.
GettyImages-482178358 CROPPED
GettyImages-482178358 CROPPED

For an American president celebrated by many of his listeners as a returning native son, Barack Obama’s recent speech in a Nairobi stadium was a strange way to promote what he called an Africa “on the move.”

For an American president celebrated by many of his listeners as a returning native son, Barack Obama’s recent speech in a Nairobi stadium was a strange way to promote what he called an Africa “on the move.”

Yes, there were plenty of feel-good moments in Nairobi, where a smiling Obama dined with family, dropped occasional phrases in Swahili, and danced with an easy grace to African rhythms before the cameras. It all thoroughly charmed an audience eager to embrace him.

But if one listened carefully, boiling down the message of the first Kenyan-American president (as he proudly called himself on this trip), what remained was an odd mixture of anachronistic and patronizing tropes plucked from the musty rucksack of American policy discourse toward the continent.

Sure, there were lots of references to fighting terrorism and to other relatively recent U.S. priorities, including the highly laudable goals of educating more girls and giving them equal opportunity, and defending the rights of lesbians and gays. Yet the themes Obama hammered away at most insistently stemmed from timeless caricatures of Africa. He spoke of wanting to do business with the continent on the basis of “trade not aid,” falsely furthering the old impression that Africa is a sinkhole for American development assistance, when in fact far more goes to other parts of the world. And he repeated the almost insulting truism that things work out best when Africans strive to solve their own problems — as if Africans have not been striving to do so all along.

Aside from this, Obama’s speech presented two major problems. The first is that even his tentative efforts to praise the continent’s potential — he spoke, for example, of surging mobile phone usage rates — didn’t adequately convey the scale and pace of change that Africa has seen in the last decade or so. One would scarcely have gotten a sense of this from his words, or indeed from most American news coverage of Africa, but the last fifteen years has been a time of general reduction in conflict, of democratic consolidation in many places, and especially of economic growth. Far from waiting on the kindness of outsiders, who built few schools for them during decades of colonial rule, African countries are now, on average, investing impressive amounts (measured as a percentage of GDP) in education.

Second, and closely related to the president’s disappointingly traditional messaging, is the fact that the United States has remained relatively detached from and even irrelevant to many of these changes. A consistent question among Obama’s audiences in Kenya and Ethiopia, as well as among virtual ones across the continent, heard in journalists’ interviews, in fact, was, “Where oh where are the Americans?”

The continent has famously seen a huge boom in the presence of Chinese people and business interests — both trade and investment — in the last decade or so. Less well-publicized, but just as real, many African countries are drawing interest from a wide variety of other foreign governments and business people, including nontraditional partners like Turkey, Vietnam, Russia, Malaysia, and Brazil. During this same period, the American presence on the continent has flagged, and numbers measuring U.S. economic engagement have stagnated. Obama himself spent less than 24 hours in sub-Saharan Africa during his first term, and put off what will likely be regarded as his most important visit to the continent until late in his second term. By contrast, China’s top leaders — either its president or prime minister — have been visiting Africa on a near-annual basis.

The relative newcomers to the African economic scene are drawn by a sense of great opportunity. For starters, economic growth in Africa as a region is roughly on par with Asia’s, and perhaps even a tad faster. The continent’s population is booming in ways that suggest even greater strengthening of these trends ahead. Over the next few decades, for example, no other part of the world will have as many people of prime working age. Already, no other part of the world is urbanizing faster. Contrary to widespread perception, Africa’s recent economic growth is increasingly driven by services and, to a lesser but still important degree, by manufacturing. This translates into less dependence on the traditional pillar of natural resources, which have a poor record of driving development and generating widely shared wealth.

By sticking so closely to an old-fashioned script, Obama squandered a unique chance to explain the changing realities of the continent to the American public. Over the short term this probably entails less American investment, which is, to be sure, a loss for Africa. It also means that fewer American business people will think of Africa as a place for trade and investment, which represents a continued loss of markets for the U.S. economy.

One of Obama’s messages stood out as particularly outmoded. This was the idea, to which he returned frequently, that Africa is glued in place, and unable to advance, because of corruption.

Speaking before the African Union, in Addis Ababa, Obama came dangerously close to framing the giving of bribes as “the African way,” claiming that “nothing will unlock Africa’s economic potential more than ending the cancer of corruption.” We can all readily agree that corruption is a scourge, but there is little factual basis to the idea that Africa is substantially more corrupt than many other parts of the world. Moreover, plenty of countries that are widely viewed as deeply corrupt have been historically strong economic performers, ranging from many of the so-called Asian tigers, such as South Korea and Japan, to more recent examples such as China, India, or Brazil. Indeed, America’s own history of corruption, which Obama alluded to glancingly, suggests the same.

Similarly, there is little to no evidence to support Obama’s claim that corruption is the biggest impediment to Africa’s development. What of the many corrupt features of the international economic system, supported by the United States and other wealthy countries, such as laws that allow their corporations to register in tax havens like the Bahamas, form multiple shell companies, and drastically understate the value of their operations in poor countries? What of the ways that big international banks thrive off of illicit income streams of African leaders and their foreign partners, and help them shield their fortunes? A critique of African corruption would certainly have been much more credible if it had been seen as part of a far bigger picture.

To these ears, Obama’s rhetoric amounted, instead, to a distraction. He seemed almost to be suggesting that if Africans would only fix everything up and make their own countries tidy, more or less eliminating corruption in the process, that they would then be fortunate enough to attract American interest and investment. The logic behind this assumption is deeply flawed. Return on investment in Africa is already among the highest in the world, meaning that risk and hardship are handsomely rewarded.

Moreover, the Africa of tomorrow is being built today, in cities like Addis Ababa, where Obama spoke, and in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, where I listened to him. In places like these, and in many others around the continent, giant, modern communities are being forged, replete with extensive new telecommunications networks and transportation infrastructure, including new urban railway systems. Most of the corresponding investment is based on deals struck with others (not only the Chinese).

In other words, Africa’s future partnerships are being built right now, and so far the United States is almost totally absent. Washington’s one significant initiative in this regard, the Obama administration’s Power Africa program, which was intended to have a major impact on electricity generation around the continent through private investment, has so far achieved little. It is uncertain what support it will enjoy in Washington after Obama leaves office.

The Obama message on politics was scarcely better. Here, he spoke of the need for greater democratization, including free and fair elections and respect for presidential term limits. Yet he ended up fatally muddling the message. In Ethiopia, he suggested that the government of his host country was “democratically elected,” even though the ruling party there had recently won 100 percent of the seats in parliament, as was once common in a bygone authoritarian era across Africa. Just a few hours before this speech, he had criticized another election, in Burundi, as “not credible” (though there the opposition won 23 percent of the vote).

This fooled no one in Africa, and conveyed an impression that Washington’s commitment to democracy and human rights on the continent is deeply unserious. American policy is heavily driven by security interests, most of which are linked to the struggle against radical Islam. Washington speaks up about democracy only in states where it judges its interests to be marginal, like Burundi or Zimbabwe, or in countries whose leaders it has other reasons to oppose, like Sudan. Meanwhile, a bevy of longtime security partners like Ethiopia, Rwanda, and Uganda, all highly authoritarian, with a history of presidents who stay in office as long as they can, get a free pass. (While he later gave a speech criticizing leaders who stay in office too long, he did not deign to name names.) In other strongly authoritarian countries, like Angola or Equatorial Guinea, where there are important economic stakes tied to oil, Washington is also all but mute about democracy (or corruption, for that matter).

In short, America now confronts a familiar dilemma in its relations with Africa. It involves what I call the “yes, but” problem. Tell Americans the continent is becoming more democratic, as it has been gradually, if fitfully, for years, and they tell you “Yes, but there are dictators and conflicts here and there.” Tell them it is growing demographically, and they say, “Yes, but the people there are poor.” Tell them that it is growing economically, and they say “Yes, but it’s corrupt, and so hard to do business there.” Tell them that their closest partners are authoritarians or despots, and they say, “Yes, but their countries are at peace. Isn’t that enough?”

Changing the United States’ troubled and distant relationship will mean working hard to overcome a deep tradition of low expectations, and of systematic disregard for Africa’s potential. Even beyond his unique personal biography, the one thing the Obama visit showed is the eagerness of Africans to engage with the United States toward positive ends. The sad reality, given the scant time remaining in Obama’s term and the American political calendar, is that finding the will to respond will probably have to await whoever follows the first African-American president.

Photo credit: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Howard W. French is a columnist at Foreign Policy, a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and a longtime foreign correspondent. His latest book is Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War. Twitter: @hofrench

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