Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Merchant of Hope

Yesterday and today, U. S. President Barack Hussein Obama made his second visit to an African country after coming in to office. He made a major policy speech to the Ghanaian Parliament in which he spoke candidly about the failures of African governments, as well as the challenges and opportunities of the present and the future. The title was a typically Obaman one: "A New Moment of Promise in Africa". The speech has been characterised as a strong dose of "tough love."

President Obama's first visit to an African country was in early June 2009, to Egypt. Again he made a major policy speech, this time at Cairo University. The title? "A New Beginning". The same hopeful theme--apparently. But was it really?

Reading and comparing the two speeches, I couldn't help but be struck by the difference in tone between them. In the Egypt speech, President Obama adopted a more cautious, almost conciliatory, approach. In the Ghana speech he was much more hard-hitting and blunt--and rightly so. But still, it makes me wonder about the real motivations and drivers behind these two speeches. It's not as though the countries of North Africa are paragons of virtue with regard to good government.

President Obama (quite rightly) slammed Sub-Saharan countries for their failures of governance. But when the BBC's Justin Webb asked him in an interview just before his trip to Egypt whether he regarded President Hosni Mubarak as an authoritarian ruler, President Obama replied: "No, I tend not to use labels for folks...I think he has been a force for stability and good in the region."

Clearly, President Obama has no problems accurately labelling the problems of Sub-Saharan Africa: the words "disease", "conflict", "tribalism", "patronage", "nepotism", corruption", "brutality" and "bribery" all made it into the Ghana speech. So why call the Egyptian spade a horticultural, earth-inverting implement?

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