Sunday November 11 2012

Africa’s future is up to Africans, not Obama. Thanks very much

By Bernard Tabaire

It is time once again for some well-meaning Africans to ask what an elected or re-elected US President has in store for Africa. I am yet to grasp fully the logic of the fuss. That these last two elections have sent and re-sent to the White House a part-Kenyan president makes the issue all the more urgent. People, Africa (read Uganda) is not Israel.

Shut up and get on with your business. “Africa’s future is up to Africans,” the said leader of the free world, Barack Obama, said three years ago on a quickie visit to Accra. Maybe we should be asking what Africa has in store for the United States and the rest of the world regardless of who is in the White House.

Seriously, though, the US, or Mr Obama for that matter, has something for Africa. But that something is not altruistic – coming from the good heart of the White House to benefit the teeming masses of Mother Africa. It is all about America. As it should be, I say.

Things get more interesting when China, which kicked off its leadership change this past week just as Mr Obama was basking in his victory, comes into the picture.

China is playing big in Africa –building roads, railways, stadia, hospitals, convention centres and palaces in return for deals in the natural (extractive) resources sector. In 2009, one report says, “Guinea [Conakry] announced a $7 billion infrastructure deal offering a Chinese firm, the China International Fund, a “strategic partnership” in all mining projects.” Many other multi-billion dollar deals around the continent have been, and are being, sealed along the same lines.

China is widely reported to be on course to overtaking the United States as the world’s largest economy in a few years. The US surely wants to retain its number one position.
Africa, finally growing economically, offers a chance to both countries. The Chinese are almost entirely into tangible things – minerals, timber, oil. The Americans, well, they want the same things but because of history, and some coyness, they mention them only amongst many other interests.

In June, the Obama administration issued its US Strategy Toward Sub-Saharan Africa with these objectives: “(1) strengthen democratic institutions; (2) spur economic growth, trade, and investment; (3) advance peace and security; and (4) promote opportunity and development. Across all objectives, we will: deepen our engagement with Africa’s young leaders; seek to empower marginalised populations and women; address the unique needs of fragile and post-conflict states; and work closely with the UN and other multilateral actors to achieve our objectives on the continent.”

Not bad, you say.
The strategy also lists America’s “core interests in sub-Saharan Africa: ensuring the security of the United States, our citizens, and our allies and partners; promoting democratic states that are economically vibrant and strong partners of the United States on the world stage; expanding opportunities for US trade and investment; preventing conflict and mass atrocities; and fostering broad-based, sustainable economic growth and poverty alleviation”.

Note the bit about “expanding opportunities for US trade and investment”. Just in case, President Obama makes clear his introduction to the strategy, saying that his country “will encourage American companies to seize trade and investment opportunities in Africa, so that their skills, capital, and technology will further support the region’s economic expansion, while helping to create jobs here in America”. The little phrase about American money and know-how supporting Africa’s “economic expansion” should not blind us to America’s real intent here: our resources.

Bush or Obama or Romney, it is all about the United States. Jiang Zemin or Hu Jintao or Xi Jinping, it is all about China. Washington and Beijing only differ in approach toward Africa but the intent is the same.

What Africa needs, at country level and possibly collectively, is clarity about what it wants from these big powers. The problem is that no such broad debate is going on in places like Uganda. Only President Museveni knows what the heck he wants from China, if anything.

As a Ugandan, I think we should mind our own business. But, hey, I also recognise we cannot be insular, and that the world is not equal. The big fellows still bully the weaker ones and extract blood.

I therefore have only one desire: will anyone help us fight corruption because no one in Uganda will? China need not apply, not after President Jintao warned on Thursday at the opening of the Communist Party congress that corruption “could prove fatal to the party” and potentially lead to the “fall of the state”.
Hello MrObama.

Mr Tabaire is a media consultant with the African Centre for Media Excellence.