The Obamas’ Not So Excellent African Adventure

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The Obamas arrive in South Africa

President Obama’s recent trip to Africa drew some criticism for its estimated  60-100 million dollar cost. In addition to his wife and daughters, his mother-in-law and a cousin were in tow. Much of the costs are guess-work as security operations are classified. Overall,there is a case for the president as a big spender, but this trip is more or less in  line with what has gone before.

US presidents go to Africa. The president went briefly to Ghana  in 2009. Mr Bush went twice, and as ex-President has been a number of times, and was on the continent while Mr Obama was traveling there this time. President Clinton took a one week trip in 1998. Jimmy Carter was the first American President to visit Sub Saharan Africa. While Presidents Reagan and H.W. Bush did not follow on Mr Carter’ s trailblazing, it now appears to be de rigueur for American presidents to take an African trip.

The question is, why? With it its resources and unstable governments, the continent was a cockpit during the cold war, but left to development and intelligence types. The US has no strategic alliances with any black African nation, and while the establishment of the Africom (Established in 2006 under the Bush Administration) command may presage a future struggle, it would be hard now to find any compelling national interest in Africa. Wars may rage and populations flee, but the brutal fact is that ii matters little in current geo-strategic terms, and not at all to ordinary citizens.

So why do our leaders go there?

First, it’s fun. The reception there seems heartfelt, and it’s hard to find anyone getting the treatment Nixon once did in South America.

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Cute kids, colorful local dress

There were a few demonstrators out in South Africa, but Mr. Obama was generally received enthusiastically, and courteously. African kids are just too cute, and that makes for great visuals. The music, dancing and colorful dress must provide a real boost, particularly when things are not going so well Stateside.

Then, being from the government, and leaders, our Presidents want to help, and do stuff. Every African trip results in some sort of “initiative” with a few billion dropped off to keep the local rulers in gold braid and the foreign NGOs in SUVs and Macs.

OBAMADANCE

The LA Times noted the proclivity of American leaders to dance when introduced to African rhythms. The President refrained, they say, but he’s either jogging or getting with the beat. Messrs Carter and Clinton kept their feet firmly on the ground, But Mr. Bush and Mrs. Clinton get their groves on whenever they are in the region.
   The VOA, Hurriyet, the Tanzanian press, and other displaying this image all lead with news of a new ‘initiative.”

That all such help seems to have had no effect at all is lost on these guys, regardless of party. There is a bland well-meaning and quite unself-conscious condescension in all this.

Really, what on earth can people who live in a taxpayer-funded mansion, travel in a luxury jet, and who move with great ease through a continent were many are lucky to find an over crowded bus on an appalling road. If there are roads at all. The Obamas did as well as any of their predecessors in displaying a tin ear as they dispensed platitudes in the course of their progress.

In Senegal, the First lady engaged with students at a girls’ school. It is customary for politicians to “relate” to their constituents. Just a regular Joe.  Mrs Obama deployed this technique when she said:

I know a little bit about this{the students’ struggles and adversities} from my

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Heartfelt reception: First Lady at girls’ school in Senegal

own experience.  See, like many of you, I didn’t grow up in a family with a lot of money.  My parents had to work hard every day to support us, so they never had the chance to get the kind of education they wanted for themselves.  But they had big dreams for me.  And more than anything in the world, they wanted me to graduate from secondary school and attend a university.  So they, too, made tremendous sacrifices to make that dream come true.”

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             The First Lady’s childhood home.

The President’s wife has been poor mouthing this way since at least her time in Princeton, as  her thesis demonstrates. Her father had a secure city government job that provided adequately for his family. Working hard every day to support a family is a situation millions would wish for. Michelle Obama has always had a warm bed, food on the table, decent clothing and, beginning not long after her graduation from Princeton, considerably more.

It is grating enough for public figures who have never suffered want, and who have done extremely well, to pretend to a history of deprivation so as to make themselves seem authentic, but it is downright embarrassing to have such people wallow in this petty whining abroad in a far less fortunate corner of the earth, in the faces of some who have known, and are still engaged in real struggle. One wonders what the young ladies thought. The First Lady at least was attempting to encourage her audience. Her husband was distinctly discouraging, although one doubts he would see it this way.

Ultimately, if you think about all the youth that everybody has mentioned here in Africa, if everybody is raising living standards to the point where everybody has got a car and everybody has got air conditioning, and everybody has got a big house, well, the planet will boil over — unless we find new ways of producing energy.

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             Boiled planet

I took this quote from Media Matters, which was incensed that these remarks would be seen as condescending and demanding. They point out that the president spoke in the larger context of aiding Africa in benefiting from the advances he sees as necessary to prevent the continents from melting and the seas vaporizing.

This could exonerate the President only in the eyes of those who are thoroughly committed to the green agenda. The “new ways of producing energy” are not rolling out next week, so the essence of the President’s admonition is that Africa( and the world’s poor) must wait.

Why should they?

One wonders if any of the young African audience were science majors. The most ardent anthropogenic global warming seers do not posit a burning planet. Climate scientists are in fact revising their forecasts downward. Mr. Obama has perhaps been too busy with one thing or another to have heard about this.  Wherever one stands on the climate issue, the President in this instance sounds like an arrogant fool.

There is nothing wrong, in my view, with privilege. We should all aspire to it. Too often, however, the privileged are not only blind to their own advantages, but rather mean when it comes to extending them to others.

The kindest thing world leaders such as Mr Obama could do for Africa would be to simply stay away. And the same could be said for the “initiatives” they scatter like party favors.

A public figure long associated with Africa related causes, who has learned a little something about condescending to Africa, is Bono of U2, who last year said in regards to development in Africa:

Job creators and innovators are just the key, and aid is just a bridge,” he told an audience of 200 leading technology entrepreneurs and investors at the F.ounders tech conference in Dublin. “We see it as startup money, investment in new countries. A humbling thing was to learn the role of commerce.”

Humility in regards to Africa is not something we can expect from Western leaders. It just feels too good to spread money and good cheer in places where men and women survive, live, and sometimes, yes, thrive, in conditions the President, you, or I, cannot comprehend and could not last out a day.

The Romans had  saying “Semper Aliquid Novo ex Africam.”  “There is always something new coming out of Africa”.  While it is a continent of wonders, for too long the news has been monotonously dismal.  This has changed.  Unevenly, not fast enough perhaps, but still, incomes in Africa after decades of stagnation and decline, are rising.  Not “initiatives,” but Africans themselves are bringing this about.

Thus it behooves us to take something new to Africa.

Respect.

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