What Africa really expects from Barack Obama

To achieve Kenya’s vision 2030 and the vision of the AU of ‘an integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa, driven by its own citizens and representing a dynamic force in the global arena,’ the time is ripe for Obama to start inspiring the country and the continent’s political leadership .
United States (US) President Barack Obama’s attendance at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Nairobi this weekend made him the first sitting US president to visit Kenya since independence.

Many Kenyans see Obama as a son of the soil, as this is his father’s native land. To them, his visit was seen as a homecoming. Obama echoed that sentiment this weekend when he said: ‘I am proud to be the first American president to come to Kenya, and of course I’m the first Kenyan-American to be president of the United States.’

What awaits Obama in Kenya’s development arena is, however, more complex. Kenyans have high expectations that the visit will address many of the issues that affect the country, and the continent at large. These include matters such as democracy, poverty, disease, terrorism, the weakening role of civil society and insecurity in general.

The democratic space on the continent is rapidly shrinking. Of the 54 African Union (AU) member states, only 24 states parties have signed and ratified the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance, which came into force on 15 February 2012. The charter enshrines African shared values on good governance, democracy and the rule of law, as well as respect for human rights, the need for free and transparent elections and condemning unconstitutional changes of government.

More than three years later, 23 states who have signed the charter are yet to ratify it. This includes Kenya. Six others have neither signed nor ratified the charter. This raises questions over African leaders’ commitment to democracy and good governance.

State fragility is also on the increase. South Sudan, Burundi and Lesotho, to mention a few, are on the verge of joining Somalia as failed states. The often-repeated rhetoric of ‘finding African solutions to Africa’s problems’ seems to be failing, as evidenced by the ongoing peace mediation in South Sudan.

The US is credited with having played a huge role in mediating decolonisation and subsequent independence in Africa in the 1950s and 1960s. On 12 February 1941, US president Franklin D Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill met to discuss the post-war world. This led to the Atlantic Charter. One of the provisions, introduced by Roosevelt, was the autonomy of imperial colonies. These were the result of the so-called Scramble for Africa in the late 19th century by Western European powers, and led to a majority of African states losing sovereignty and control of natural resources such as gold and rubber.

This scramble has not stopped. It has only increased and brought in more players from the east, north and west. Africa’s raw materials are still being sapped, and the continent continues to slowly bleed away its wealth through well-choreographed networks. Natural resources such as minerals, oil and gas are all diverted along these global networks, steadily jeopardising the likelihood of the continent being able to realise its development vision towards 2063.

Just as the US played a role in freeing Africa from its colonial past, it can likewise help to facilitate a more prosperous future for the continent by safeguarding its resources for sustainable development. It is estimated that Africa loses a total of US$38.4 billion a year through trade mispricing and US$25 billion through other illicit flows. This is more than what Africa receives through foreign aid and foreign direct investment. A joint report by the African Development Bank and Global Financial Integrity found that a staggering 60-65% of this lost revenue disappears in commercial transactions by multinational companies, including those from the US.

Corruption in Africa is on the rise, aiding the spread of poverty and destitution. To a great extent, corruption has led to the breakdown of institutions and the weakening of social, political and economic governance. Kenya, for instance, continues to be plagued by corruption at all levels of government due to limited accountability.

During his visit, Obama spoke about this issue. ‘Kenya is at crossroads, a moment filled with peril but enormous promise,’ he said. He then cited corruption as the biggest impediment to Kenya growing even faster as he warned that the ‘cancer’ of corruption was costing the country 250 000 jobs annually. He added that fighting corruption requires support of the Kenyan people and ‘visible prosecution.’

Kenya’s oversight institutions that were meant to fight corruption – including the National Assembly and County Assemblies – have instead accelerated it, with many pursuing selfish gains at the expense of citizens. Institutions such as the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission and the Office of Director of Prosecutions are struggling for survival amid frustration from political leaders. The president seems to be focused on ending the menace, but some corrupt members of his team seem to frustrate these efforts.

The role of civil society in galvanising democracy and good governance should never be underestimated. Civil society played a pivotal role in the 1980s and 1990s in Kenya’s quest for democracy and multiparty governance. However, today those voices seem to be lowering as Kenya’s civil society increasingly comes under threat.

The Kenyan government is in the process of amending the Public Benefits Organisations (PBO) Act, which was enacted in 2013 following extensive consultation between government and civil society to introduce restrictive clauses. Yet the original act has not yet been implemented. In this regard, the Kenyan government should immediately embark on implementing the current PBO Act as is, and seek consensus with key stakeholders before making amendments to it. At the same time, the government should end official and non-official threats, harassment and intimidation aimed at silencing civil society.

Being proactive, within the rule-of-law, will go a long way in curbing current security threats

Terrorism and insecurity have also undermined development in Kenya and on the continent. This has resulted in mostly hard-line responses by government security agencies, which do little to improve sustainable security and in many cases trigger further insecurity. Being proactive, within the rule-of-law framework, will go a long way in curbing current security threats. US government support and partnership in this regard is now more critical than ever before.

Organised crime is also on the rise, and efforts to provide safe and secure environments for citizens have been jeopardised by corruption and serious human rights’ abuses. Despite increased budgets and legislation in the sector, Kenyans are yet to see real improvement in the security system – from the recruitment of officers, to management, promotion and service delivery. There is need for a more democratic public security system in which multiple and disparate actors contribute directly to inclusive security for development.

To achieve Kenya’s vision 2030 and the vision of the AU of ‘an integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa, driven by its own citizens and representing a dynamic force in the global arena,’ the time is ripe for Obama to start inspiring the country and the continent’s political leadership. ‘Because of Kenya’s progress, because of your potential, you can build your future right here, right now,’ Obama said to applause from a huge audience in Nairobi this weekend.

To realise Africa’s full potential, guided by the spirit of Africans providing solutions to Africa problems, Obama should also intervene in ensuring that civil society’s space is protected; corruption is curbed; fair trade and technology transfers for development are promoted and the looting of Africa natural resources is brought to an end. Together with leaders, a global strategy must be designed to optimise the use of African resources to benefit all Africans. Finally, Obama should initiate a global movement that calls for unity in developing the continent to achieve its development Agenda 2063.


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