By Tim Marshall.
It was uplifting, heartfelt, hard hitting, a reminder of his prowess as an orator, and it was fitting that it was given in Mandela Hall.
His criticism of some African leaders has understandably taken the headlines, but the speech as whole is worth reading. Running through it is the spirit of Mandela and the soul of Obama. There were flashes of humility, and bravery. He did not shrink from hard truths, nor did he fail the women of Africa.
It is notable that on the White House website the speech is not titled ‘..to the African Union’ but ‘to the people of Africa’
He began by trying to dispel the stereotypes of a continent forever mired in poverty. “The world must recognize Africa’s extraordinary progress. Today, Africa is one of the fastest-growing regions in the world. Africa’s middle class is projected to grow to more than one billion consumers…. Africa is on the move, a new Africa is emerging.”
Unlike his over optimistic 2009 Cairo speech (A New Beginning) to the people of the Middle East this was more grounded. He did not underestimate the struggle ahead …” we must acknowledge that many of these gains rest on a fragile foundation. Alongside new wealth, hundreds of millions of Africans still endure extreme poverty. Alongside high-tech hubs of innovation, many Africans are crowded into shantytowns without power or running water — a level of poverty that’s an assault on human dignity.”
And then came the hard truths – “Nothing will unlock Africa’s economic potential more than ending the cancer of corruption…. It is not unique to Africa — corruption exists all over the world, including in the United States. But here in Africa, corruption drains billions of dollars from economies that can’t afford to lose billions of dollars — that’s money that could be used to create jobs and build hospitals and schools. And when someone has to pay a bribe just to start a business or go to school, or get an official to do the job they’re supposed to be doing anyway — that’s not “the African way.” It undermines the dignity of the people you represent. “
Obama recognizes that many of the ills of the continent are linked to its colonial past, but he told the audience that the solutions lie within themselves –“Only Africans can end corruption in their countries.”
Turning to human rights he gave what may have been a riposte to complaints that he had not been tough enough in remarks about democracy in Ethiopia and the jailing of writers.
“.. I have to proclaim, democracy is not just formal elections. When journalists are put behind bars for doing their jobs, or activists are threatened as governments crack down on civil society –then you may have democracy in name, but not in substance. And I’m convinced that nations cannot realize the full promise of independence until they fully protect the rights of their people.
But as I discussed with Prime Minister Hailemariam, that’s just the start of democracy. I believe Ethiopia will not fully unleash the potential of its people if journalists are restricted or legitimate opposition groups can’t participate in the campaign process. And, to his credit, the Prime Minister acknowledged that more work will need to be done for Ethiopia to be a full-fledged, sustainable democracy.”
This led directly to the criticism aimed squarely at many of the continent’s leaders. Almost half of whom have been in power for longer than Obama, some for decades. For example Paul Kagame has ruled Rwanda for 15 years, Omar al-Bashir has ruled Sudan for 26 years, and Robert Mugabe has been in charge in Zimbabwe for 35 years.
The American President did not pull his punches, even, effectively, naming the leader of Burundi as being part of the problem “When a leader tries to change the rules in the middle of the game just to stay in office, it risks instability and strife — as we’ve seen in Burundi…. And sometimes you’ll hear leaders say, well, I’m the only person who can hold this nation together. If that’s true, then that leader has failed to truly build their nation. …nobody should be president for life.”
He also took on the cultural relativists who argue that human rights are a ‘Western concept’ saying ““For if we truly believe that Africans are equal in dignity, then Africans have an equal right to freedoms that are universal — that’s a principle we all have to defend. And it’s not just a Western idea; it’s a human idea.”
Then a long passage about women worth quoting at length –
“Africa is the beautiful, talented daughters who are just as capable as Africa’s sons….The march of history shows that we have the capacity to broaden our moral imaginations. We come to see that some traditions are good for us, they keep us grounded, but that, in our modern world, other traditions set us back. When African girls are subjected to the mutilation of their bodies, or forced into marriage at the ages of 9 or 10 or 11 — that sets us back…
Let’s work together to stop sexual assault and domestic violence. Let’s make clear that we will not tolerate rape as a weapon of war — it’s a crime. …
Now, yesterday, I had the privilege to view Lucy — you may know Lucy — she’s our ancestor, more than 3 million years old. In this tree of humanity, with all of our branches and diversity, we all go back to the same root. We’re all one family — we’re all one tribe. And yet so much of the suffering in our world stems from our failure to remember that — to not recognize ourselves in each other.
We think because somebody’s skin is slightly different, or their hair is slightly different, or their religious faith is differently expressed, or they speak a different language that it justifies somehow us treating them with less dignity. And that becomes the source of so many of our problems… When we begin to see other as somehow less than ourselves — when we succumb to these artificial divisions of faith or sect or tribe or ethnicity — then even the most awful abuses are justified in the minds of those who are thinking in those ways. ….And when we respect the freedom of others — no matter the color of their skin, or how they pray or who they are or who they love — we are all more free.”
During the speech the American President had to pause 44 times as his audience applauded. It would be easy to point up flaws in his words, indeed to make accusations of hypocrisy. But Obama acknowledged some of his own country’s failures, and in so doing strengthened his argument, and strengthened a fine, fine speech. There is a time and place for rhetoric, and rhetoric is not by definition negative. Obama chose his time and place well.