IN WASHINGTON, DC, WITH STARS IN OUR EYES
There was this depressingly funny article in the online publication Africa is a Country (africasacountry.com) last April.
“These days African heads of state are rewarded by [US President] Barack Obama with a chance to meet him in groups of four and have their pictures taken with him. It’s like meeting Beyoncé, but you get to call it a state visit,” the article read.
The piece, published after Obama met then Malawian president Joyce Banda and Senegalese leader Macky Sall, Cape Verde’s José Maria Neves and Sierra Leone’s Ernest Bai Koroma, lamented African leaders’ star-struck poses in the official photographs.
“They beamed like competition winners. It was all very feudal ... You get the sense that they were given a nice White House tote bag, perhaps a signed copy of Dreams from my Father, and were then patted on the head and sent off to inconsequential NGO-led round tables. Presumably the thinking is that thus being sprinkled with all-American stardust plays well back home,” writer Elliot Ross put it.
What made the article even more hilarious (and depressing) were the pictures of the happy Africans posing with Obama. They all looked SO proud. ( Just Google it and see.)
This week about 40 African leaders jetted off to the US for jaw time and picture opportunities with Obama. Yes, you read that right. Forty heads of state from a continent went off to Washington to meet with the leader of one country. Our very own President Jacob Zuma was also there. He and First Lady number something Nompumelelo Zuma got to pose with Obama and his wife, Michelle. Judging by the grins on their faces you can be assured that the picture will have a prominent place in one of the rondavels in the famous KwaZulu-Natal compound.
While the heads of state were meeting her husband, Michelle Obama, along with her predecessor, Laura Bush, entertained their spouses. They spoke some important stuff about empowerment of women and educating the girl child. The African first ladies took turns in posing for photographs with Michelle. In the evening there was a sumptuous dinner at the White House for everyone, and more pictures. The Africans were very happy. As visibly happy as country bumpkins after their first successful crossing of a green traffic light on the first visit to the city.
Yes, I know it may sound a little flippant and dismissive for this lowly newspaperman to characterise the US-Africa Summit as a photo opportunity. A lot of good work was done. There was a $37 billion (R396 billion) worth of aid and investment commitment from the US government and major corporates, and agreements to help deal with terror groups and other manifestations of military instability. There were also lofty undertakings on trade and development.
It is great that Obama seems to be taking the continent seriously and wants to leave behind a strong Africa legacy. There is also the argument that poor Africa cannot be a chooser when it comes to assistance and that the continent’s leaders should appreciate the fact that the world’s busiest man cleared his diary for three days to spend time with them.
But the whole thing was, quite frankly, demeaning and spoke volumes about America’s condescending attitude towards Africa and about Africans’ own inferiority complex. Whenever Obama or any of his predecessors have wanted to engage with leaders of other regions as a group, they have travelled to the summits of the regional bodies and dealt with issues of common interest at such forums. But when it came to the weak and desperate continent, a flight to an African capital was just too much trouble. The Africans had to come to Papa.
What is even more incredible is that the African leaders saw nothing wrong with this. The prospect of dinner at the White House and shopping sprees for the spouses was too hard to resist. We should not be surprised at this though. The same has happened in relation to some other powers, most notably France. French presidents feel no compunction about “inviting” African leaders to Paris to discuss African crises and the continent’s development challenges. When this call comes, the Africans waste no time in ordering their pilots to rev the plane engines.
This lowly newspaperman is by no means suggesting Africa should cock a snook at the likes of the US when they want to assist. The continent has, after all, spent the past few decades fighting to get pushed up on the foreign policy agendas of world powers, for a greater slice of the foreign direct investment pie of large companies and for fairer trade practices. So if engagements such as this week’s summit in Washington help in this regard, then hallelujah to that.
But Africa has also been fighting hard to be treated as an equal and not like the pitiable family down the road that everyone hands last night’s leftover supper to. In engaging with Western powers, African leaders must maintain a modicum of dignity and not allow themselves to be treated like that.