What Obama needs to do in Africa

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Obama looks on during the G8 Summit (AP Photo/Haraz N. Ghanbari)

In a recent interview with AllAfrica.com, President Obama said: “I’d say I’m probably as knowledgeable about African history as anybody who’s occupied my office. And I can give you chapter and verse on why the colonial maps that were drawn helped to spur on conflict and the terms of trade that were uneven emerging out of colonialism.”

Those are mighty strong words to come out of the mouth of an American president. But we all know that talk is cheap, which is why politicians are willing to pay us with words instead of action. The hope is that President Obama will be different. In fact, we expect him to be different, for obvious reasons. African Americans should expect and even demand that the president use his political capital to strengthen the ties that our nation has with our fellow Africans across the sea.

After making the bold and extraordinary statement about his extensive knowledge of African history, Obama then made a statement that appears a bit plain and political. In response to those who connect the damage of colonialism to the shredded reality of many African nations, Obama had this to say: “The West and the United States has not been responsible for what’s happened to Zimbabwe’s economy over the last 15 or 20 years. It hasn’t been responsible for some of the disastrous policies that we’ve seen elsewhere in Africa. And I think that it’s very important for African leadership to take responsibility and be held accountable.”

Wait a second Mr. President. Have we really gone back to giving black people speeches about responsibility and accountability? I thought we got past all that during your Father’s Day speech in 2008? Oh, well perhaps you are simply saying what the right wing wants to hear, no problem.

As an African American, here are some things I’d like to see President Obama try to accomplish on the continent of Africa. The challenge is great and the region is diverse. But at least our president knows that Africa is a continent and not a country, so his policy is likely to be stronger than whatever disasters Sarah Palin – who didn’t know that Africa was a continent – might have created. It is my belief that President Obama wants to do the right thing, so it is our job to cheer him on. Here are some things the president can do in Africa:

1) Make clear and systematic efforts to open up trade and investment channels for African nations. Some parts of Africa are destined to be the next China, while some are going to take a bit more work. “Sub-Saharan Africa’s current share of global trade is less than 2 percent, down from 6 percent in 1980,” Assistant U.S. Trade Representative Florizelle Liser stated at a congressional hearing this year. If that number were to increase by just a fraction, it would lead to billions in additional income for the continent. One of the great challenges, however, is that unfettered U.S. corporate presence is likely to lead to greater wealth extraction and exploitation of those already in poverty. We should regulate our companies operating in Africa the same way we regulate them when they operate in the U.S.

2) Put pressure on leaders who have not adopted transparency in their leadership. There have likely been African leaders who wanted to fight for effective change. Given that a sufficient amount of change has not been witnessed within the continent, perhaps some of the pressure to guide that change can come from a visionary leader outside of the continent (Obama) with the power to actually secure adequate adjustments. Monetary and military might is not always the first option; rather various forms of political and economic isolation might do the trick.

3) Increase strategic aid for the continent to deal with serious health problems and food shortages. It is no secret that poverty is overwhelming in Africa. The goal is not to simply give aid to Africa; the objective should be to position nations to aid themselves. The recent plan for global powers to give $15 Billion in aid to Africa is a strong first step, most importantly because there are plans to help farmers learn to grow food more efficiently. Poverty is a problem that is solvable and we should not be satisfied until it is eradicated completely. Growing more food on the continent not only helps to solve the hunger problem, it also opens the door to economic growth and global trade for the citizens of Africa.

We can’t expect President Obama to rebuild Africa in a day (the actual length of his trip to Ghana). The reality, however, is that all of the political, economic and social issues are related. More effective African leadership opens the doors for economic growth, which serves to improve social conditions.

Obama understands that change starts from the top; but the pressure necessary to achieve that change must be created by those of us at the bottom. Let’s help the president to do the right thing.