Saturday, July 11, 2009


10th July 2009

Dear Friends,

President Barack Obama is about to pay a visit to Africa but it is not his first visit to the continent. In his memoir 'Dreams From My Father' Obama describes his first trip to his Kenyan father's homeland and his reactions to that momentous visit. It was momentous for so many reasons, not only because he was at last connecting with his African roots but because, as the son of a black African father and a white American mother, Barack Obama was searching for his own identity. Obama's father had left his American family to complete his Ph.D studies in Kenya when Barack was a very small boy and the child had grown up never really knowing where he fitted in life. It's an experience shared by thousands of other people who grow up without a father but in his case it was further complicated by his bi-racial status and the state of American race relations at the time. Barack Obama's father had died before his son finally visited Kenya. Father and son had met only once when Dr Obama had briefly visited him in the US and that brief visit had created more questions than it answered for the young Barack Obama. Upon his arrival at Nairobi Airport, Obama is astonished to find that his name is known. The African BA air steward asks him, "You wouldn't be related to Dr Obama by any chance?" and he answers, "Well, yes - he was my father." In the book, Obama comments, "For the first time in my life, I felt the comfort, the firmness of identity that a name might provide… no one here in Kenya would ask how to spell my name, or mangle it with an unfamiliar tongue…My name belonged and so I belonged, drawn into a web of relationships, alliances and grudges that I did not yet understand."

And this is the remarkable man who is now president of the United States. He is remarkable not just because of his experiences but because of the way he has internalised those experiences and learned from them. When he says as he did on Thursday just before his trip to Ghana at the weekend, "I'd say I'm probably as knowledgeable about African history as anybody who's occupied my office." it is hard not to be convinced by his honesty and undoubted understanding of Africa. "I can give you chapter and verse," he says, "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." And with direct relevance to Africa today he goes on, "I believe that Africans are responsible for Africa. I think that part of what's hampered advancement in Africa is that for many years we've made excuses about corruption or poor governance, that this was somehow the consequence of neo-colonialism, or the West has been oppressive or racist…And yet the fact is we're in 2009. The West and the US has not been responsible for what's happened to Zimbabwe's economy over the past 15-20 years. It hasn't been responsible for some of the disastrous policies that we've seen elsewhere in Africa. And I think it's very important for African leadership to take responsibility and be held accountable.

"It will be interesting to see how, or if, Robert Mugabe reacts to President Obama's words. Will he dismiss Obama as 'an idiotic little man' as he did Johnny Carson, the Under Secretary of State for African Affairs in Obama's government? Mugabe and Carson apparently met on the sidelines of the recent AU Conference in Libya. The meeting was not a happy one and afterwards Mugabe told the Herald that he was very angry with Carson who had apparently told him that he should stick to his side of the bargain according to the GPA. "Who is he?" Mugabe is alleged to have asked, adding "It is a shame, a great shame and he an African American." Now, here's another African American, this time the President of the most powerful country in the world, telling Africa and its 'Big Men' that it's time to stop blaming the colonial past for Africa's problems. Is it likely, in the light of what we know about the man, that Mugabe will heed President Obama's advice? The signs are not good. Observers have noted that Mugabe's rhetoric has of late become increasingly paranoid and racist. White farmers are representative of former colonisers and have supported the British against him, he maintains and, to quote Mugabe, "Colonisers can never be friends so we turn our backs on them and face the east." But it is not only whites he takes issue with, in a direct snub to the outspoken Ambassador, Mugabe failed to agree to an official farewell visit from the black American Ambassador, James McGee, thereby breaking with basic diplomatic courtesy. Irene Khan, the head of Amnesty International was also treated with his usual abusive language, "I don't know where this little woman came from - always shouting." Mugabe ranted, but then Khan had just issued an extremely unfavourable - and honest - report on Zimbabwe's human rights record.

It is incomprehensible that the MDC partners in this Inclusive Government can continue to maintain, as Morgan Tsvangirai does, that this same Mugabe is 'part of the solution' to the country's problems. I for one cannot see any way in which the racism and vitriolic hatred which Mugabe espouses towards anyone who disagrees with him can have any part in Zimbabwe's future. President Obama is right to remind African leaders - and that includes Prime Minister Tsvangirai - that they are accountable for their own misgovernance. For Kenya, for Zimbabwe and for so many other former colonised African countries where Big Men continue to rule after patently rigged elections, it is not yet uhuru.

Yours in the (continuing) struggle, PH



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