Africans reflect on Obama's 'tough love' message

The president used his first African visit – to the democratic bastion of Ghana – to signal a harder-line US approach to dealing with corrupt African leaders.

Rebecca Blackwell/AP
Ghanaians crowded a refrigerator shop Saturday to watch President Obama's meeting with Ghanaian President John Atta Mills on television.

President Obama's international tour, which ended Sunday, raised a question that will rattle in the minds of Africans for some time: Do African leaders have more to fear from America's first black president than they have to gain?

Mr. Obama, a popular hero to the continent, enjoys at least surface adoration of its leaders, too. Politicians in South Africa, Ghana, Kenya, and elsewhere have positioned themselves as allies, friends, and kindred spirits to the US president. Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, a vehemently anti-Western autocrat, even offered to meet with Obama.

Yet the president used his first African visit – to the democratic bastion of Ghana – to send a critical message to Africa's leaders: It's time for the corrupt old ways to end. The "tough love" message is one that Obama is uniquely qualified to deliver, and it signals a new, harder-line US strategy that may ruffle some feathers.

"Africans are very delighted to have a [US] president with African roots, but you should be careful of what you want, because an American president with African roots can be much more severe than a white president ever could," says Steven Ekovich, a policy analyst at the American University in Paris. "He can give them tough love, just as Obama can be tougher on African-Americans at home."

'Africa doesn't need strongmen'

In Italy this past week, the president reportedly asked a panel of African heads-of-state why his cousins in Kenya had to pay bribes to find a job. In Ghana, he called for weaker executives and stronger legislative bodies on the continent.

"No person wants to live in a society where the rule of law gives way to the rule of brutality and bribery. That is not democracy, that is tyranny, and now is the time for it to end," Obama said, adding: "Africa doesn't need strongmen, it needs strong institutions."

Even before his presidency, as senator visiting Kenya in 2006, he confronted Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki about why Chicago TV crews had to pay substantial bribes to clear customs at Kenya's international airport, and made a public, in-country address on corruption.

'Tough love' message hits its mark

His Saturday trip to Ghana, analysts say, further revealed what may become a staple tactic in the president's Africa strategy: tough love.

Certainly the message hit its mark in Nigeria, a country notorious for rigged elections and pervasive corruption.

"For us in Nigeria, Obama's visit to Ghana should be a cause for sober reflection," wrote Nigerian movie star Ayo Badmus in a newspaper editorial. "Unfortunately, sobriety is not a strong suit of Nigeria's political elite."

In Kenya, the nation's largest paper acknowledged widespread disappointment with Obama's trip to Ghana, instead of the homeland of his father. It said the choice was interpreted as "a sign of [Obama's] disapproval over the slow pace of reforms."

Even in model Ghana, pangs of embarrassment

But the message resonated in Ghana, too, where the opportunity to host the president in lieu of Africa's less democratic states has been a boost to national pride.

"It was splendid," says Nana Anane, an aspiring Ghanaian journalist. "He has shown that he wouldn't support any untoward conduct by any African leader."

Even in Ghana however, some of Obama's comments triggered pangs of embarrassment. During his speech to parliament, the president said that history was "not with those who use coups or constitutions to stay in power" in front of a hall full of dignitaries, many of whom rode into leadership on the backs of military coups.

His condemnation of Africa's drug trade, and of the corrupt police officers that enable it, echoed loudly in this transit hub for cocaine, where several high-ranking politicians have been indicted for drug trafficking.

"I think the main thing he wanted to do was to put the Africans on notice that its time to stop complaining about their problems as emanating from outside, and to realize that for the most part, their problems are of their own making now," says David Shinn, former US Ambassador to Ethiopia. "I think it came across loud and clear."

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