Obama's message to Africa
If Barack Obama had told me he was going to Ghana, I would have warned him. The country is a dump — parts of it quite literally.
In the late 1990s, I knew it as a place where very little functioned as it should have. The currency was worthless. Families often had 10 or even 14 children. Garbage was simply thrown on the ground. Electricity and telephones didn't always work. Fish at the markets were tiny and covered in flies. People defecated right on the beach.
Various young Ghanaians tried to convince me that this state of affairs was somehow my fault because of centuries of slavery and colonialism. But I reminded them that Ghana had been independent since 1957. What had they been doing all this time?
I've been to much poorer countries — some of them next door to Ghana — where the buildings were not rusting or crumbling away and where the sanitation, even without running water, was a lot better. In Ghana, things were the way they were because nobody seemed to care. It was too easy to blame their corrupt government, the West, or other Africans. Nobody wanted to take responsibility. Instead, they wanted help from outside.
For every angry racist who greeted me with the words "Hey, white man! Give me money!" or every schoolchild who felt I owed him a ball-point pen, I did meet an honest, hard-working, usually older person who apologized for such behavior. But even the good people said their country offered no opportunities. Could I move there and employ them? they asked. Could I marry their sister? Could I pull some strings at the embassy?
The turning point for me came when, like President Obama last week, I visited one of the former slave castles on the coast. The slaves were kept there in dark, empty rooms like animals for days or weeks before ships arrived to take them to the New World. I was the only tourist, and the caretaker was happy to show me around. Then he told me this:
"In those days, the jungle went right up to the coast. Do you think a white man could get even a mile into it without getting yellow fever or malaria? No. It was our own people. They captured other Africans they didn't like and sold them into slavery."
I was just as amazed at what Obama told the Ghanaian parliament on Saturday: "Africa's future is up to Africans." His words.
"Now, it's easy to point fingers and to pin the blame of these problems on others. Yes, a colonial map that made little sense helped to breed conflict. The West has often approached Africa as a patron or a source of resources rather than a partner. But the West is not responsible for the destruction of the Zimbabwean economy over the last decade, or wars in which children are enlisted as combatants."
"Just as it is important to emerge from the control of other nations, it is even more important to build one's own nation," he added. He praised Ghana for starting to go down this path, and said that the U.S. would "support those who act responsibly and ... isolate those who don't." He reminded Ghanaians that "aid is not an end in itself. The purpose of foreign assistance must be creating the conditions where it's no longer needed."
My thoughts exactly. But why is the U.S. suddenly so interested in Ghana? First, it doesn't want Africa to sell all of its resources to China. Second, the U.S. is looking for local support for its new regional command, Africom — the last piece in its system of military bases around the world.
Obama named the third reason himself: "In Ghana, for instance, oil brings great opportunities, and you have been very responsible in preparing for new revenue."
I knew it.