KEMBUJE — In typical fashion, the US president, Barack Obama, spoke eloquently, in his last State of the Union (SOTU) address to the US Congress on January 12 to the American leadership and their people, about his views on the state of their nation and what future he envisioned. For the American citizen, it is their beef to debate the speech; to remove the chaff from the grain; and to assess the performance of the so-called most powerful leader of the most powerful country in the world.
As an African, I see uncountable hollows in the speech, particularly regarding the values and standards that Obama and his fellow citizens continuously tout about the US Declaration of Independence, the US constitution and the vision and intentions of the founding fathers of the US vis-à-vis how they conduct themselves with the rest of the world. Indeed, it is a fact that America has contributed something towards world civilization through its military might (in terms of weaponry and technology), technical competence, policy experience and expertise.
Yet, by this same token, one is struck by the paradox of American manifestation in international policy initiatives that are incredibly inimical to the promotion and protection of human rights around the world. And it is for this reason that I wish to provide my perspective as an African activist on the African and global issues that Mr. Obama spoke about.
Misconceived American Worldview
Mr. Obama mentioned Africa, but only in terms of Ebola, Malaria and HIV/AIDS to highlight the interventions America made in supporting various countries in our region. He spoke very broadly about terrorism inside Africa, which he linked directly to ISIS and Al-Qaeda. In speaking about these issues, Obama linked them to the national security and development of America now and in the future.
Once again, it appears that either Obama lacks an understanding of Africa or is not interested in addressing the issues concerning Africa squarely. Obama has rightly linked global incidents such as terrorism, climate change, renewable energy and poverty among others to either American prosperity or demise as the case might be. While that realization is on point, one is perplexed that Obama lacks a deeper understanding, or merely displays sheer ignorance of the basic facts, of how to exactly to deal with issues of African and the Middle Eastern interests.
His solution proposals are at best reactionary and at worse dangerous. For example, the idea that military force and the building of a coalition of like-minded countries to attack ISIS and Al-Qaeda is enough to wipe out a violent and decadent idea from the heads of men and women who owe no allegiance to any nation-state speaks to the continuous application of misguided and uninformed policy and practice to address global issues. As a result of this misconceived foreign policy, America has become by default, an equal threat to world peace and security as the very terrorists it is seeking to eradicate.
Obama Ignores The Facts
Reports by Amnesty International, Transparency International, among other rights groups, have noted that the major driving forces behind the Arab Spring were corruption, the violation of rights, grinding poverty and hopelessness that are pervasive among the large youthful populations of these countries. Certainly, anyone who is familiar with the Middle East knows that such (mis-)leaders as Ghadaffi, Ben Ali, Mubarak, Saleh, Assad, Saddam Hussein and the kings and emirs of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Bahrain and Morocco among others do not represent the true interests of their people.
These are leaders that were and are being propped up by various global powers particularly the US to oppress and exploit their own people while the US private sector and the ruling elite bask in the resources of these hapless countries. It must be recognized that American interference and involvement in these countries dates way back to the first Imperialist War, erroneously called WWI. We must realize that the Saudi Monarch started only in 1932, by a Bedouin family of the house of Saud, which conquered the rest of the Arabian tribes to create and bring them under the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, thanks primarily to American support. This kingdom has been maintained largely by of America military protection.
Where America is unable to bring any of these tyrannical monarchs and dictators under its orbit, it has sought covert and overt policies of containment and confinement in which such ‘recalcitrant’ regimes are constantly threatened with military attacks, sanctions and other forms of ostracism. This is how such leaders as Ghadaffi and Assad were placed under constant attack, while others such as Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt were undermined. With the presence of Israel in the region, the US has used this client state as a proxy to maintain a level of destabilization of even such allies as Saudi Arabia and Jordan to ensure that Washington’s influence and presence remains resolute.
As I mentioned in an earlier article, with persistent state terrorism of these Gulf regimes that produces excruciating poverty, unemployment and hopelessness, the US and these regimes have created a convenient space for radical intellectuals, politicians and clerics to capitalize on the verve of the youth to create alternative revolutionary ideas. In most cases, these alternatives have become violent as these regimes and their (mis-)leaders are not prepared to allow open, transparent, accountable and inclusive governance and shared prosperity.
In this context, one can see the emergence of such groups as the Muslim Brotherhood across the Arab world, mainly in Egypt, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Palestine, Houthi rebels in Yemen, Kurdish resistance in Iraq and Turkey and many other smaller violent groups seeking alternatives to US hegemony and regime change. From this narrative, it can be concluded that in fact the US was the default creator of the Iranian revolution of 1979, which was led by Ayatollah Khomeini, simply because of Washington’s hobnobbing with the oppressive Shah of Iran at the detriment of the rights and interests of ordinary Iranians.
In light of the foregoing, one would expect that Obama would recognize that the way forward for American prosperity and security as well as for the rest of the world is not to seek more military action while at the same time protecting tyrannical regimes. Washington should have realized that the solution lies in building durable societies on human rights-based governance systems.
Obama and Africa
When it comes to Africa, it is extremely disappointing that the US President, a man of African descent, has failed to address the most serious plight of Africans since the end of colonialism. It is clear that the cancer that has been killing Africa has been the incidence of dishonest elites and politicians who have hijacked independence and transformed their national governments into family and personal aggrandizement projects.
Consequently, after 50 years of freedom, with incredible amount of natural resources and a capable population among many other opportunities, these African (mis-)leaders could not position this well-endowed continent on a path of good governance and sustainable development. Rather, we have witnessed incessant civil wars, criminal coups, debilitating diseases, excruciating poverty and widespread hopelessness. In the midst of these quagmire, Africa continues to produce tyrants in the present as was in the past that have distinguished themselves only in the illegal and illegitimate acquisition of public wealth.
This thievery has led to blatant destruction of the rights and dignity of their people. It is for this very reason that when Obama made his first visit to Africa, speaking in the Ghanaian parliament, he made the right and surgical diagnoses and prescription that “Africa does not need strong men, but strong institutions.” Many analysts welcomed that speech as a turning point in American foreign policy in Africa. Up until the end of the Cold War, (mis-)leaders like Mobutu among many dictators in Africa were either used as CIA agents or allowed to misrule their countries so long as they did not veer towards communist China or the Soviet Union or pose any threat to US interests.
We expected Obama to change that narrative.
The Failure of Obama
My expectation therefore was that the one and only thing Obama needed to do for Africa was to use American leverage to clamp down on those (mis-)leaders and encourage the protection of civil rights. With this objective, and if it were met, America would have enabled Africa to make the transformation to save millions of people from tyranny, poverty, exclusion and hopelessness. But Obama failed Africa. Woefully. Not only did he completely abandon the values that he and all US presidents and leaders trumpet about America, but Obama continued in the “more of the same” mantra. He did not deal with these African tyrants openly or in closed doors in the misconceived notion of fighting terrorism and poverty in African and the Middle East.
Yes, we know that Obama is not the President of Africa, but we also know that the US has always engaged Africa. We also know that ultimately only Africans bear responsibility for their destiny, and I have stated that Africa’s leaders and intellectuals have failed their people woefully. But if Washington were to continue to engage with Africa, we have a right to say how the nature of that engagement should be. Otherwise, America can leave Africa alone. We cannot accept the current way in which the US engages African, that is in aiding the total destruction of the lives and destinies of Africans.
As Obama leaves office, what do we see? In Africa, we see millions of our young people bracing the deadly Sahara and the Mediterranean to run to Europe because of poverty, oppression and hopelessness. With the fall of Ghadaffi, Ben Ali and Mubarak, Obama and his policies and technical advisers appeared to be either ignorant or disinterested about the very cause of the Arab Spring or both. Obama continues on the aged-old US policy of seeking to further entrench tyranny and dictatorship as is currently evident in Egypt with Pres. Al-Sisi. More, the US continues to support terror groups in Syria and Iraq simply because they oppose Bashar al-Assad. It is this counterproductive policy that Washington policy makers and analysts engage in that is perpetuating world insecurity.
Obama shared some very good history in his address, but he seemed to have forgotten or simply decided to ignore the fact that it was American intervention in Afghanistan in the late 1970s in opposition to the Soviet occupation there that produced the first globalized organized terror groups. Under Pres. Carter, the US supported a bunch of imams and students who later constituted the Taliban, only to further metamorphose into Al-Qaeda.
Following the ousting of Saddam Hussein, US failure to genuinely support that nation to reconstruct in the interest of Iraq, led to the emergence of IS as the US sought to still dominate and control the resources of the country in connivance with a regime it could work with. The US failed to give the necessary, timely and adequate support to Iraq when it needed it, but decided to irresponsibly abandon the country. In effect, the US crushed and dismantled all capacities of the Iraqi people to pick themselves up after decades of the Baath Party tyranny under Saddam and now, under US control since 2003.
One wonders why the US would continue to create and support rebel groups in the name of fighting a bigger enemy. Have they not considered the fact that once created, trained and armed, no one can ever continue to hold these rebel groups to account and contain them? I am afraid to say that the world must be very much prepared to receive more terrorism henceforth, because in Syria alone, history will come to record with shame and regret the number of terror groups that will emerge from these US-backed rebels.
To tell the truth, it is the US that has failed to take advantage of the Arab Spring to create a new chapter in its international relations with the world, particularly Africa and the Middle East. With the Arab Spring, the US could have used the occasion to break off all parochial relations established in the context of the Cold War and the Zionist movement. For example, until Mubarak was ousted from the 30 years of his misrule, the Egyptian military was the second biggest recipient of US aid, second only to Israel in the world. For that, Washington and Tel Aviv used Cairo to further squeeze the resistance of the Palestinians by tightly controlling the Rafah Crossing between Gaza and Egypt. This is the reason why Palestinians had to resort to building underground tunnels to reach Egypt as a means to transport goods.
In the period, the US gave all necessary protection to Mubarak when Washington clearly knew that this man was nothing but a tyrant. Thus even with the opportunity presented by the revolution, US failed to optimize the opportunities therein to ensure that it stands for democracy in Egypt and in other Arab states. It must be recognized that so long as tyrannical regimes exist, the end of terrorism remains far-fetched. Tyranny only produces poverty, exclusion, violence and hopelessness and these are the elements that also fuel rebellions and terrorism.
The American Mess Continues
After seven years in power, Obama inherited a world that had been largely messed up by US foreign policy. In 2008, there was incredible amount of hope that he would clean up the mess and place the world on a new pedestal of hope and change for better. He is now leaving the stage but with a world in more mess than his predecessors left it. To kill Osama Bin Laden or Anwar al-Awlaki or other terror leaders is not a fait accompli that the world is safer. The inroads that ISIS and Al-Qaeda are making in America, Europe, Africa and Asia is a clear testimony that the world is more unsafe today than in 2008 when Obama took it over.
These IS attacks in the West, coupled with the protracted Syrian civil war and the havoc being wreaked by terror groups in the region is a clear testimony that US policy in the Levant has failed. I disagree with Obama’s assertion that what is happening in that region is a real transition given the structural imbalances since the 1st Imperialist War and the Arab Spring. Obama must be told that the reconstruction of the Middle East back then was done by the West with US in the lead. Since then Washington maintained that structure until it could no longer hold, giving rise to the Arab Spring. The US should have learned from that mistake in order to offer a more stable and prosperous future of mutual respect and security for Arabs, Turks, Persians, Lebanese and Israelis in that region. But, the Obama presidency only served to force the Middle East to stick to the same old structure, hence the eruption of new forms of terrorism.
I expected that Obama would use his leadership and the SOTU to address and seek new forms of relationships and foreign policy options that are founded on the true values that America preaches about all the time. Just as democracy and human rights are good for America, so are they also good for the rest of the world. The standards that America has set for governance and development must be the same standards that the US must adhere to and promote in each and every other country it finds itself. The US cannot continue to support tyrants on one hand and at the same time oppose other leaders with whom it does not see eye-to-eye.
The misguided cliché in international relations and diplomacy that nations do not have permanent friends but permanent interests is cancerous, dishonest and immoral. Just as between two individuals, friendship between any two nations must also be guided by humanistic values. If core universal humanistic values are disregarded in a relationship between any two governments, then it means we are merely promoting tyranny and the destruction of the rights and welfare of citizens. It means big and strong nations can play with smaller and weaker nations as they wish. It also means that in smaller and weaker nations, internal oppression and exploitation fueled and protected by bigger and stronger nations will only produce a form of resistance that can terribly go wild as the world is currently witnessing. This is why America needs a foreign policy that is squarely situated within the values they claim are indispensable to human and civil rights.
Secondly Western nations must take a cursory look at their own societies to address the inequalities therein, which are now serving as the fertile ground for terrorists. Young people in the Economic South have always cherished the dream of going to the West for greener pastures, freedom and prosperity. How then could one imagine that young African and Arab boys and girls born and raised in Paris or Brussels or San Francisco or Manchester and other capitals of the West would still decide to abandon the supposed good life there to travel to war-torn Syria only to become suicide bombers and armed extremists in their capitals of birth?
Obama, Cameron, Merkel and Hollande and Co. need to realize that to address terrorism in the West is not merely about sending drones and warships to the Gulf to make targeted bombings of IS positions and assassinate their leaders. Rather, these Western nation-states must primarily begin to review the culture of injustices that are meted out to these non-indigenous Western citizens so as to cultivate a new society based on the very values proclaimed by these Western nations. This is what will finally put a halt to the self-destructive tendencies in these Western youth and their misguided belief in fighting for their humanity and dignity. We expect the French, British, German or American societies and others to become more accommodating to other cultures and ways of life, and celebrate diversity. For example, it is incomprehensible how France, a nation renowned for a culture of human rights could ban the hijab or the Adzan – the Muslim call to prayer – when French Christians and Jews practice their religion as they wish.
As he leaves office, and with the unique opportunity of the SOTU address, Obama should have told tyrants in Africa and the Middle East that they are indeed the source of poverty, exclusion, oppression and hopelessness in their countries. He should have told them that they must democratize and protect human rights or they risk not only losing US partnership but also bringing the wrath of Washington on their heads. Just as Washington tells Damascus, Pyongyang and Tehran to respect human rights and actually work to put pressure on them to that effect, so also must Obama tell Riyadh, Amman and Cairo and other African capitals that they must respect human rights and put similar pressure on them? There cannot be lasting peace and security in any society in the absence of human rights and human dignity.
Obama has not served the world well in his presidency. He has further endangered and divided the world as much as his predecessors, while still betraying the genuine hopes of Africans who rightly looked up to a ‘transformed America’ that could curb tyranny the world over. Rather, Obama only served to entrench tyranny in Africa by his overt and covert relationships with Africa’s (mis-)leaders, while at the same time pouring fuel on the fires of terrorism around the world. Good riddance, Obama. Go!