By Obi Nwakanma
Fifty of Africa’s Heads of states and governments arrived Washington DC, the US capital last week for a conference with the American president, Mr. Barack Obama. But the universe was indifferent – well not quite – it had a rather morbid sense of humor: Ebola was in the air.
The news of the spread of the Ebola fever in West Africa, and the return of two infected Americans evacuated from Africa to be treated in a special facility in Atlanta dominated the air. Not many Americans paid heed to this diplomatic festival festooned albeit with the garlands of American goodwill and charity. In the US media, there were talks, but it felt oddly perfunctory. In some parts of the right-wing media, there was some talk of screening those African heads from Ebola before they’d be allowed into the US.
A rather interesting talking head, quite famous on the lunatic fringe, by the name Ann Coulter managed to even describe Africa in that week as a “disease-ridden cesspool.” But besides these and snide references to Ebola, the visit of the African Heads of state was not worth much waste of ticker tapes, prints and ink, in the US media.
In other words, the converge of the entire group of African Heads of state to the US was not worth in media weight, the visit of Russia’s Vladimir Putin, or even Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, not to talk about worthier friendlies like the Queen or British Prime Minister or Germany’s Angela Merkel, or competitors like China’s Xi Jinping. It is not difficult to imagine why: Africa retains that strange sense of the margins in the American imagination. Indeed, the US media has made a great tradition of creating an Africa that never is; a strange place of wars, hunger, and poverty. A “cesspool of disease.”
This image of Africa that has been retailed for so long has conditioned the American mind to close itself from the truth and reality of Africa as perhaps one of the most vibrant places on earth. No one who has visited West Africa for instance can ignore the colour; the vibrancy of life; the sense of a daily festival.
But to Americans, everybody in Africa is dying; living on $1 dollar daily, according to their great staticians in the Washington DC based World Bank, who come to Africa, stay in luxury hotel suites, and pontificate about life on the streets of say, Lagos, and write in the time-worn ways of the colonial anthropologist.
So, in fact, this visit to the US last week underscored that fact that the great boundary to business between the United States and Africa is in the ignorance of Americans about Africa and Africans in general. This ignorance has long pervaded the texture and thrust of American foreign policy on Africa and the US media forms of representation of Africa has thoroughly shaped and continues to perpetuate Africa to the American mind, as some kind of the uncanny, where nothing but death happens.
But Africa is people, as the Nigerian novelist, Chinua Achebe never failed to tell his international audience. People are dynamic: they desire all things that make people; they build; they create; they constitute a great economic and social whole. Those who see people come to do business with them as equals. They enter and negotiate terms for mutual interests. In the last fifteen years, this is what the Chinese have been doing in Africa. Since the emergence of China on the international economic sphere, they have engaged Africans on the basis of mutual interests as equal partners – not on the false paternalism that have shaped Euro-American relationship with the continent since the early years of decolonization.
Today, China has the fastest growing trade relationship with Africans, and African economies are beginning to show growth. The presence of the Chinese in Africa is bound to change things. The Chinese are investing in direct infrastructure; Chinese workers are living and settling in Africa, not just in the elite reserves, closed-off from the real people, but in the same neighborhoods as ordinary Africans, with whom they are doing business.
Africa to these Chinese is not “a disease-ridden cesspool.” In part, this misreading of Africa by Americans was underscored by Susan Rice, the US Ambassador to the UN, herself an “African Specialist” on the NPR, when she noted the kind of profound ignorance that governs Americans view of Africa, which limits productive mutual economic relationship.
The US government continues to founder on its African policies, and has for years, relied mostly on key false premises to shape its economic policies on Africa. In 2008, I wrote that Africans had great hopes with the election of President Barack Obama, a son of a Kenyan Economist, as President of the US. But President Obama has done very little in the direction of closing either the gap of harsh memory, or reshaping the paradigms of US-Africa relationship for a more realistic, more productive economic relationship.
This gesture, in the twilight of his presidency, many Africans see, as too little; too late in the day. Summoning African Heads to Washington is one thing, but the first mistake in that process is to ignore some of the fundamental realities: to ignore Robert Mugabe, a man many Africans still consider an African hero, on the basis of some adversarial diplomacy, is myopic in the long term, or to ignore Sudan’s Bashir, President of one of Africa’s important nations, is self-indulgent. The US ought to understand by now that its carrot-and stick diplomacy does not work in Africa.
Africans are at peace with each other. No African nation is engaged in war with another. If such wars happen, Africans have developed a continental mechanism to deal with it. Africa is a great frontier for investment and economic partnership, and the Chinese know this, and Africans know what the Chinese want. What they do not know yet is what the Americas want. Africans know exactly what they want: they want partnership, not charity. The US continues to play its paternalistic “donor” games with Africa, while the Chinese do real business. That has got to change.
Africans are not looking for a neo-colonial mentor; they are looking for serious business partners. President Obama is quite right in saying that there is no better nation on earth with which Africans ought to engage but America. The historical relationship between Africa and the US makes the United States important to Africa because of the millions of descendants of Africans who are Americans. That ought to be the primary frame of America’s foreign policy engagement with Africa.
The work done by four Nigerians – Nnamdi Azikiwe, Nwafor Orizu, Mbonu Ojike and K.O. Mbadiwe – and their friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt led to President Roosevelt and America’s support of the Atlantic charter and decolonization in 1945. Azikiwe opened up modern Sub-Saharan Africa under European colonization to America on his return to Africa from the US in 1935. These are facts to celebrate. But in the frame of decolonization and cold war politics that shaped America’s foreign policy on Africa, the US dropped the ball. Africans have always been very suspicious of US charity and activities in Africa truth be told. These must change for a new, sustainable economic partnership.