Obama's speech sparks reform

2009-07-13 22:08

Johannesburg - US President Barack Obama's condemnation of Africa's "big men" resonated across the continent, creating a chorus of calls on Monday for better governance in countries from Nigeria to Zimbabwe.

Obama received an ecstatic welcome during his one-day visit on Saturday with huge crowds lining the streets of Ghana's capital Accra, where he urged Africans to demand stronger government in order to seize control of their own future.

"It resonates as a real declaration of war against the dysfunctions that have paralysed Africa for five centuries," said Guy Parfait Songue, a political science professor at the University of Douala in Cameroon.

"This is a man bound and determined to upend the continent's realities, notably on corruption, lack of democracy and disrespect of human rights," he told AFP.

Obama's decision to make his first visit south of the Sahara to Ghana again drew attention to last year's post-election violence in Kenya, his father's homeland once seen as a development success story.

"The general feeling is that Obama is 'punishing' the Kenya government for its slow pace of reforms and its unwillingness to deal with corruption," read a Daily Nation opinion piece in Nairobi.

Obama called for redefining donors' aid relationship with Africa, but insisted that broader investment and trade would require nations across the continent to build more solid institutions.

"He made an important and unprecedented pronouncement for the whole of Africa of partnership based on mutual respect in which Africans take their destiny into their own hands," said Emmanuel Akwetey, director of Ghana's Institute for Democratic Governance.

"By asking Africa to own up to its under-development instead of shifting the blame to colonialism, Obama has thrown a challenge to Africa which we should take seriously."

US policy on Africa already made significant changes under former president George W Bush, who last year tripled US spending to fight Aids, tuberculosis and malaria - mainly in Africa - to $48bn.

A Bush-era trade law helped Africa triple its exports to the United States since 2000 to $51.1bn in 2007, mostly due to rising oil exports from Angola and Nigeria.

But the expectations among Africans are much higher from the first African-American president, whose criticism also seemed to cut more deeply even as his personal success story drew uniform admiration.

"By setting out the responsibilities that Africa must assume, in order to put its house in order or risk deepening its marginalisation, he responded to the expectations placed in him by millions of Africans," wrote Adam Gaye, in Senegal's private Wal Fadjri newspaper.

Mozambique's O Pais newspaper said the United States needed to offer more concrete election support to meet Obama's challenge.

"Obama must work directly with the continent to guarantee that elections are conducted honestly, in accordance with democratic principles," it said.

"If that doesn't happen, democracy will become insignificant and instability inevitable, creating a threat to the continent's security, as well as that of the United States."

In Zimbabwe, a nation Obama singled out for both its economic collapse and its efforts at political reform, his message was seen as an encouragement in the struggle for democracy.

"We believe it's an inspirational message," said Nelson Chamisa, spokesman for the Movement for Democratic Change, which joined a unity government this year after a decade of struggle against President Robert Mugabe.

"It's encouraging to all those who are fighting for democracy, to all those who are hoping to have Africa as a continent with development and goals, particularly the young generation."

But on some of the most challenging issues facing Africa, the response so far has been an awkward silence - especially on Obama's insistence that the conflict in Sudan's Darfur region amounted to genocide.

African leaders just two weeks ago announced they would ignore an international war crimes warrant for Sudan's President Omar al-Beshir, something Obama's speech seems to have done nothing to change.

"It is a step back," warned Ali Sadiq, Sudan's foreign ministry spokesman.