What Obama Didn’t Say in His African Union Address

American policies have left the masses of Africa behind and propped up strongmen, says Executive Director of Friends of the Congo Maurice Carney

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Story Transcript

JESSICA DESVARIEUX, PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.

President Obama’s four-day trip to Africa for the sixth Global Entrepreneurship summit came to a close this week when he addressed African Union delegates in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The mass media has focused on the symbolism of President Obama being the first U.S. president to speak before the African Union. But in his controversial speech, Obama addressed corruption, democracy, and civil rights, yet there was still a lot left unsaid.

Now joining us to speak about the U.S. role in Africa is Maurice Carney. He’s the executive director and co-founder of Friends of the Congo, and he joins us now from Washington, DC. Thanks for being with us, Maurice.

MAURICE CARNEY, CO-FOUNDER, FRIENDS OF THE CONGO: It’s a pleasure to be with you today, Jessica.

DESVARIEUX: So Maurice, part of President Obama’s speech, he called for term limits for African leaders. What do you make of that?

CARNEY: Yeah, first I want to say, Jessica, that you rightly brought up a question, issue of symbolism. We have to make the distinction between symbolism and substance. Kenyans in particular were gratified to see President Obama come. He’s the son of a Kenyan. However, we have to remember that President Obama is the head of the U.S. empire. And you have President Clinton who went to Africa, he was well received. George Bush went to Africa, he was well received. And now President Obama.

But all three of their policies have been devastating for the African continent. If we look at President Clinton, he championed a so-called new breed of African leaders, where we focus on Ethiopia, Rwanda and Uganda, where we see Rwanda and Uganda invaded Congo and triggered the deadliest conflict since World War II where an estimated 6 million people lost their lives, and the people in the Central Africa still live in a deathtrap, and U.S. policy is playing a key role in that.

President Bush, we see that President Obama was in Kenya and East Africa. President Bush egged on the Ethiopians to invade Somalia in 2006, which set back stability in that region that was being developed by the Islam [Accords]. And of course we know with President Obama, he led, along with Sarkozy and NATO, the bombing of Libya and the regime change in Libya that has devastated a country and has had deleterious impact on neighboring countries.

So the point is the United States has had a sordid history on the African continent, and it has been the wrong side of history. Therefore for President Obama to speak about term limits, the message may be on point, but the messenger, coming from a U.S. president, weakens the credibility of the message. Especially if we can, we look into the manner in which the United States has supported so-called presidents for life on the African continent. Probably most prominently and classically is after the U.S. overthrew Patrice Lumumba in 1960, it supported President Mobutu for over three decades. And it was only with the backing of the United States that Mobutu was able to remain in power, and he destroyed the country and ran it into the ground.

So the United States is not the best messenger, irrespective of the president. When there’s a black president, white president, what have you, to bring a message of democracy and term limits to the African continent.

DESVARIEUX: And this wasn’t President Obama’s first visit to the African continent. He was also there in 2009. How do you compare the Obama back then of 2009 and his tone in this speech this week?

CARNEY: Yeah, he’s been there four times. 2009, most notably he spoke to the Guinean parliament, and this time he spoke to the African Union. And it’s kind of interesting, there’s an intersection between where Obama speaks to Africans on the continent and the way he speaks to Africans here in the United States, black folks. This lecturing tone that he brings in his presentation, Ta-Nehisi Coates has remarked on that. [Inaud.] What we see on the African continent is almost, in his speeches, it’s almost like the international version of you know, pull your pants up. Do your homework, and this respectability politics that he pushes domestically, or he has pushed domestically, he pushes on the international level as well.

So that’s a bit disconcerting. If in fact President Obama was to before launching into the lecturing acknowledge and be contrite about the U.S. role in stifling democracy and stifling the development and the plundering of the African continent, if he was to acknowledge that and then get into some of the policy issues, I think then his proclamations would be a bit more credible, let’s say.

DESVARIEUX: One of the policy issues he focused on was the African continent’s record on human rights. Let’s take a quick listen to what he had to say.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: And finally, Africa’s progress will depend on upholding the human rights of all people. For if each of us is to be treated with dignity, each of us must be sure to also extend that same dignity to others.

DESVARIEUX: We just heard President Obama talk about Africa’s need to have a better record on human rights. Is the U.S. on some kind of high ground here, Maurice, can they be lecturing to Africa about human rights?

CARNEY: Absolutely not. You know, on the trip he brought with him Susan Rice, and head of the National Security Council, he has members of Congress. And if you remember, Jessica, it was back in 2012 when Susan Rice’s name was being floated for being secretary of state. And Forbes magazine reported at that time that it wasn’t the Benghazi affair that blocked her opportunity to become secretary of state. It was rather her policies on, support of policies of the Clinton administration in Africa, where she had supported [straw men] like you know, Warid Museveni in Uganda, and Paul Kagame of Rwanda.

So we have as a part of his entourage and his administration individuals who have been cozy with quote-unquote friendly tyrants on the African continent. And with all due respect, he even had the Congressional Black Caucus, members of the Congressional Black Caucus, who were with President Obama on the trip. And if we recall back in, I believe it was 2012–where, even 2012 [inaud.] or ’13 where the Congressional Black Congress invited Blaise Compaore of Burkina Faso to speak here in Washington at the annual legislative conference.

And you know, those of us who are familiar with the history, Compaore was an assassin, alleged assassin, of Burkina Faso’s leader, Thomas Sankara. And it was only last year in the end of October that the youth in Burkina Faso rose up and disposed of Blaise Compaore. So we see where the United States and the administration and the Congress, they’ve been cozy with some pretty nasty characters who repressed their people, who restrict the rights of their population.

And they continue to do that, because we only have to look at Uganda today with Yoweri Museveni, who’s been in office for some 20-odd years. And he’s a key ally for the United States. So there are a number of characters on the African continent that the U.S. continues to provide arms to, continues to finance, continue to train the soldiers, providing intelligence, and even provide diplomatic and political cover on the international level when international institutions attempt to hold these leaders accountable.

So they’re very–skating on very thin ice when it comes to calling out human rights abuses on the continent without first addressing the, those that they support who have committed heinous crimes on the African continent.

DESVARIEUX: Maurice, we also saw President Obama addressing the need for Africans to be an economic engine, Africa to be an economic engine rather than dependent on aid. Let’s take a quick listen to that clip as well.

OBAMA: As Africa changes, I’ve called on the world to change its approach to Africa. So many Africans have told me, we don’t want just aid, we want trade that fuels progress. We don’t want patrons, we want partners that help us build our own capacity to grow. We don’t want the indignity of dependence, we want to make our own choices and determine our own future.

DESVARIEUX: So we heard him calling for less aid and more trade. Isn’t that a good thing? More trade, more jobs?

CARNEY: One would think. But it really depends whether you’re talking about coming from a neoliberal framework, from the idea of the Washington consensus formed for Africa, or whether you’re talking about the kind of trade we see in Latin America that is lifting all boats, so to speak.

But then again, there’s some issues there. Because the U.S. calls for more trade [and not aid]. But since President Obama’s been in office, 2008, trade with Africa has declined by half. I believe we went from about $142 billion to $73 billion. Compared to China, for example, our trade between China and Africa is three times that of the United States. It’s valued at around $222 billion.

So the United States has the capacity to compete with China for example when it comes to trade. And when speaking of trade, we also have to be careful, who does it benefit. Does it–are we talking about trade that benefits the elites in Africa and the elites in the West, where you have some $65-70 billion of illicit outflow of capital from the African continent as a result of the plundering of the continent by its local elites and foreign corporations coming from the West.

So we have to go a little beyond the slogan of trade, not aid. What we’re talking about is ceasing the plundering of the African continent. We’re talking about, is economic democracy where whatever growth that takes place or whatever trade that takes place, it actually benefits the masses of the people and not just elites on the continent and elites in the West.

DESVARIEUX: All right. Maurice Carney, joining us from Washington, DC. Always a pleasure having you with us.

CARNEY: Thank you, Jessica. It’s a pleasure.

DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.

End

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