Matthew Bergman Headshot

The Obama Manifesto

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A specter is haunting Africa -- the specter of Obama. All the governmental powers of repression and ineptitude have entered into a desperate alliance to exorcise this specter: Dictator and Kleptocrat, Bumbler and Demagogue, Militarist and Charlatan.

From Massai herdsman, to Zimbabwean opposition leader; from woman micro-capitalist to death defying matouto driver; from urban slum dweller to Nigerian oil worker, what African citizen has not seen Obama as a sign of liberation from oppression? What entrenched African leader has not felt the cold wind of political change run down her neck and maneuvered politically to "get right with Obama"?

Two things result from this fact: Obama's influence is already acknowledged by African governments to be a power; and it is high time that Obama openly, in the face of the whole world, sets forth his vision for Africa with a comprehensive manifesto for change.

Obama does not conceal his policy for a new and dynamic relationship with Africa. He openly declares a new partnership will be based on advancing political freedom, fighting corruption, promoting female empowerment, fostering tribal reconciliation, improving public health, and supporting indigenous economic development. Let the corrupt dictators tremble at an Obama revolution. Africans have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.

The paradigm for U.S.-Africa relations remains unduly influenced by an anachronistic dichotomy between colonialism and liberation. African leaders maintain political legitimacy by means of anti-colonialist bromides and corruption. Brutality and rank ineptitude are rationalized by decades-old memories of colonial abuse. Atherosclerotic regimes like Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) cling to power by means of glorious tales of liberationist struggle while the Zimbabwean society collapses amidst political thuggery, million percent inflation and the meltdown of a once prosperous economy.

As African countries began to achieve independence in the early 1960s, Cold War politics provided a crutch to the autocratic political structures that colonialism left behind. Corrupt dictators like Mobuto Sese Seko -- adorned by a radical chic leopard skin turban--enjoyed support from the United States while Soviet and Chinese communists found ideological kinship in the African Socialism of Tanzania's Julius Nyerere. Ethiopia and Somalia traded their US and Soviet patrons several times during the Cold War years, making it clear that these relationships turned on the benefits they bestowed on the powerful, and not a deep or long-term allegiance. African governments on both sides of the Cold War enjoyed immunity from the need for popular legitimacy as a basis for political power.

Military and intelligence aid from Western patrons did away with the need to secure popular legitimacy, and lavish foreign aid absolved these governments from the obligation to create a functioning economy. Protected by Western and Soviet patrons, African governments were free to engage in horrific human rights abuses, endemic corruption, economic and civic ineptitude. Loyalty to post-colonial masters was paramount; popular support an afterthought. However, the demise of the Cold War has not been a uniformly good thing for Africa. Since the withdrawal of the Cold Warriors' stabilizing hand, genocidal conflicts have continued for years in the Congo, Liberia, Rwanda and Darfur. It is sobering that since the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, 5.4 million have died as a result of the Congolese Civil War[1] alone and the continent has been ravished by the HIV virus.

Still, in the post-Cold War era, the colonialist paradigm continues to serve the mutual interests of African despotism and Western supremacy. African dictators, clothing themselves in anti-Western, pan-African rhetoric, deflect popular outrage against their corrupt ineptitude. The interests of African kleptocrats and Western exploiters coincide in the Congolese jungle as marauding armies secure pretends of cobalt, cadmium and diamonds. Minerals thus extracted go on to be purchased by the cell phone users world wide. The Ethiopian junta, basking in American support for the War on Terror, overturns democratic elections and executes political opponents with impunity. Meanwhile, Nigeria reliably supplies oil to the West as its political democracy is subverted. Sudan holds fast to China's Security Counsel Veto on intervention in the Darfur region.

The colonialist paradigm not only governs America's pecuniary and diplomatic relationships with Africa but also effects how we do charity and make good. However laudatory, America's philanthropic commitment to Africa does not result consistently in policies that advance political, economic and social development. The neo-colonialist paradigm is sustained by culturally supremacist notions of liberal pity and moral superiority. Foreign aid projects, however generous in motivation, are all too often based on a "top down model" which ignores existing African cultural and community structures. Ranging from genuine concern, to enlightened self-interest; from geopolitical advantage, to supporting American farmers, the foreign aid model has been disproportionately based on a notion of cultural and political superiority, working in collusion with naked self-interest.

Against this backdrop, the election of Barack Obama as president of the United States in November 2008 has the same revolutionary potential on African political culture as the 1978 election of Karol Józef Wojtyła as Pope had on the Polish nation. For the Polish people, Pope John Paul became an independent source of power and legitimate voice of authority free from the decrepit rulership of the communist bureaucracy.

By the early 1980s, Eastern European political consciences had become stultified in a hidebound ideological battle between communism and capitalism. Pope John Paul's papacy offered a third way between the patch-worn ideological struggle between communist millenarianism and exploitative capitalism. The capitalist-communist dichotomy defined Polish political discourse and crippled political development. John Paul delivered as many encyclics on the evils of unbridled capitalism as on the moral decay of communist despotism. He provided an independent ideological foothold to unify the country around common principles. The contention between the communist and capitalist threats broke down to reveal that the Polish people had within itself - in the form of this newly masterless unity -- the tools of political salvation.

From the outset of his candidacy, Barack Obama has self-consciously sought to "turn the page" on the hackneyed struggles that had both polarized and paralyzed American politics since 1968. He seeks to move beyond ingrained cultural wars and unify Americans around common values and shared concerns. Obama recognizes that as long as Americans remain engaged in a cultural tug-of-war which has defined American political life for the last 40 years, progressive politics are unobtainable; so long as both sides hold on to the 1960s paradigm the struggle will be sustained. John McCain's desperate attempt to tie Obama to William Ayers in the waning days of the campaign showed that these antiquated struggles and symbols are largely irrelevant to contemporary consciences.

Just as Obama's election moves the US beyond the cultural divide between those who danced naked and Woodstock and those who cut their hair and went to class, his successful candidacy provides a template for African politics to move beyond the growing irrelevancy of the colonial-liberationist model. Racial pride is one of the major factors in drawing African attention and adoration to Obama, just as national pride was the catalyst for Poles' initial reverence of John Paul. However, if John Paul had reverted to Cold War bromides rather than articulate a moral vision for political freedom, national pride in a Polish pope would have proved transitory. Similarly, if President Obama adheres to the neo-colonist paradigm of foreign aid, cultural supremacy and moral superiority, a grand opportunity will be forsaken.

Tribal Reconciliation

Africa's political geography result from borders which are the products of colonial powers dividing the spoils of imperial conquest rather than an accurate reflection of the tribal and cultural borders that existed on the continent. Within each colonial prebend tribal jealousies and differences were exploited by colonial masters to maximize political power and economic advantage. As the colonial powers ceded the reigns of power, the tribal imbalances nurtured by colonial interests formed the basis for political and social tension in the newly independent states. Very few African countries approach the Western model of nation-state because national identities are subordinate to tribal loyalties. The Rwandan genocide and recent election violence in Kenya represent only more palpable eruptions of the tribal animosities that simmer beneath the surface of African politics. Less dramatic but equally crippling are the tribal loyalties that overlay all political negotiations and too often preclude the African polity from reaching political cooperation and compromise.

Obama provides tangible evidence that race as the defining schism of American society has been transcended. His ability to galvanize the hope and energy of African Americans for a new beginning while reassuring white traditionalists of a smooth transition to a pan-racial polity emulates Nelson Mandela's miraculous ascendancy. Obama, as a proponent of nation over tribe, is in a position to address African audiences and forthrightly acknowledge tribal animosities. His political ascendancy can provide hope and solace to African tribes deprived of political power, as well as assurance to politically dominant tribes that power can be shared without social or economic disruption. Obama, as the leader of a powerful nation with a tawdry history of racial strife, can draw upon his own experience in a frank dialogue with African people.

Fortunately, the ideology that has driven Obama's political career from a community organizer to American president provides the paradigm for a new African policy that does not and cannot seek to ignore these realities. The same factors that led to his success in American political scene can guide a new politics, just as the writings and career of Karol Wojtyła provided the model for his liberationist papacy.

Change Comes From Within

Two decades before taking the oath of office, President Obama worked as a community organizer on the south side of Chicago. A disciple of Saul Alinsky, Obama understood that economic and social change comes from within a community. As he ran for president, Obama repeatedly said that change does not happen from the top down but from the bottom up. "It's not about me," he declared to political rallies of 100,000 adoring followers, "it's about you." Obama's political success was in mobilizing the longing of Americans for change, giving them a license to hope and an idealistic vision of community and shared purpose.

Alinsky's empowerment principle is equally applicable to Africa as to the South Side of Chicago. As Obama's speech in Ghana last July explained, the answers to Africa's problems rest within the African people. Political development results from empowering social and cultural institutions that already exist in African communities, building on existing strengths to achieve a better future.

Economic development results from fostering entrepreneurial verve, working within the existing networks of trade and agriculture to enable Africa to feed itself. Progress is attained not by dictating a particular political or economic model for Africans to follow, but by nurturing the nascent political, social and economic organizations that already strive for bread and freedom. Foreign aid should not simply be a mechanism for delivering sacks of grain from subsidized American farmers.

Africa development policy has focused on large grants often made through governments. From 1960 until 2006, approximately $650 billion[2] in foreign aid has been directed at Africa with little tangible improvement. However, the recent phenomenon of micro-lending provides a model for future economic initiatives. Foreign aid should be oriented toward empowering and expanding existing economic relationships. Wherever possible, food aid should be purchased from indigenous agricultural farmers. The entrepreneurial spirit, particularly among African women, should be harnessed through expansion of micro lending commerce and tourism. Infrastructure projects should be focused on networks of toll roads where local entrepreneurs are provided loans to construct and maintain roads.

Africa is the beneficiary of billions of dollars of medical aid annually. This international effort has had some significant successes, such as the Bush initiative on HIV/AIDS prevention and the Gates Foundation and Carter Institute collaboration on Guinea Worm. However, most medical assistance programs suffer from the same "top down" paradigm that characterizes foreign aid and economic development assistance, granting short shrift to simple public health measures and indigenous health care delivery systems. Obama can use his bully pulpit to promote HIV/AIDS awareness and steer WHO and affiliated agencies toward simple measures like clean water and mosquito netting. Women's health programs should work through existing networks of midwives and elders to provide sanitary napkins for school girls, promote family planning and, over time, substitute a pelvic examination for female circumcision.

Cultural Understanding and Mutual Respect

Central to Obama's appeal is an essential humility manifest in his willingness to incorporate the wisdom and ingenuity of other cultures, disparate visions, and opposing ideologies. While decidedly liberal in his social outlook, Obama nevertheless gave cultural conservatives the sense that he understood their concerns and genuinely respected their right to assert them in the public space. While prior Democratic candidates castigated Evangelicals and cultural conservatives as backwoods yokels and intellectual midgets, Obama accorded this constituency with one basic thing: respect.

The son of a left wing Kenyan economist, Obama derived his values and sense of purpose from a Midwestern grandmother who was a Rosie the Riveter in World War II. A Chicago Democrat, Obama was the first Democratic candidate in 30 years to welcome evangelicals into his campaign and freely incorporate his religious faith into a progressive national purpose. The electoral support garnered from (younger) evangelicals, military families and southerners is not so much the product of superior "branding" or strategic positioning than a genuine inclusiveness and legitimization of constituencies that had been shunned by prior Democratic campaigns.

Throughout the 1980s, Pope John Paul deftly managed his political popularity among Eastern block people by avoiding specific policies and political pronouncements in favor of building mutuality on broad unassailable principles. Obama is positioned to follow this model in his African policy. He should remain above the fray of competing political parties and tribal loyalties by articulating a broad vision of political freedom, gender equality and economic development while avoiding direct confrontation wherever possible. Every African leader will seek to benefit from Obama's popularity, in effect redirecting those leaders' attention to seeking popular legitimacy.

This vision is better served by broad consistency that fosters mutualilty through respect than by lurching initiatives and policy shifts, as evidenced by the relative success of the Bush policy toward Africa and failure of the Clinton years' splashy changeability. Obama should continue to articulate the administration's stance as a major policy initiative. Once set out, the policy should be implemented consistently and without fanfare. The focus of the policy should stress the following elements: female literacy, ending corruption, establishing a free market, and supporting public health.

Female literacy as a rallying cry is the most effective vehicle to gender equality because it does not directly challenge cultural tradition. Because educated girls are far more likely to delay marriage, practice birth control and safe sex, resist female circumcision, and participate in the market place, they transform the male-dominated social structure from within. Sending girls to school -- particularly if accompanied by school feeding programs - is far less threatening (and much more effective) than hectoring adult men and women to jettison traditional sexual roles and practices. Promoting female literacy is a great role for the personal diplomacy of Michelle Obama and the powerful charisma of Hillary Clinton. Female literacy has long been recognized as the most significant factor in economic development, and the United States should actively advocate for it. Public pronouncements and private initiatives should recognize the entrepreneurial force of women and promote policies that advance the economic and political empowerment of women. Most importantly, in the new communication environment, United States policy should actively connect with and target women listeners.

Embracing the Communications Revolution

Utilizing the internet, Obama transformed political fundraising: his campaign raised 750 million dollars with average donations of less than a hundred dollars. Campaign updates were provided on a daily basis by email and text messages, informing supporters of key campaign decisions and turning out the vote. The "Yes We Can" music video by Wil I am was viewed on YouTube by to 22 million individuals over the course of a weekend.

Direct connection with the voting public cuts through the traditional hierarchies of communication. Participatory democracy takes on newfound meaning as voters experience a more direct connection to a candidate. The contact between the Obama campaign and US voters did not only empower the campaign; it empowered the electorate. Citizens divided by region, class and race were able to connect in virtual meet-ups exploring their common belief in a better future. Spontaneous neighborhood and community Obama organizations were formed without any direction from the Obama campaign and, at times, in spite of such directions. Internet and mobile technology leveled the economic advantage of political elites by allowing spontaneous and direct communication between political compatriots.

Similar opportunity is available in Africa. Thanks to wireless technology, cell phone coverage in Africa is better than it is in many regions of the United States. Maasai herdsman living in dung huts carry cell phones (often with Obama's image in the screen), and swap dead batteries for live ones at local trading posts. These technologies offer the possibilitiy of direct communication between President Obama and African people, unmediated by government elites, or local media. Just as the proliferation of cell phones has enabled the continent to leapfrog 80 years of communications technology, internet-based political communication will enable the continent to skip a generation of costly television and radio ads, along with their attendant slanting by the media and political elite. A single solar powered lap top and satellite receiver -- attained for less than $500 -- provides a freestanding means of political recruitment, indoctrination and communication and an independent means of fact-checking.

Acknowledge Unpleasant Truths

By moving beyond the political and cultural wars of the 1960s, Obama brings a new honesty to political discourse and gains credibility by speaking unpleasant truths. By advocating in Detroit for tougher mileage standards for US automobiles, or exhorting African American fathers to assume greater responsibility for their children, or forthrightly urging Americans to make sacrifices, Obama demonstrates a rare willingness to challenge established power and question the shibboths of the Democratic mainstream. Similarly, from the moment of his emergence on the national stage Obama challenged established orthodoxy regarding Africa. After his Senatorial election, Barak and Michelle traveled to Kenya in what could easily have been the vacuous victory lap of a triumphant native son. Instead, Obama used his trip to Kenya to excoriate the Kibaki government on its widespread corruption and to take an HIV test with Michelle. Obama's actions cut through the docile niceties of diplomatic platitudes.

Just as Obama refused to invoke America's history of slavery and racism exonerate absent black fathers, so should the legacy of colonialism and exploitation be overtly rejected as an excuse for the economic failure and political ineptitude that typifies so many African countries. As America's first African American president, Obama has a unique opportunity to speak openly and frankly to Africans on the political failings of their societies. Speaking in Ghana this week he explained:

...despite the progress that has been made -- and there has been considerable progress in many parts of Africa -- we also know that much of that promise has yet to be fulfilled. Countries like Kenya had a per capita economy larger than South Korea's when I was born. They have badly been outpaced. Disease and conflict have ravaged parts of the African continent...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. In my father's life, it was partly tribalism and patronage and nepotism in an independent Kenya that for a long stretch derailed his career, and we know that this kind of corruption is still a daily fact of life for far too many.

Corruption must be named and dictatorial repression acknowledged. Obama can restore Amercian credibility by simply telling the truth about governments and economies. He can get his message directly to the many Africans interested to hear his words by means of the technology already in place.

For too long, African politicians have practiced corruption with impunity. The body politic becomes resigned to corruption as a perquisite of power. Even when politicians are exposed publicly for their corrupt misdeeds --as in the robust Kenyan press--resignations are infrequent, prosecutions bumbling, and punishments unprecedented. Obama needs to speak out forcefully and frequently on corruption's corrosive effect. Where strategic realities prevent open criticism against a corrupt but friendly government, Obama can speak in generalities. Where the regime can sustain direct criticism without harming national interests, Obama should openly identify these as specific instances of corruption. In either case, the target audience for Obama's criticism of a regime should be the population, not the regime itself. By direct communication through innovative media, Africans can hear from Obama that they do not need to tolerate corruption and that a government that actually responds to their needs, hopes and aspirations is possible. Just as John Paul gave the Polish people the prospect of a country free from Communist repression, so can Obama instill in African people the hope of a society where government officials serve the people instead of themselves.

Embrace the Love

The United States can best promote African development and further American interest by overtly rejecting the shopworn paradigm of donor and mendicant and openly proclaiming that engagement with the African people is beneficial to both societies. While Africa can learn from American technological, educational, economic and medical programs, Americans have a much to learn from African practices. For example, in Maasai tribal custom, the greatest transgression a person can commit is to refuse hospitality to a traveling stranger. While human frailties such as adultery and fornication are handled through a established system of fines and sanctions, a family's failure to take a traveler into their home, share whatever meager food they have and make the stranger feel comfortable and welcome in their one room hut is a mortal sin resulting in the family being cursed for eternity. Americans who blithely step over the homeless person blocking the coffee shop doorway, anxious to spend five dollars on a double macchiato, have much to learn from the African concept of community and mutual obligation. As Americans debate whether a 21st Century post industrial society has a moral obligation to provide health care to all citizens, we should be informed by the example of generosity and social obligation found in remote villages throughout Africa. While Africa has a lot to learn from us, America has just as much to learn from Africa.

The election of Barak Obama provides a galvanizing effect on the broad love that American people have for Africa. There is wide concern for Africa within American culture. Americans of all economic and cultural varieties -- from church-going evangelicals to medical missionaries; from rock stars to politicians; from high-tech millionaires to international sex symbols --- have focused philanthropic attention on Africa. Helping Africa is not only popular in America; it is cool. Obama can simultaneously urge Africans to assume the mantle of their own destiny and focus the idealism and generosity of the American people toward a common good. This will not only help Africa but help Americans transcend the legacy of post-colonial cultural heritage, and into a recognition of common values. Helping Africa will help America; we have a world to win!



[1] The IRC
[2] Finance and Development, quarterly magazine of the IMF, December 2006, Vol. 43, No.4.