Obama do something before you go.
THE PRESIDENT WEPT. LIKE MANY BLACK people who have taken their courage in their hands and dared to visit the slave castles on the West African coast, such as Cape Coast Castle and Elmina Castle (both in Ghana) and Goree Island off Dakar in Senegal. President Barack Obama could not hold back the tears when he saw with his own eyes the dungeons in which millions of black Africans were chained and degraded before being shipped, if they survived the ordeal, to the USA and the Caribbean as chattel slaves. I was told by one of the Ghanaians who organised the trip to Cape Coast for the Obamas that "in the dungeon, the tears of the president of the United States were flowing freely. Michelle Obama broke down too. I figured the experience had taken her to the lowest point a human being can reach. The kids were asking many questions and registering the answers with shock. It was a terribly distressing emotional moment for all of them."
Indeed, as Air Force One carried President Obama and his family out of Ghana back to Washington DC, after the whirlwind visit to their first sub-Saharan African country since coming into office, I suspected that in the private apartment he and Michelle shared on the presidential plane, the mood was ultra-sombre. The president would have noticed that despite their bravery, something traumatic had happened to his wife and two daughters. Indeed, their distress, not too difficult to decipher, was captured in the photograph (above right) which shows a grim-faced Obama with his arms around his eldest daughter, comforting her, as they emerged from the Cape Coast Castle. A picture, they say, speaks better than a thousand words.
Why did he take them inside that castle? I have lived in Ghana almost all my life and I have never had the courage to go in there. For it is a personification of everything that is evil in human beings. It is also a whitened sepulchre that does more than justice to Christ's depiction of the hypocrisy that men construct around themselves to hide the evil they do. Hypocrisy? Yes--there is a Christian chapel in the castle, just above the dungeons. After they had carried out their inhuman acts against their chained African captives, the Swedish, Dutch, Portuguese, and British slave traders who operated from the castle at one time or another in its history, went into the chapel on Sundays and at other appointed times of worship, and sang praises to their God "of mercy". A God of mercy who had appointed them to make profits out of human misery; a God of mercy who created some people white and others black, endowed them with both consciousness and a conscience, and yet allowed the whites to turn the blacks into beasts to be beaten and chained and enslaved.
In that castle, the president and his family would have undergone the indescribable pain of having to imagine what conditions were like, on the spot where they stood, for millions of African-Americans, who were chained together in the dungeons--and sometimes made to sit in their own excreta, the women washed and raped--before being shipped across the cruel sea, from Ghana to North America and the Caribbean, on a journey that took them into chattel slavery. A chattel slavery that condemned them to endless labour, planting and harvesting cotton, tobacco, sugar and other crops, on plantations that yielded the wealth upon which the West's prosperity and industrial might was built.
In truth, the slave trade was the most ghastly and inhuman enterprise ever carried out in the history of mankind. And it went on day after day after day for almost 300 years! Of course, history written by Westerners does acknowledge it (even if briefly) as the "Atlantic Slave Trade". But published accounts by freed slaves, such as that by Olaudo Equiano, and slave-ship crewmen such as Robert Barker, show that it was so horrible that descriptions of it by Europeans, were either muted or suppressed.
In the Cape Coast Castle, everything that was bestial in the Atlantic Slave Trade comes together--there is a door labelled "The Door of No Return", which was the slaves' last exit from Africa. From the deep and beautiful forests of the African interior and the open and rolling savannahs, men and women who had once been happy and possibly the most unfettered creatures on earth, in both body and mind, were carted off to a perilous journey of no return. Many were war captives. Others were deliberately kidnapped by slave-raiding mercenaries, mainly Africans, who in exchange for money, closed their eyes to the humane qualities innate in each of them.
Many were also sold by idiotic African chiefs who sought to increase their "prestige" by gaining possession of Western goods. The history of human action in that period is without any redeeming features whatsoever. At least a quarter of the slaves perished at sea, dying through disease and hunger, and being gifted to the fishes of the sea. Some jumped into the sea and drowned, preferring death to the conditions they endured on board the slave ships. You retch when you see a picture or diagram depicting how they were packed like sardines in specially-built boats which could maximize the number of slaves carried and thus the profits to be made per voyage.
Personally, even before I heard an eyewitness account of the Obamas' horrrible experience at the Cape Coast Castle on II July, I just could not see how Mrs Obama, a descendant of a couple of the surviving slaves, could stand in that Door of No Return and look out at the wide cruel sea that ate up millions of her ancestors, without needing to suppress an outflow of tears. Roberta Flack, the African-American singer, succumbed to sorrow and broke down at a similar moment in the 1970s while touring a castle in Ghana during the shooting of the film, Soul to Soul. Her song, "Freedom'' attests to her unbounded distress. It is no joke.
What is most difficult to deal with is the naked fact that Africans too were engaged in the gruesome trade. Okay, they couldn't see what lay ahead for the slaves and it is also undeniable that if a market is deliberately created for anything, it will be supplied. But Cape Coast became rich because of African "caboceers" and other middlemen who saved the whites a trip into the bush, and did the dirty work of herding slaves into the Castle, in exchange for filthy lucre. A lot of Cape Coasters also bear the names of--and light skin associated with--the Europeans who sat in the castle and literally "helped themselves" to the Africa women and the continent itself. President Obama is reported to have said that he took the kids there because he wanted them to learn that sometimes the world could be "very cruel", and certainly, one can't fault him for that.
But before going to Cape Coast, Obama was rather dismissive, in a speech to Ghana's parliamentarians, of the relentless economic manipulation of Africa by the West, that brought Africa to this pass, whereby although Africa has the richest natural resources in the world, it remains the poorest continent on earth in terms of real "wealth" as measured by balance of payments and per capita income. Obama dwelt mainly on the need for good governance and the elimination of corruption--all very relevant indeed, but hardly anything new. Well, here are his own words; judge for yourself:
"This is ... a time when the boundaries between people are overwhelmed by our connections. Your prosperity can expand America's. Your health and security can contribute to the world's. And the strength of your democracy can help advance human rights for people everywhere." (My notebook says: Wild cheers from Ghanaian MPs). "So I do not see the countries and peoples of Africa as a world apart; I see Africa as a fundamental part of our interconnected world--as partners with America on behalf of the future that we want for all our children ... We must start from the simple premise that Africa's future is up to Africans. I say this knowing full well the tragic past that has sometimes haunted this part of the world. I have the blood of Africa within me, and my family's own story encompasses both the tragedies and triumphs of the larger African story.
"My grandfather was a cook for the British in Kenya, and though he was a respected elder in his village, his employers called him 'boy' for much of his life. He was on the periphery of Kenya's liberation struggles, but he was still imprisoned briefly during repressive times. In his life, colonialism wasn't simply the creation of unnatural borders or unfair terms of trade--it was something experienced personally, day after day, year after year.
"My father grew up herding goats in a tiny village, an impossible distance away from the American universities where he would come to get an education. He came of age at an extraordinary moment of promise for Africa. The struggles of his own father's generation were giving birth to new nations, beginning right here in Ghana. [The MPs yell, hear! hear!]. Africans were educating and asserting themselves in new ways. History was on the move.
"But despite the progress that has been made--and there has been considerable progress in parts of Africa--we also know that much of that promise has yet to be fulfilled. Countries like Kenya, which had a per capita economy larger than South Korea's when I was born, have been badly outpaced. Disease and conflict have ravaged parts of the African continent. In many places, the hope of my father's generation gave way to cynicism, even despair.
"It is easy to point fingers, and to pin the blame for these problems on others. Yes, a colonial map that made little sense bred conflict, and the West has often approached Africa as a patron, 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 in an independent Kenya that for a long stretch, derailed his career, and we know that this kind of corruption is a daily fact of life for far too many.
"Of course, we also know that is not the whole story. Here in Ghana, you show us a face of Africa that is too often overlooked by a world that sees only tragedy or the need for charity. The people of Ghana have worked hard to put democracy on a firmer footing, with peaceful transfers of power even in the wake of closely contested elections. And with improved governance and an emerging civil society, Ghana's economy has shown impressive rates of growth. This progress may lack the drama of the 20th century's liberation struggles, but make no mistake: it will ultimately be more significant. For just as it is important to emerge from the control of another nation, it is even more important to build one's own.
"So I believe that this moment is just as promising for Ghana--and for Africa--as the moment when my father came of age and new nations were being born. This is a new moment of promise. Only this time, we have learned that it will not be giants like Nkrumah and Kenyatta who will determine Africa's future. Instead, it will be you--the men and women in Ghana's Parliament, and the people you represent. Above all, it will be the young people--brimming with talent and energy and hope--who can claim the future that so many in my father's generation never found.
"To realise that promise, we must first recognise a fundamental truth that you have given life to in Ghana: development depends upon good governance. That is the ingredient which has been missing in far too many places, for far too long. That is the change that can unlock Africa's potential. And that is a responsibility that can only be met by Africans."
Ghanaians and Africans, Obama continued, must build up a meaningful democracy and economic strength for themselves. Democracy wasn't oppression "sprinkled with an election now and then", he said. What happened "in between elections was equally important". When Obama added, "Africa needs strong institutions, not strong men", the cheers of those present were deafening. He also showed that he was aware of Ghana's economic weakness, due to its dependence on cocoa, which makes it a mono-crop economy. Oil, newly discovered in Ghana, should not, he warned, be allowed to become "Ghana's new cocoa".
But on the practical and sensitive issue on which Africans need help the most--investment from the developed countries aimed specifically at adding value to African raw materials on the continent itself before they are exported, and thus creating jobs for the people--Obama was predictably silent. Yet, without a strong movement in the West away from importing raw materials from Africa, or Africa turning its raw materials into finished goods before export to the West, whatever aid or schemes conceived by Obama and his administration in good faith, will leave Africa still treading water. In his speech, Obama compared--almost straight out of a World Bank/Harvard Group orthodox evaluation of developing economies--the relative GDPs of Kenya and South Korea and drew attention to the fact that South Korea is now very rich, whilst Kenya has remained poor. But what he failed to show was any awareness that South Korea had benefited from the deliberate establishment there of manufacturing industries by the Americans, Japanese and Europeans, and that this was a predetermined political ploy meant to show up the economic bankruptcy of North Korea's communist regime, and thus stem the rise of communism in Asia.
On 25 October 1999, Malaysia's former prime minister, Mahathir bin Mohamad, gave a rousing opening speech at an Africa-Asia Business Forum in which he made the following telling admission: "When we Asian nations were struggling for a place in the economic sun, private sector investors from developed nations came and helped establish industries and businesses that brought benefit to all. That is what Africa has missed out ... This is mankind's greatest challenge. Africa today stands as one of the final frontiers of economic development. Unfortunately, for many in the developed world and in the fast-growing economies of the East and elsewhere, Africa is still an unknown continent."
How a continent that sits in the dead centre of the world can "still [be] an unknown continent", was not touched by Obama's speech. Nor did he mention that for the past 60 or so years, America has deliberately and liberally opened its markets for South Korean and Taiwanese exports. Markets are vital in the production cycle, and without markets production is meaningless. This, too, has worked against Africa--so much so that even the little we produce finds it difficult to jump the high trade barriers erected by America and its Western allies against African goods!
Yes, it is criminal that Africa itself has still not found a way of trading more with itself. Even today, intra-African trade is negligible. Each African country still wants to trade more with its former colonial master--a fact acknowledged by Mahathir Mohamad in his 1999 speech: "There is no denying the fact that Africa today continues to carry the burden of its colonial past," Mohamad said. [Interestingly, in an interview with Sky News at Cape Coast, Obama insisted that "the days of colonialism are over"]. But the former Malaysian prime minister does not agree: "Virtually every African will agree if we say that for far too long, Africa has been too Eurocentric. Would Asians be surprised to know that to go from some African countries to another, you have to go via Europe--that is the level of Eurocentricity. It is as absurd as the idea of going from Malaysia to Hong Kong or the Philippines via London! But in many instances, this is a reality in the Africa of today."
Mahathir Mohamad continued: "What has been ignored deliberately or otherwise is that political independence does not automatically result in economic independence. Until economic independence is achieved, the African countries will always remain beholden to their former colonial masters in Europe. And economic hegemony is as bad as political overlordship. Indeed it is worse because it is insidious, yet it extends into the political domain as well. It is in fact colonisation by another name."
"Obama, do something before you go!", sang the women of Ghana as the president left the grounds of the Accra Conference Centre on 11 July after his speech to the people of Ghana and Africa. But if he is to do anything meaningful to address their hopes in his presidency, Obama will have to unlearn a lot about Africa himself, and re-educate his fellow G8 leaders too. For what Africa needs, and asks for, is an overturning of an economic system that gives a Kenyan coffee grower 0.2% of the proceeds from coffee, whilst Western coffee traders pocket the rest. It is a second slavery that Africa is suffering and its effects--widespread hunger, killer diseases like malaria and HIV-Aids--are every bit as devastating to the African population as chattel slavery.
Obama's omissions are sad, for on his arrival and during his 24-hour brief visit to Ghana, wherever he went, Ghanaians had nothing but love for him, as they waved to him and yelled "Obama! Obama" to the glass-deafened ears of those in his motorcade. I suggest to the president, after watching his TV interview with AllAfrica.com, that as far as Africa is concerned, the "legacy" he ought to leave behind is to make a real difference to us and be worthy of the near god-like worship that Africans have so far bestowed on him.
He should forget conventional economic aid. Aid is only a "band-aid" plastered on an ulcer that demands a far more skilful healing hand. The only really important thing Obama can do, not only for Africa but also for the entire developing world, is to use his enormous powers of communication to lead and continually engage opinion, in the G8, to eliminate and transform the whole system of exchanging products in the world. No less. At the moment, Africa, for instance, is locked into a system, at least a hundred years old, which makes it a price-taker. This means that however hard Africans work, their ability to survive economically depends not on their own efforts, but on what happens in the countries where the commodities they produce are consumed.
Kenya, Obama's father's country, is one of 40 nations that produce coffee, a $35bn industry; the biggest industry in the world after petroleum. But while the petroleum-producing countries are rich because of the way they have managed to transform themselves into price-givers, coffee producers are dirt poor because they remain price-takers. It cannot be repeated often enough that of any [pounds sterling]2 charged for a cappuccino in a British coffee shop, an average Kenyan coffee farmer gets less than 2 pence. Similarly, a $3 cup of latte drunk in the US yields only 3 cents to the coffee farmer in Africa! If you do the mathematics, you are bound to ask yourself: Is this not as bad as slavery? Yet this is a system that has been going on silently, day after day after day, for over 100 years! A group of filmmakers have found the situation so revolting that they have made a film about it, called "Gold". It paints a devastating picture.
One of them told the British weekly paper, The Observer: "Coffee is one of the least transparent industries in the world ... We're supposed to be marking 200 years since the abolition of slavery. The coffee industry is not slavery, but when people [who work on coffee farms] are being paid half a dollar a day, it is not far off ... You go to a [Starbucks] shop and see pictures of happy, smiley coffee farmers, but we need to go back to the value chain and ask how much of the $3-a-cup cappuccino or latte goes to the farmer?"
In the future, if President Obama wants to have a dialogue with Africans who matter, it isn't just the usual African presidents that he should invite to the White House, but people like Andrew Rugasira of Uganda, a trained economist who actually works in coffee on the land. In an article for a British newspaper, Rugasira wrote: "As an African entrepreneur, I am not looking for handouts that I have not earned. I only want the same opportunities that British entrepreneurs coming to Africa have access to. We went to the same schools and universities, and in the global community we are all looking for the same things: markets and equal opportunities to exploit them.
"Many Africans are condemned--from birth--to a future of poverty, disease and premature death ... The prevailing perception of Africans and their capabilities never transcends the confines of their so-called limitations. You are poor because you are poor ... [But] it is wealth creation that links the African struggle of yesterday, today and tomorrow. To understand this we must remove the blinkers and see an Africa beyond kleptocracy and Kalashnikovs ...
"In the face of the controlled markets [in the G8 nations], African countries face three problems. First, African manufacturing and processing seldom adds much value to the raw product. Think about this: coffee is the second most traded commodity in the world after petroleum. Of the [pounds sterling ]35bn the global coffee market represents, [only] [pounds sterling]3.8bn accounts for the value of the raw coffee beans traded annually. Second, the industrialised countries' tariff and non-tariff barriers escalate with each additional stage of processing for most primary commodities. The vertical integration of transnational corporations means producers are usually totally unaware of their product's true value ...
"One of the biggest obstacles to Africa's long-term development in exports is the transnational control over processing. If exports are to lead to greater wealth creation for Africans through economic growth, then these exports must have as much value added as possible, and market access must be improved ... Let me give you a simple illustration of why we need to use trade and not aid as our principal weapon. One needs approximately five grams of roasted and ground beans to make a cup of coffee that sells for [pounds sterling]2, so one kilogram can make 200 cups worth [pounds sterling]400. Green coffee beans are bought for an average price of 70p per kilogram. In other words, less than 0.2% of the value of processed coffee is retained by the growers."
When President Obama went on that distressing trip to Cape Coast Castle, I wished he had also travelled an extra 50 miles west to see the Takoradi harbour--maybe he can do that another time--or asked to see footage of what happens there. He would have seen all sorts of bulk exports from Ghana in the water and in warehouses, awaiting shipment: enormous amounts of cocoa beans in sacks (depending on the season); perhaps some very huge timber logs; unprocessed manganese, bauxite, etc. The sight of these products that are going to take up huge amounts of space in the ships of the West--at a cost to Ghana--but which could be processed in Ghana and turned into manufactured goods, would, I believe, turn the stomach of the president. I say to him: Mr President, it is criminal!
It is a direct continuation of the system that took human beings out of our land, put them in the stinking dungeons in Cape Coast, Elmina and other castles, and shipped them off into slavery to make America and other European countries rich. It is part of the system that denied even the "40 acres and a mule" that had been promised, by the US Congress, to the freed descendants of the enslaved captives carted off from Africa continually for over 300 years!
It is when the president is able to have coffee in the White House with the CEO of Starbucks and look him in the eye and ask: "But why do you have to continue grinding and packaging your coffee in the US at all, and not in Kenya or Uganda or Ethiopia, where it is grown?; it is when the president is able to call the CEO of Hershey and warn him: "I shall be asking my kids and the children of America not to eat your chocolates and confectionary, until you manufacture them in Ghana and Cote d'Ivoire"; it is when the president tells Boeing, Northrop Grumman and other aircraft manufacturers: "Do you know that you could be producing aluminium from smelting alumina obtained by digging up bauxite in Ghana, Guinea and Liberia, and exporting mainframes of airplanes more cheaply from there?", that the Obama legacy will amount to what it could really be worth.
Otherwise, he could so easily go down in history as one of the caricatures conjured up by the sharp pen of Frantz Fanon: Black skin, white mask. Someone has suggested that Obama would be impeached if he dared to confront corporate America in the way I have suggested. Nonsense. What was he doing when he pumped $700bn of American taxpayers' money into AIG and other financial reprobates in order to save them from the bankruptcy into which they had driven themselves? What was he doing when he read the riot act to General Motors? Did he not wade into American corporate waters up to his neck? If Obama can put his political credentials on the line for corporate America, he can do the same for the poor of Africa!
Can Obama even begin to conceive of how to make such a change happen? Africa will watch and see whether "the man of change par excellence" is interested in changing America in electoral terms, but is not concerned with changing the world's skewed terms of trade that the rich have constructed as a barrier between their standard of living and that of the developing countries.
"Obama do something before you go!", the women of Ghana said in song, before he boarded his helicopter to Cape Coast to face the reality of Africa's true and naked past, un-airbrushed by the hand of the perpetrators turned historians. The women meant he should do something really worthy for Africa and the world before his presidency ends. Will he quite understand what they meant, and if he does, can he do anything about it? Africa will be watching Obama with eagle eyes--in the next four years, and perhaps another four thereafter--to seek answers to these questions.
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|Title Annotation:||Barack Obama|
|Date:||Aug 1, 2009|
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