Is “Tough Love” a Two-Way Street? Obama’s Speech in Ghana, What it Said, and What It left Out

By Guest Columnist Jul 14, 2009

President Obama Speaks in Ghana from White House on Vimeo.

by Victor Goode Last week President Obama continued his remarkable popularity outside of the country that elected him. He attracted huge crowds on his recent trip to Ghana as he did in Cairo and Berlin during his campaign. But the content of that speech has aroused a spirited debate in the African American community. Touted as “tough love” by the New York Times, the paper of record chose to emphasize his message of “stop blaming the west” for problems like corruption, bribery and tribal conflict. For many African Americans the absence of any mention of the legacy of slavery, colonialism and imperial exploitation was close to an outright betrayal. But modern Africa is indeed a very mixed bag. It is the continent where civil strife in Liberia and Sierra Leon witnessed indescribable human rights abuses, including many against children. It is where modern genocide in Rwanda killed more victims in two months than the African-Arab slave trade did in a decade. And sadly it is a continent where journalists who criticize government are beaten and jailed and in some countries women are targeted for rape in unprecedented numbers. So it would seem that Obama’s message of “Africa, get your house in order” was at least partially on point. But what about some tough love, or maybe just some getting tough with the multi-national corporations that continue their legacy of exploitation in Africa? A BBC report claimed that Somali piracy began not as an extortion racket, as its portrayed in the west, but an effort by local fishermen to fend off European factory fishing boats that were violating international law and destroying their livelihood. Insurgency in the Nigerian delta has been tied for years to the environmental degradation of that region and the fact that while Nigeria’s oil wealth is produced in the delta, very little is returned for development. What about the UN reports that link much of the chaos and strife in eastern Zaire to the voracious exploitation of that region by western mining interests, and yes the willingness of Zaire’s neighbors to be complicit in that exploitation? The list of what Obama didn’t say goes on. The point is will the Obama administration change the neo-liberal economic policies of the Clinton years? Or is his promise to support development that “enriches people’s lives” and partners with Africa in “new ways” going to be a new direction for American policy? As with so many of the lofty promises of this new administration, the answers remain to be seen.