There was a point, in Barack Obama’s nearly hour-long speech at the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa on Tuesday, when the American president deviated from the script that had been circulated beforehand to journalists.
He was talking about human rights, and democracy, and how African countries need to remember that real democracy is not just about elections – a clear jab at his Ethiopian host Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, whose party just won 100% of the seats in Ethiopia’s parliament. Then he started to ad-lib: 'The bottom line is when citizens can’t exercise their rights, the world has a responsibility to speak out, and America will, even when it is uncomfortable. And I know that some countries don’t say anything, and it’s kind of easier for leaders to deal with, but you’re stuck with us and this is our approach.'
It was an honest moment, and an important reminder that for all its faults, the United States retains – and exercises – the kind of moral leadership that superpowers such as China and Russia fail to do. And in the rarefied corridors of the African Union, where moral leadership is not always as forthcoming as it should be, it came as an unexpected – albeit welcome – surprise, as evidenced by the thunderous applause which these words generated.
And Obama made good on his promise, offering plenty of direct and unambiguous criticism of this continent’s leadership and their political choices.
On the failure to provide basic services: ‘Still, even with Africa’s impressive progress, we must acknowledge that these gains rest on a fragile foundation. Alongside new wealth, hundreds of millions of Africans still endure extreme poverty. Alongside high-tech hubs of innovation, many Africans are crowded into shanty towns without power or running water – a level of poverty that’s an assault on human dignity.’
On leaders wanting to hang onto power: 'I don’t understand why people … want to stay on. Especially when they’ve got a lot of money. When a leader tries to change the rules in the middle of the game just to stay in office, it risks instability and strife, like we’ve seen in Burundi. This is often just a first step down a perilous path.
Sometimes you’ll hear a leader say that I am the only person who can hold this nation together. If that’s true that leader has failed to build that nation.’ At this juncture, African Union President Robert Mugabe – undoubtedly watching the speech in Zimbabwe – was probably glad he stayed home.
On Africa’s relationship with China: ‘African countries should want to do business with every country. But economic relationships can’t simply be about building infrastructure or extracting resources. Real economic partnerships have to be a good deal for Africa. They have to build jobs and capacity for Africa.’
On Ethiopia's poor human rights record: 'Ethiopians have much to be proud of. But as discussed with Prime Minister Hailemariam, it's only the start of democracy. I believe Ethiopia can't unleash the full potential of its people if it jails journalists or restricts legitimate opposition groups from participating in the campaign process. To his credit, the Prime Minister acknowledged that more work will need to be done if Ethiopia is to be a full-fledged and sustainable democracy.’ This last point illustrates the power of Obama’s approach.
The speech was broadcast live, uncensored, on Ethiopian national television. Prime Minister Hailemariam clapped and nodded as Obama offered his critique – effectively acknowledging, at the highest level of government, that the current system is flawed and needs to improve. For a regime that is notoriously sensitive to criticism, this is a hugely significant moment – and could potentially empower a new wave of activists in the country.
Of course, America’s moral leadership is not for everyone. And rightly so. The tone can be a problem, as can the direction, and the principles it applies to others while ignoring these themselves. Tellingly, at no point did Obama mention America’s ever-expanding and largely unaccountable drone programme, which is rapidly moving into Africa. That there’s an element of hypocrisy to Obama’s comments is undeniable. However, it’s a price worth paying if they shift some of the continent’s norms around leadership and human rights in a progressive direction, even incrementally.
Obama also had some important comments to make regarding peace and security issues on the continent. He was particularly vocal on the subject of South Sudan. ‘In South Sudan, the joy of independence has descended into the despair of violence. Neither Salva Kiir nor Riek Machar have shown any interest in sparing their people from this suffering or in reaching a political solution. Yesterday, I met with leaders from this region. We agree that, given the urgency of the situation, Salva Kiir and Riek Machar must reach an agreement by 17 August. If they do not, I believe the international community must raise the costs of their intransigence.’ Obama didn’t outline what these raised costs might be – perhaps sanctions, perhaps the threatened African military intervention – but the deadline will hopefully spur ongoing peace talks in Addis Ababa led by the Intergovernmental Authority for Development.
Whatever one might think of his policies, or his record as president, Obama is renowned as an exceptional orator, and he certainly lived up to this billing in Addis Ababa. The near-capacity audience, an estimated 2 300 people, hung on to every word he said, and cheered and clapped throughout the speech before giving him a standing ovation. That Obama’s speech will be remembered for a long time to come is not in doubt. And if his messages have any power at all, then it is just as certain that it matters.
This article was first published by the Institute for Security Studies.
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