Q. Is Obama better than Bush?
A. It depends how you like your imperialism – with a white face or a black one.
By Stephen Gowans
July 19, 2009
US president Barack Obama’s speech at Accra, Ghana on July 11, 2009 was equal parts jaw dropping hypocrisy, outright fiction, sound advice for Africans if taken literally, and advocacy for institutions ideally suited to capital accumulation in Africa by Western investors. Africans should heed the US president’s call to embrace the idea that Africa’s future is up to Africans (and Africans alone) and to build their own nations, but the path Obama proposes, if followed, would condemn Africa to continued underdevelopment and perpetual dependence on the West.
It should come as a surprise to no one but the weakly naïve and politically untutored that the role of the US president in Africa is to promote and defend the interests of the United States, not Africans. This is so, even if the US president shares the skin color of Africa’s majority. What may not be so apparent, but which is true nevertheless, is that Obama represents the interests of his country’s hereditary capitalist families, banks, corporations and wealthy investors whose resources and backing have brought him to power, and in whose interests the logic of imperialism compels him to act. It is Obama’s goal as representative of US capital to open, and keep open, Africa’s vast resources to exploitation by Western, and particularly US, capital without impediments of corruption, war and pan-African, nationalist or socialist projects of independent development getting in the way. His color and African heritage give Obama a leg up on a white president, allowing him to immediately connect with an African audience. But his message is no less racist, imperialist and informed by the interests of Wall Street than that of his white predecessors.
Obama used his speech to sell two fictions: (1) that Africa’s underdevelopment has nothing to do with colonialism and neo-colonialism, but is rooted in corruption, tribalism and Africans’ blaming others for their poverty; and (2) that Africa’s development depends on adopting institutions that allow foreign capital unfettered access to African markets and resources.
“It is easy to point fingers, and to pin the blame for (Africa’s) problems on others,” said Obama, explaining that,
“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 (Kenyan) father’s generation gave way to cynicism, even despair.”
During the years of its rapid economic growth, south Korea did not follow the development path Obama prescribes for Africa today. Instead, it built five-year industrial plans that singled out industries the government would nurture through tariff protection, subsidies and government support. Foreign currencies necessary for importing machinery and industrial inputs were accumulated through foreign exchange controls, whose violation was punishable by death. 
The government completely regulated foreign investment, welcoming it in some areas but banning it in others. Attitudes toward intellectual property were lax, with south Korean businesses encouraged to reverse engineer Western technology and pirate the West’s patented products.
This approach to development was the rule, not the exception. Virtually every developed country has followed the same path, using tariffs, subsidies and discrimination against foreign investors, to industrialize.
The first countries to adopt free trade, apart from Britain, where weak countries on whom free trade was imposed by colonial masters. The free trade was typically one-way. Countries in Asia and Africa barely grew economically during the period of colonial rule, while Western Europe – the beneficiary of one-way free trade — grew rapidly. Latin America also grew strongly, but at the time, followed an import-substitution model, not the open markets model industrial powerhouses favored because it favored them.
Under the rule of Britain, the United States was treated much as African countries are today. It was denied the use of tariffs to protect its fledgling industry. It was barred from exporting products that competed with British products. And it was encouraged, through subsides, to concentrate on agriculture. Manufacturing industry was to be left to the British.
Alexander Hamilton rejected this model, creating an infant industry program that allowed the United States to industrialize rapidly. Hamilton’s program — which remained the basis of US economic policy up to World War II — created the highest tariff barriers in the world. US federal mining laws restricted ownership of mines to US citizens and businesses incorporated in the United States. (When Zimbabwe’s government developed legislation to require majority Zimbabwean ownership of the country’s resources, along the lines of earlier US policy, it was denounced for grossly mismanaging the economy.)
Other developed countries also used foreign ownership restrictions to help them industrialize. Prior to 1962, Japan restricted foreign ownership to 49 percent and banned it altogether in certain industries.
In his speech, Obama created the impression that south Korea developed rapidly because it followed policies the World Bank endorses, while at the same time Africa stagnated, because it didn’t. This is doubly false. Not only did south Korea not follow World Bank policies – in fact, it did the very opposite – Africa has been practically run by the IMF and World Bank since the 1980s. Under their guidance, African living standards have worsened, not improved. Over the same period, the Western world’s financial elite – which exercises enormous influence over the World Bank and IMF – saw its wealth expand greatly.
Corruption, Obama argues, and not the legacy of colonialism, has also held Africa back. There must, he insists, be “concrete solutions to corruption like forensic accounting, automating services, strengthening hot lines and protecting whistle-blowers to advance transparency and accountability.”
These measures are desirable. But spectacular corruption in Indonesia, Italy, Japan, south Korea, Taiwan and China didn’t hold these countries back. The critical issue in development isn’t whether corruption happens, but whether the dirty money stays in the country. Mobutu took stolen money out of Zaire, wrecking the Zairian economy. But massive corruption and economic growth can co-exist, if the dirty money is invested in the expansion of the country’s productive assets.
Moreover, corruption is more a consequence, and less a cause, of underdevelopment. Poor countries, because they’re poor, pay meager salaries to government officials. This increases the likelihood officials will stoop to corruption to pad their paltry incomes. And limited government budgets mean there are few resources to prevent graft.
But Obama’s concern about corruption has little to do with its role in hindering development, and everything to do with safeguarding the investments of US banks, corporations and wealthy US citizens. US investors don’t want to invest their capital in countries where the returns can be stolen by corrupt government officials, any more than they want to invest in countries in which there is a high risk of expropriation by nationalist or socialist governments following paths of independent development. A major foreign policy function of the US president is to create safe and stable overseas environments in which US businesses and investment can thrive. Corruption is inimical to that goal.
On top of corruption, conflict based on religious, ethnic and tribal differences is also keeping Africa poor, according to Obama.
“We all have many identities, of tribe and ethnicity, of religion and nationality. But defining oneself in opposition to someone who belongs to a different tribe, or who worships a different prophet, has no place in the 21st century.”
It has long been a practice of imperialist countries to foment ethnic and religious tension as a means of keeping oppressed people fighting each other rather than their oppressor. The ancient Romans called it divide and conquer. The British elevated it to an art form, and used it to undergird their empire. It has always served to: (1) disrupt and disorganize a united front of the oppressed against the oppressor; and (2) to provide a humanitarian justification for imperialist countries to continue their domination of subordinate countries.
The imperialist country must maintain a guiding hand, it’s said, otherwise the ethnic and religious tensions that roil beneath the surface will spill over into open warfare. The massacres in Rwanda have served the useful purpose for the West of reinforcing the imperialist idea that Africans are ready on the flimsiest pretext to go on bloody rampages out of atavistic tribal bloodlust. Exploitation, oppression, unequal access to critical resources, and foreign meddling: none of these causes of conflicts in Africa figure in Western accounts. Instead, the causes of war are to be understood to originate in irrational hatred. And irrational hatred, the narrative goes, is best held in check by Western powers.
While Obama attributed Africa’s poverty to corruption and tribalism, he also, indirectly, and unintentionally, pointed to one of the true reasons for Africa’s underdevelopment: one-way free trade. “Wealthy nations,” he said “must open our doors to goods and services from Africa in a meaningful way,” which says the doors of wealthy nations are not open in a meaningful way today. And they’re not, and never have been. Despite African doors being pried open, usually by force, threat or economic coercion by wealthy nations, the doors of Western countries have only ever been open to Africa on terms that benefit the West. And that’s because there has never really been anything Africa could do about the unfair bargain the West has forced upon it, except to unite and pursue a path of self-reliant development, drawing upon its own immense resources and seeking out critical machine and industrial inputs from sympathetic countries. It didn’t have the military power to force the doors of Western Europe and North America open, as the West forced its doors open. Nor could it use the tools of economic coercion to exact concessions from wealthy countries, for African economies, having been adapted to the requirements of their colonial masters in the period of colonial rule, and never having escaped this legacy, have typically been based on agricultural monoculture. What could African countries do — stop all exports of groundnuts, tobacco or bananas to force the West to open its doors? Doing so would hardly hurt the West, but would deprive Africa of the foreign exchange it uses to import a multitude of goods it depends on the West to provide. To put it succinctly: the West has always had Africa over a barrel.
There are two other egregious misconceptions that Obama articulated in his Accra speech: (1) That “the West is not responsible for the destruction of the Zimbabwean economy over the last decade…” and (2) that “African-Americans…have thrived in every sector of (US) society.”
The decline in Zimbabwe’s economy since 2000 is attributed by US officials to Robert Mugabe’s mismanagement, an explanation amplified by the Western media and treated by both the media and Western publics as indisputable. The year 2000 marked the beginning of Zimbabwe’s fast track land redistribution program. The goal of the program was to reclaim prized agricultural land stolen by force by European settlers. The land was to be redistributed to indigenous farmers. And it has been. Zimbabwe has democratized land ownership patterns, distributing land previously owned by 4,000 farmers, mostly of British origin, to 300,000 previously landless families, of African origin.
In more sophisticated analyses, the root cause of Zimbabwe’s economic difficulties is understood to lie in the disruption of agriculture caused by land reform. According to this analysis, had the Mugabe government not pressed ahead with its aggressive land reform program and settled for the sedate, glacial affair that characterized land redistribution prior to 2000 — and which has marked agrarian reform elsewhere on the continent — Zimbabwe would not be in the straitened circumstances it finds itself today.
Until 2000, land reform moved at a snail’s pace. As part of a negotiated settlement with Britain, the independence movement agreed to a willing buyer-willing seller arrangement, whereby land could only be acquired for redistribution if the owner wanted to sell. This restriction was to remain in effect for the first 10 years of independence. Since most farmers of European origin were unwilling to sell, little land was available to redistribute.
Eventually Harare was free to expropriate land from farmers who didn’t want to sell. Britain had agreed to help compensate expropriated farmers but renounced the agreement, denying it was ever under any obligation to fund land reform. Since Harare didn’t have the funds to pay for the land it needed for redistribution, it had two choices: Carry on as is, with land redistribution proceeding at a glacial pace, or expropriate the land and demand that expropriated farmers seek compensation from London, which after all, was ultimately responsible for the theft of the land and had promised to underwrite the land reform program. The Mugabe government chose the later course, setting off alarm bells in Western capitals. Mugabe couldn’t be allowed to get away with uncompensated expropriation of productive property.
Analyses that attributed Zimbabwe’s economic disaster to mismanagement overlooked the reaction of Washington to the Mugabe government’s lese majesty against private property. For not only did the turn of the century mark the beginning of fast-track land reform, it also marked the passage of the US Democracy and Economic Recovery Act (ZDERA.)
ZDERA is not a regime of targeted sanctions against individuals, as many believe. Sanctions against individuals do exist, but ZDERA is something altogether different. ZDERA has two aspects. First, it authorizes the US president to “support an independent and free press and electronic media in Zimbabwe” and “provide for democracy and governance programs in Zimbabwe.” This is code for doing openly what the CIA used to do covertly: destabilize foreign governments. Second, it instructs the United States executive director to each international financial institution (the World Bank and IMF, for example) to oppose and vote against:
(1) any extension by the respective institution of any loan, credit, or guarantee to the government of Zimbabwe; or
(2) any cancellation or reduction of indebtedness owed by the government of Zimbabwe to the United States or any international financial institution.
Since ZDERA was passed in 2001, Washington has blocked all lines of credit, development assistance and balance of payment support from international lending institutions to Zimbabwe.
When the act was passed, then US president George W. Bush declared his hope that “the provisions of this important legislation will support the people of Zimbabwe in their struggle to effect peaceful democratic change, achieve economic growth, and restore the rule of law.” 
Since effecting peaceful democratic change meant ousting the Zanu-PF government and restoring the rule of law meant forbidding the uncompensated expropriation of white farm land, what Bush was really saying was that he hoped the legislation would help overthrow the government and put an end to fast-track land reform.
ZDERA was co-drafted by one of the opposition MDC’s white parliamentarians, and introduced as a bill in the US Congress in March of 2001 by the Republican senator, William Frist. The legislation was co-sponsored by the Republican rightwing senator, Jesse Helms, and the Democratic senators Hilary Clinton (now Secretary of State), Joseph Biden (now Vice-President) and Russell Feingold.
Helms died in early July, 2008. He denounced the 1964 Civil Rights Act, was a spokesman for the tobacco industry and was a slum landlord. He opposed school bussing, compensation for Japanese Americans and Communists. He complained that public schools were being used “to teach our children that cannibalism, wife-swapping, and the murder of infants and the elderly are acceptable behavior.”  Helms was also fond of sanctions. He co-authored the Helms-Burton Act of 1996, which tightened the blockade on Cuba.
The MDC had always been reluctant to admit that sanctions had crippled Zimbabwe’s economy, and more reluctant still to call for their removal. This is to be expected. In opposition, the MDC’s goal was to blame the government for the country’s economic difficulties. If it could do so convincingly, and at the same time persuade voters it could do a better job, it chances of prevailing at the polls would increase accordingly. Likewise, if it refused to add to the pressure on Western governments to lift sanctions, and even encouraged Western governments to maintain or escalate them, the government would remain burdened with the political liability of an ailing economy. But times have changed. The MDC has formed a coalition government with Zanu-PF, and the MDC controls the finance ministry. Sanctions are no longer in the party’s interest, and the MDC has, as a consequence, changed its tune. Not only does it now acknowledge ZDERA, the finance minister, Tendai Biti, complains about it bitterly.
“The World Bank has right now billions and billions of dollars that we have access to but we can’t access those dollars unless we have dealt with and normalized our relations with the IMF. We cannot normalize our relations with the IMF because of the voting power, it’s a blocking voting power of America and people who represent America on that board cannot vote differently because of ZDERA.” 
As bad as ZDERA is, it’s not the only sanctions regime the United States has used to sabotage Zimbabwe’s economy. Addressing the Senate Foreign Relations African Affairs Subcommittee, Jendaya Frazer, who was George W. Bush’s top diplomat in Africa, noted that the United States had imposed financial and travel restrictions on 135 individuals and 30 businesses. US citizens and corporations who violate the sanctions face penalties ranging from $250,000 to $500,000. “We are looking to expand the category of Zimbabweans who are covered. We are also looking at sanctions on government entities as well, not just individuals.” She added that the US Treasury Department was looking into ways to target sectors of Zimbabwe’s critical mining industry. 
On July 25, 2008 Bush announced that sanctions on Zimbabwe would be stepped up. He outlawed US financial transactions with a number of key Zimbabwe companies and froze their US assets. The enterprises included: the Zimbabwe Mining Development Corporation (which controls all mineral exports); the Zimbabwe Iron and Steel Company; Minerals Marketing Corporation of Zimbabwe; Osleg, or Operation Sovereign Legitimacy, the commercial arm of Zimbabwe’s army; Industrial Development Corporation; the Infrastructure Development Bank of Zimbabwe; ZB Financial Holdings; and the Agriculture Development Bank of Zimbabwe. 
In early March 2009, Obama extended sanctions for another year, announcing that,
“The crisis constituted by the actions and policies of certain members of the government of Zimbabwe and other persons to undermine Zimbabwe’s democratic processes or institutions has not been resolved. These actions and policies pose a continuing unusual and extraordinary threat to the foreign policy of the United States.” 
It would be more accurate to say that US sanctions pose a continuing unusual and extraordinary threat to the economy of Zimbabwe.
Topping off the falsehoods in Obama’s speech was his assurance to Africans that “African-Americans…have thrived in every sector of (US) society.” This is nonsense. Income, employment, education and opportunity are profoundly unequal in the United States, and inequality is inextricably bound up with race. The per capita income of blacks in the United States is 40 percent lower than that of whites. One in four blacks live in poverty, compared to eight percent of whites. The proportion of blacks without health insurance is twice that of whites.  And the official seasonally adjusted unemployment rate for blacks in June 2009 was almost twice as high as the jobless rate for whites. 
The degree to which blacks haven’t thrived is evident in who languishes in the country’s jails. While the United States has only five percent of the world’s population, it has one-quarter of the world’s prisoner population, and US prisoners are disproportionately black. One-third of black males born in 2001 are expected to be imprisoned at some point in their lifetime, compared to six percent of white males.  Poor, unemployed, without health insurance and in prison. That’s hardly thriving.
Jaw dropping hypocrisy
As leader of a country currently engaged in three wars of aggression (Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan) and which threatens to escalate its aggressions against Iran and north Korea, one might think Obama would be ashamed to lecture anyone on the importance of resolving conflicts peacefully. But US presidents know no shame. Boldly, Obama told Africans that “for far too many Africans, conflict is a part of life, as constant as the sun. There are wars over land and wars over resources.” Africans, he continued, must learn the “peaceful resolution of conflict.”
Indeed, there are wars over land and wars over resources, and this, the United States knows well, for over the course of its history it has initiated many of them, and most of the wars over land and resources over the past 60 years have been planned at the Pentagon. The United States’ vast military, which Washington methodically nurtures through the misappropriated tax dollars of ordinary US citizens, allows the country to dominate and plunder much of the world, while at the same time piling up profits for US corporations engaged in “defense” industry work.
Particularly galling is the reality that the United States had a hand in the bloodiest and deadliest war on the continent.
“In early May 1997, when it became apparent to western observers that the broad coalition of rebel forces in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) headed by veteran freedom fighter, Laurent Kabila, would eventually topple the Mobutu kleptocracy and establish ‘a popular government, linking all sectors of our society,’ the Financial Times, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and others in the corporate media slowly began to criticize the ‘excesses’ of the CIA-installed Mobutu regime, in power since 1965. But at the same time they began a relentless campaign against Kabila and the rebel coalition.
“The Wall Street Journal spoke of Kabila as an ‘ideological throwback’ to the politics of the 1960s. It decried his relationship with Che Guevara, who had gone to the Congo in the early l960s to work with a progressive coalition (including Kabila) to support the Patrice Lumumba forces and to oust another CIA-installed regime, which had been installed in the diamond-rich region of Katanga. The Journal warned that ‘western interests’ would now be in jeopardy under Kabila.
“For thirteen months, Kabila sought to consolidate a broad coalition to democratize and develop the Congo. But by August 1998, two neighboring states, Rwanda and Uganda, aligned with ethnic forces inside the Congo, (and backed by Washington) invaded several towns and cities. Both invading countries charged Kabila with ‘corruption’ and human rights violations, and with being ‘undemocratic.’
“Both Rwanda and Uganda are governed by de facto military regimes. Both governments are hosts to U.S. military training facilities and U.S. military personnel. The Congo has been regarded by leading scientists and economists as one of the most mineral-rich countries in the world. It contains roughly 70 percent of the world’s cobalt. More than half of the U.S. military’s cobalt comes from the Congo. It is the second largest producer of diamonds in the world and is known for large deposits of gold, manganese, and copper. The Congo’s peculiar type of high-grade uranium was used by the U.S. to make the atom bombs that were dropped on Japan in WWII. And the U.S. dominates mining in that area even today.” 
An estimated five million died in the war from 1998 to 2003. The conflict continues, with 45,000 people dying each month from war-related causes, primarily hunger and disease.  And yet war in the DRCongo is barely mentioned in the Western media. Instead, attention is focused on Darfur, home to vast oil reserves the United States does not control, but would like to lay its hands on. Raising public alarm over Darfur is a way of manufacturing consent for Western intervention in Sudan. The outcome – and unstated goal – of such an intervention would be to bring another oil-rich country under Washington’s domination.
“The United Nations has estimated some 300,000 may have died in total as a result of the years of conflict in Darfur; the same number die from the Congo conflict every six and a half months. And yet, in the New York Times, which covers the Congo more than most U.S. outlets, Darfur has consistently received more coverage since it emerged as a media story in 2004. The Times gave Darfur nearly four times the coverage it gave the Congo in 2006, while Congolese were dying of war-related causes at nearly 10 times the rate of those in Darfur. “
Washington also orchestrated a recent war in Somalia. In 2006, the US-backed, UN-recognized government of Somalia was limited to the inland town of Baidoa. Mogadishu, the capital, had fallen to Islamic militias, who had formed a de facto government in June of that year. The militias’ power wasn’t based on their military strength, which consisted only of a few hundred armed pickup trucks and a few thousand fighters, but in their popular support. In the capital Mogadishu, the Islamists organized neighborhood cleanups, delivered food to the needy and brought dormant national institutions like the Supreme Court back to life.
According to Ted Dagne, the African analyst at the Congressional Research Service in Washington, the de facto government provided “a sense of stability in Somalia, education and other services, while the warlords maimed and killed innocent civilians.” What’s more, “instead of acting like the Taliban and ruthlessly imposing a harsh religious orthodoxy” the Islamists delivered social services and pushed for democratic elections.
That’s when General John P. Abizaid of the United States Central Command, or Centcom, flew to neighboring Ethiopia to meet Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who told the US proconsul that he could cripple the Islamist forces in one to two weeks. Abizaid gave the Ethiopian prime minister the go ahead, and soon Ethiopian soldiers — trained by US military advisors — were flooding over the border into Somalia.  The United States supplied battlefield intelligence, the US Fifth Fleet enforced a naval blockade, US Marines deployed along Somalia’s border with Kenya, and US AC-130 gunships, operating out of Djibouti, struck targets within Somalia. 
The invasion was a brazen affront to the United Nations Charter. Somalia hadn’t threatened Ethiopia, and indeed, couldn’t. With a few hundred armed pickup trucks, Somali forces posed no danger to surrounding countries. And yet there wasn’t a peep a protest from the “international community”.
The war created what has been called Africa’s largest and most ignored catastrophe. One million Somalis were displaced. Some 10,000 were killed.  And the United States, whose president counsels Africans to learn to resolve conflicts peacefully, started it.
To discourage what Obama views as Africa’s addiction to war, the US president pledged to “stand behind efforts to hold war criminals accountable.” What he didn’t say was that he meant African war criminals, and only the ones who aren’t puppets of the West. Obama has no intention of holding accountable either Meles Zenawi or Western war criminals (his predecessor, former British prime minister Tony Blair, or himself) or CIA operatives who used torture and those who authorized their crimes. Instead, he says, he would rather look forward, not backward. White war criminals are to be forgiven; black war criminals, who fail to toe the imperialist line, are to be held accountable.
The body through which most African war criminals are to be held accountable is the International Criminal Court (ICC), a court the United States itself refuses to join, on grounds its soldiers and officials would face frivolous prosecutions. If the United States would face frivolous prosecutions, why not other countries? The ICC has received
“2,889 communications about alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity in at least 139 countries, and yet by March 2009, the prosecutor had opened investigations into just four cases: Uganda, DRCongo, the Central African Republic, and Sudan/Darfur. All of them in Africa. Thirteen public warrants of arrest have been issued, all against Africans.” 
Conspicuously absent from the list of opened investigations are the perpetrators of the world’s most blatant recent war crimes: the US, Britain and Israel.
Yes, but “there cannot be an African exception to (the Nuremberg) principles,” argues David Crane, who was chief prosecutor for the special court on Sierra Leone (which is trying former Liberian president, Charles Taylor, for doing what practically every US president since World War II has done: support rebel troops in another country.) Crane’s “no African exceptions” cry is taken up by the Western media. Referring to Taylor’s trial, Guardian columnist Phil Clark, wrote that “for many, the trial represents another victory for international justice and another signal for the end of impunity for the likes of Taylor, Slobodan Milosevic, Saddam Hussein and Alberto Fujimori.”  He might have added, but not for George W. Bush, Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, P.W. Botha, and Ian Smith. The Western media and state officials don’t seem to be concerned about the impunity of these war criminals. The reality that there have been many African exceptions to humanitarian law – where whites are concerned – seems to have escaped the notice of Crane, a white US citizen, who indicted Taylor, a black African.
Martin Kargbo wonders why the West insists that black Africans be held accountable, while celebrating the truth and reconciliation commissions which have granted impunity to white war criminals.
“Impunity has not been an issue in DRCongo where the wars waged by Rwanda and Uganda between 1996 and 2003 on behalf of America and Western interests have led to an estimated five million deaths in Congo…
“Impunity, again, was not an issue when South Africa decided in 1994, in the interest of national peace and stability to forgive the perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity – people who had terrorized and killed black Africans for 50 long years during the apartheid era. And no human rights group said it was wrong to forgive P.W. Botha & Co.
“Impunity was also not an issue when Zimbabwe decided in 1980 in the interest of national peace and stability to forgive the perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity – people who had terrorized and killed black Africans for decades before independence. And no human rights group said it was wrong to forgive Ian Smith and Co.
“Impunity was again not an issue when Namibia did the same thing in 1990 — to forgive the atrocities committed against black people during the pre-independence era. And no human rights group spoke against Namibia’s act of forgiveness.” 
Obama also promised to “support strong and sustainable democratic governments” while supporting the strong, but hardly democratic, Egyptian government, with $1 billion per year in military aid. Washington has also been instrumental in undermining the popularly elected Hamas government. These two examples – and only two of many – show that Washington has no commitment to democracy abroad. It’s all rhetoric. Washington supports governments which enlarge the interests of the US ruling class, whether democratic or not, and opposes foreign governments which don’t, whether democratic or not. US democracy promotion, a multi-million dollar per year industry that does what the CIA used to do covertly, is simply a cover for regime change carried out by non-military means in countries that are open enough to allow US agents and fifth columns sufficient room to maneuver. Obama’s administration will continue to run “democracy promotion” programs, working to ensure that foreign governments that pursue independent paths of development, including those in Africa, are overthrown.
Promoting the profit interests of US capital
Washington wants Africa to be a profitable place in which US corporations, banks and investors can do business. Africans want foreign investment to help Africa develop. It seems like a win-win situation. If Africa does what’s necessary to help foreign investors reap handsome profits, corporate America gets profits and Africans get investment.
But the history of Africa’s engagement with the world economy hasn’t been the win-win situation US politicians and the West’s mass media promise. Instead, foreign capital has profited and Africans have remained deeply mired in poverty.
That’s because foreign capital can win bigger if it doesn’t have to share the economic surplus it expropriates with the people who produce it. So, it goes for the big prize.
And why wouldn’t it? Foreign capital, like all capital, wants to maximize profits. So it demands a low wage environment, unburdened by corporate taxes or stringent environmental regulations, in which profits can be taken out of the country, and in which governments abjure efforts to meet social goals by making demands on corporations and investors. Those with capital to invest don’t want to pay high taxes (or any taxes at all if they can get away with it), comply with expensive environmental regulations, pay high wages, or be forced to take on local partners. They don’t want to have to invest any of their profits in the host country if a higher return on investment can be obtained elsewhere. Neither do foreign corporations and investors want local governments to give local businesses a hand up by offering subsidies and tariff protections. And they don’t want profitable areas of investment – like energy, telecommunication and banking – placed off limits. In short, all of the measures a local government might implement to satisfy local development needs – mandated re-investment of profits, state-controlled enterprises, foreign investment restrictions, price controls and meaningful minimum wage laws, a heavily graduated tax, and so on — are anathema to foreign capital.
In addition, foreign corporations, banks and investors want a business environment that is free from the threat of disruption by war, strikes and insurrections, and in which private productive property is protected from corruption and expropriation. Delivering what businesses want is called good governance.
As Obama explained,
“No country is going to create wealth (Obama means: for investors) if its leaders exploit the economy to enrich themselves, or police can be bought off by drug traffickers. No business wants to invest in a place where the government skims 20 percent off the top, or the head of the port authority is corrupt.”
In Washington’s view, good governance is created when societies are sufficiently open to domination by those who own the most wealth – that is, by those who own and control the world economy. For example, multi-party electoral democracy is lauded because it allows those who assume a leadership role in representing the interests of capital, to have the best chance of being elected. They’re able to attract the funding that allows them to run effective campaigns. And what, as a consequence, ends up being a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, has enormous apparent legitimacy because it is based on an electoral exercise.
Likewise, a “free” society in which “anyone” can open a newspaper can seem to legitimately have independent journalists, even though the only people in a position to open their own newspaper and command a mass audience are members of the class that owns the society’s productive property. An open society with a vibrant civil society which participates in the society’s governance is also one in which the wealthy can pursue their interests by furnishing the funding on which civil society depends. This allows capital to influence the agenda of civil society through its funding decisions. In short, any government trying to achieve authentically democratic goals can be more readily opposed if it provides sufficient space for foreign capital to operate through strong parliaments, independent journalists and a vibrant civil society.
Accordingly, Obama speaks glowingly of institutions that open up space for foreign money to operate.
“In the 21st century, capable, reliable and transparent institutions are the key to success – strong parliaments and honest police forces; independent judges and journalists; a vibrant private sector and civil society. Those are the things that give life to democracy, because that is what matters in peoples’ lives.”
In point of fact, what matters in peoples’ lives — that is, in the lives of ordinary people, and not the bankers, corporate lawyers and CEOs that Obama cares about — is having enough to eat, a job, shelter, clothing, health care, recreation, time with friends and family, dignity and social justice. Strong parliaments, journalists employed by the capitalist press, and a strong private sector, create environments adapted to capital accumulation; they have little to do with restoring stolen land to its rightful owners; investing the economic surplus created at home in local development; and using state-owned enterprises and fiscal and monetary policy to satisfy social welfare goals.
Sound advice, if taken literally
“Just as it is important to emerge from the control of another nation,” observed Obama, “it is even more important to build one’s own.” And yet most African countries remain economic colonies of the West, their independence limited to political forms (their own flag, parliaments and political leaders) but whose economies are dominated by Western banks, foreign corporations, and the descendants of European settlers; whose militaries are trained and funded by the United States, Britain and France; and who rely on aid from Western governments, and receive it, in return for political and economic concessions. African countries that have followed Obama’s advice to build their own countries have been harassed, undermined, destabilized, sanctioned and in many cases have seen their governments overthrown by the US and former colonial masters who pay lip service to independent development, but are deeply hostile to it. US presidents don’t want Africans to build their own countries. They want them to turn their countries over to the US business elite, and to continue to do so indefinitely.
Under the leadership of Zanu-PF, Zimbabweans have tried to build their own country according to their own needs, expropriating land confiscated by European settlers when the former colonial master, Britain, reneged on its promise to fund land reform. Zanu-PF has also led efforts to bring Zimbabwe’s resources and economy under the control of indigenous Zimbabweans, following methods reminiscent of the ones south Korea used to industrialize. But while south Korea’s subsidies, tariff protections and foreign ownership restrictions were tolerated by Washington as a necessary evil of the Cold War –- south Korea needed to be given space to develop into a capitalist showpiece on the Cold War’s frontlines – Washington has been unwilling to tolerate Zimbabwe’s efforts to follow the same path.
Kwame Nkrumah, who led Ghana, the first African country to achieve independence, argued that the less developed world would not become developed through the goodwill and generosity of the developed world. Instead, it would only become developed by struggle against the external forces – foreign corporations, banks and investors — that had a vested interest in keeping it underdeveloped.  Nkrumah would have agreed with Obama that “Africa’s future is up to Africans.” He would surely have disagreed with Obama’s prescription for how Africa ought to arrive at its future.
- Discussion of south Korea’s development strategy, free trade, and corruption based on Ha-Joon Chang, Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism, Bloomsbury Press, New York, 2008.
- “President Signs Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act, December 21, 2001. www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2001/12/200111221-15.html
- The Guardian (UK), July 4, 2008.
- The Herald (Zimbabwe) May 5, 2009.
- TalkZimbabwe.com, July 16, 2008.
- The New York Times, July 26, 2008; The Washington Post, July 26, 2008; The Sunday Mail (Zimbabwe), July 27, 2008.
- “Obama extends Zimbabwe sanctions,” TalkZimbabwe.com, March 8, 2009.
- US Census Bureau Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2007, August 2008.
- Bureau of Labor Statistics, Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey.
- US Bureau of Justice Statistics, cited in Hannah Holleman, Robert W. McChesney, John Bellamy Foster and R. Jamil Jonna, “The Penal State in an Age of Crisis,” Monthly Review, Vol. 61, No. 2, June, 2009.
- Elombe Brath and Samori Marksman, “Conflict in the Congo: An Interview with President Laurent Kabila,” Covert Action Quarterly, Winter, 1999, Issue 66.
- Julie Hollar, “Congo Ignored, Not Forgotten,”
Extra, Magazine of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, May 2009.
- Stephen Gowans, “US fomenting war in Somalia,” What’s Left, December 15, 2006, http://gowans.blogspot.com/2006/12/us-fomenting-war-in-somalia.html
- Stephen Gowans, “Another US military intervention,” What’s Left, January 11, 2007, http://gowans.blogspot.com/2007/01/another-us-military-intervention.html
- Stephanie McCrummen, “With Ethiopian pullout, Islamists rise again in Somalia,” The Washington Post, January 22, 2009; Stephen Gowans, “Spielberg: Chauvinist in humanitarian drag,” What’s Left, February 13, 2008. http://gowans.wordpress.com/2008/02/13/spielberg-chauvinist-in-humanitarian-drag/
- “Selective Justice,” The New African, No. 484, May 2009.
- Phil Clark, “Can Africa trust international justice?” The Guardian (UK) July 16, 2009.
- Martin Kargbo, “The case against the ICC,” New African, July, 2009.
- Kwame Nkrumah, Neo-Colonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialism, Thomas Nelson & Sons, Ltd., London, 1965. www.marxists.org/subject/africa/nkrumah/neo-colonialism/index.htm
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