President Barack Obama’s speech ticking off African leaders who cling onto power lit the touch paper of public opinion across the continent.
Many have criticised the US president for the preachy, undiplomatic tone of his address in Addis Ababa, with at least one commentator describing it as an “ill-informed and stereotypical admonition” of African leaders.
In seeking an informed response to the speech, there are, in my view, two fundamental issues to determine: whether Mr Obama is entitled to a public opinion about governance and leadership in Africa, and whether his views have any merit.
I deliberately mention governance and leadership because although Mr Obama spoke broadly, from the need for business reforms to increase intra-African trade to the need to defend the rights of women, it is the strong words to Africa’s strong men that had the strongest impression.
Many have pointed out the double standards of preaching the water of good governance while drinking wine with despots. From mollycoddling the likes of Equatorial Guinea’s Teodore Obiang Nguema to remaining silent on the maltreatment of women and minorities in Saudi Arabia, the U.S. is peerless in putting narrow national interest ahead of universal human rights and values.
Does this strip President Obama of the right to speak out about the governance deficit in many parts of Africa? I respectfully disagree. Not only did Mr Obama introduce himself as the “son of an African” and, therefore, one with skin in the game, his citizenship notwithstanding, to ask only those countries that have not sinned to speak out on injustice elsewhere is a luxury millions around the world, not only in Africa, cannot afford. Even a broken clock can tell the correct time twice a day.
For every conflict the world has ignored, such as the Rwanda Genocide, there are several that could have been a lot worse without external intervention. Should Uganda have kept quiet about apartheid in South Africa because of our own expulsion of the Asians that was, at least in part, laced with racism and xenophobia?
Like many, I find the West’s attitude towards Africa arrogant and condescending, be it in the shoddy treatment of legal and illegal migrants, the silence over the unfair global trading regime in everything from commodities to pharmaceuticals, to their abuse of military power as they impose a might-is-right worldview.
What I abhor most, however, is the arrogant and condescending attitude of African leaders towards their own citizens.
Criticism of Mr Obama dovetails conveniently into the contemporary narrative of “finding African solutions to African problems”.
Yet in Burundi and South Sudan, two of the countries he highlighted, war or civil unrest is being fanned by bloodthirsty, power-hungry elites.
The African solution has been to hide a critical AU report, take sides in the conflicts, and umm and ah over the matter.
There are few local answers because many African states are weak, although not necessarily poor. The key question is whether we shall become strong states through the efforts of strong men, or through the creation of strong institutions.
Term limits are not a magic bullet but neither are strong men think Mobutu in Zaire, Biya in Cameroon, Mugabe in Zimbabwe, and so on.
If anything, strong men are often like ticks to grow fat and powerful, they often need to suck their countries dry and make state institutions weaker.
Many manipulate electoral processes to stay in power by exercising personal control over the national treasury, handing some taxes back as bribes, turning citizens into begging subjects.
They fly their prostates abroad for treatment while ordinary folk die of preventable and curable diseases. Which Africans do these charlatans claim to speak for?
As long as ordinary Africans depend on the generosity of Pepfar and the Gates Foundation to pay for anti-retroviral and anti-malaria drugs, Mr Obama and Mr Gates will have a right to talk down to us.
A neighbour who feeds and treats your children is entitled to an opinion about the hygiene in your house!
Mr Kalinaki is a Ugandan journalist based in Nairobi. firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @Kalinaki