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Rebranding Africa
By Dr. Bukar Usman


For the first six months of President Barack Obama's tenure, he was largely preoccupied with domestic issues. When he addressed his mind to foreign issues, he naturally went to US neighbourhood which is of America's primary interest. He next moved to Europe and the Middle East and extended this visit to Egypt.

   Before he set his foot on foreign soil, the debate was about which country he would visit when he comes to Africa. President Obama chose Egypt in the first leg of his visit to Africa. This is understandable because of Egypt's connection to the Middle East. But when it comes to the rest of Africa, especially sub-Saharan Africa, many expected President Obama to be moved by primordial ties or sentiments to first visit Kenya, his ancestral home. That did not happen.

   Realpolitik held sway. When it was announced that he would be visiting Ghana, many wondered why Ghana? The official explanation was that it was to underline Ghana's phenomenal achievement in good governance. That should make other sub-Saharan African countries left out to examine themselves. Comments came from all quarters. Nigerians were naturally piqued and so were the Kenyans.

   But the visit has come and gone. Like a shooting star, President Obama made the one-day visit to Ghana and delivered a powerful speech. Characteristically, and in line with his oratorical style, Obama delivered his speech to the Ghanaian parliament for thirty minutes without looking at any notes.


Surely, the West African sub-region should count itself lucky to have been so honoured by the visit of such a personality. However, Nigerians would have been much happier had the maiden visit to the sub-region been to Nigeria. But, Nigerians should appreciate that aside from the superficial official explanation, there were underlying reasons why Ghana was chosen. Among those reasons would be the Michelle Obama factor.

   Oblique reference to this factor was made by the Christian Science Monitor and the Washington Post. We were reminded by both newspapers that Michelle Obama's ancestry can be traced to West Africa, possibly Nigeria. Historians tell us that African-Americans in South Carolina, the home state of Mrs. Obama, and other parts of the US, first landed in the West Indies before they were taken to the US to form the nucleus of the Gullah Community. This community has a distinct African heritage which subsists to this day.

   At a point in time, about one third of the over two million African-American population in South Carolina reportedly had their roots in Gold Coast (Ghana) and Benin (Dahomey). Those who are conversant with the life and culture of our brothers in the Caribbean would appreciate their bond with and the nostalgia they have for Gold Coast more than any other parts of Africa. This feeling is deeply ingrained in the psyche of the average Caribbean and many African-Americans. That is why in Jamaica and several parts of the Caribbean, their folklore and food are similar to those in Ghana and the Volta region.

   Caribbean literature is full of references to the Anancy (Anansi) stories in their folklore just as Caribbean ackee, a delicacy like dodo (fried plantain) in western part of Nigeria, was derived from Ghana and the rest of the Volta region. Thus, a visit to Ghana, to some of our Caribbean brothers and African-Americans, is like going on a pilgrimage or on a voyage of self-discovery to the land of their ancestors.

   Slave ports in Angola, Zanzibar, Dahomey, Nigeria and others, particularly those in Ghana and Senegal in the West African Coast, were used by slave masters for the shipping of our brothers to other parts of the world. While it is true that Badagry in Nigeria still stands as a reminder of those sordid days, there are no less than 20 notable posts and forts in Ghana, including the Cape Coast Castle, which served as staging posts for shipping Africans to the West Indies and the Americas.

   Certainly, any dispassionate assessment of those historic places would rate Cape Coast Castle as one of the best preserved and accessible relics worthy of a visit by the descendants of Africans enslaved in the Americas. To my mind, official reasons apart, this factor must have outweighed others in the minds of the Obamas in their choice of Ghana. This is not to play down the achievements of Ghana in good governance but, rather, to reinforce the rationale for the choice of Ghana over other African countries. Indeed, if good governance had truly been the prime factor, the Obamas could well have gone to Botswana, which was much nearer to Kenya.

 Good Governance

Although President Obama's speech, described as a "sermon" by Mahmud Jega of Daily Trust and "market place insults" by Sam Nda-Isaiah of the Leadership, it essentially charged African leaders to pursue "good governance" which not only stops corruption and human rights abuse but also reinforces vital institutions of government functioning in accordance with the democratic spirit. President Obama emphasized that this contains the ingredient which would usher in the much needed change and unlock Africa's potentials.

   Former American Presidents, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, who had earlier visited this country, had spoken in a similar vein. But theirs, in keeping with diplomatic etiquette, had been couched in diplomatic niceties. Had the Obama address to the Ghanaian parliament been delivered to the Nigerian National Assembly in such a blunt fashion, it certainly would have created consternation. On the one hand, it would have been cynical of Nigerian parliamentarians not to applaud him and on the other hand, it would have been somewhat self-condemnatory to do so.

   Obama chose Ghana where he could comfortably deliver his speech without any reservation and receive genuine appreciation. He said nothing that was offensive to the Ghanaian audience, for Ghana was a model for Africa, after all. And so, it was praises all the way for Ghanaian democracy.  A contrary situation would have obtained in Nigeria, and so it was perhaps convenient that Obama avoided the encounter and saved every one the embarrassment. In any case, Nigeria was only a stone throw from Ghana.  And so are the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, thanks to the power of IT.

     It only needs to be said that much as Nigeria missed the visit, the Obamas, in their heart of hearts, also knew that they missed Nigeria. No future visit to this country, whether in their official or private capacity, will ever make up for the lost opportunity.    Whatever else one could say of Nigeria, it remains the home of the majority of the black people in the world, and a unique gift from God, with such cultural diversity unsurpassed any where else in the universe.

The Lessons

The politics of the venue for the speech notwithstanding, President Obama had bluntly told some home truths. He seemed genuinely out to rebrand Africa. The speech was quite frank and what remains is for us to see whether the sermon has fallen on deaf ears or whether it has succeeded in stirring up the conscience of African leaders to the point of causing visible changes in the Obama years and beyond. Surely, it would be foolhardy for any of the affected countries to brush aside the speech and continue with "business as usual."

   Expectedly, it is of much greater challenge to Nigeria. As the "giant of Africa", she needs to assimilate and immediately put into practice the substance of the exhortation in the true spirit of democracy and the promotion of the welfare of her citizens.  Unlike the ostrich, we can not burry our heads in the sand and feign ignorance of the goings on in our neighbourhood and in the rest of the world. The list of African countries like Botswana, Ghana, South Africa, and even Sierra Leone and Liberia, where genuine efforts are being made to make democracy work, is getting longer and longer. Nigeria's continued exclusion from this list is becoming uncomfortable.

   We must seize the initiative to regain our leadership position in Africa by immediately changing our ways as they relate to good governance driven by democracy anchored on free and fair elections. Enough of the exhortation and insults from within and outside the country! Nigerians want to walk with their heads straight and be in a position to point accusing fingers in good conscience at others doing things the wrong way. We need to regain the self-respect rightly due to us as a nation endowed with great potentials envied by others.


With or without American employment of the triple mechanism of military might, diplomacy and developmental aid, in their quest to shape societies elsewhere, and by extension the African continent, it remains true, as Obama had emphasized, that Africa holds its destiny in its hands. As I emphasized in my previous article, written at the inception of the Obama presidency, the priority for Nigeria is to fix the elections and to provide adequate electricity to power our economy. That so much of the nation's potential is tied down for over forty years, as a result of shortage of electricity, is quite embarrassing and remains central to all the daunting socio-economic problems facing the country today. Until we fix elections and power supplies, our dream of becoming one of the 20 most industrialized countries by the year 2020 will remain illusory.

   To say that a sizeable number of Nigerians are in a state of despair over our electoral shortcomings and the level of corruption in the country is an understatement. The re-run elections did not seem to bring much comfort. And in spite of our current efforts at reforming the electoral laws, there appears to be no hope of seeing some light at the end of the tunnel as there is no perceivable change of attitude among our politicians.

   Being angry at the Obama speech will not help us any more than being cynical or indifferent. All Obama did was lift up the mirror so that we could see our ugly side. If we don't like the image, as reflected in the mirror, our most practical and progressive response should be to reshape and refine the image. This should be the true import of re-branding Nigeria or any other African country, for that matter.


July 22, 2009 




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