As has been the case with just about everything he has done since being sworn-in last January, President Barack Obama once again made history when he became the first Black commander-in-chief of the United States to set foot in sub-Saharan Africa. His trip to Ghana, West Africa was punctuated by the relevancy of his own ancestry, with a living grandmother and late father from Kenya. While many Blacks in this country have a romanticized relationship with Africa, this President has roots that are current and a lineage that makes his African ancestry much more than an inquiry.
The choice of Ghana also holds special meaning. The former Gold Coast’s history has an American twist since its first President, Kwame Nkrumah, was educated at historically Black Lincoln University of Pennsylvania. In addition, NAACP founder Dr. W.E.B. DuBois spent his final years in the capital city of Accra, making his home in the country after leaving the United States over disgust with Jim Crow. DuBois died on the eve of the March on Washington and his gravesite is next to his home, now used as a permanent museum.
It is hard to pinpoint precisely what the United States should make a priority in its relationship with African nations below the Sahara. What we often fail to acknowledge is that there can be no single “Africa” policy for a continent so vast and complex. What is required is a state-by-state approach in which incentives are available to those nations that engage in reforms that increase democratic participation, modernizes economies, strengthens agriculture, confronts the AIDS crisis, and tackles political corruption. Whatever the extent of conditions in these individual African nations, the United States could play a constructive role, along with allies such as Great Britain and France, in shepherding a new era of real “constructive engagement,” with sub-Sahara Africa.
One of the most important messages President Obama has delivered during his trip was for African leaders to end corrupt practices. It was an admonishment of considerable weight given how revered Mr. Obama is within these African nations. It was equally important that this message came from a Black President. Though we still have plenty of our own messes to clean up here in the United States, these African nations do not have wide margins of error to improve their fortunes. These nations have been victimized by corrupt regimes; “leaders” that have done little to advance their country’s interests while doing everything possible to fill their own coffers. The result has been nations beset with poverty, health crises and faltering economies. Meanwhile, U.S. aid has been miniscule, perhaps a reflection of popular perception of “Black Africa” but more likely the result of decades of indifference by our leaders in Washington.
Still, President Obama must do more than just lecture African leaders on their conduct. Real resources are needed if these countries stand a chance at fulfilling their promise. This means that we should amply increase foreign aid to those nations that show signs of true reform and are taking steps to increase democratic participation. The aid can come in the form of technical assistance, health care, agricultural support or plain, hard cash. There is no use in pointing out the deficiencies of Sub-Sahara Africa if we are not going to be a positive element in their resurgence.
Finally, President Obama’s trip comes as the United States Senate recently passed a resolution apologizing for our nation’s role in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. It is an apology long overdue and one that needs to be extended to African states. The first step toward reparations for the role this nation played in the horrendous crime of slavery.