Everyone already knew America’s President Barack Obama came home to Africa the other time. What many didn’t realise was how much load he came with. But no one should imagine he carried American dollars in his diplomatic bag. That would be uncharacteristic of any American from a society where people live mostly by card and not cash. What Obama carried that time was the burden of expectations of millions on the African continent. American presidents from the Democratic Party usually carry this burden of Africa’s expectations, but none ever had a burden as heavy as Obama’s. The reasons are well-known.
Much more burden was added to the President’s not so macho shoulders when he got to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, nevertheless. And to think he had earlier been in Kenya, where his kinsmen who had always imagined they owned the White House because of him, had added theirs too. But Kenyans had the right to so do more than any other. Didn’t everyone notice that not a single Kenyan had grumbled when Nairobi was locked down for three days because of Obama, the ever busy city roads were rendered empty, and the airport was closed long before and after Air Force One landed and took off en route Addis Ababa? While she was on the podium at the African Union headquarters, the African Union chairperson, Dr. Dlamini Zuma, had turned to Obama and placed another burden on him.
For some reasons, I came under the impression that this burden from the AU is in the category of the high expectations Africans tended to have that once a Democratic Party president or a black person came to the White House, America would bend to fulfil every desire that Africa expressed. That never happened under any Democratic Party presidency, and it hadn’t happened in seven years of Obama’s leadership. It’s because a president is essentially the symbol of powerful America, meanwhile the power is scattered at different levels such that the president can’t take and dole out what other caretakers of power don’t open their hands and allow him to have. Like every other American president, Obama knew his limitations as the head of the executive arm, as well as that of the US among other UNSC permanent members and he said this in what he didn’t say in his speech to the AU.
From the AU podium that time, the American leader said he was grateful for the opportunity to speak to the representatives of the more than one billion people of the African continent. For anyone who nursed a contrary imagination, he was categorical as to where he belonged: “I stand before you as a proud American”, Obama had said. He didn’t forget his root though: “I also stand before you as the son of an African.”
He told African history, noting slave trade, colonialism and the post-independent African state. “A half-century into this independence era, it is long past time to put aside old stereotypes of an Africa forever mired in poverty and conflict. The world must recognise Africa’s extraordinary progress. Today, Africa is one of the fastest-growing regions in the world,” he pointed out. Then, he reminded all of his often quoted quote that, “Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions.” He told his listeners that the AU was one of such institutions, because through it, “you can come together, with a shared commitment to human dignity and development. Here, your 54 nations pursue a common vision of an integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa.” This comment is a path to where this piece is going.
Obama said he had taken a different approach to issues that concerned Africa. “As President, I’ve worked to transform America’s relationship with Africa-so that we’re truly listening to our African friends and working together, as equal partners. And I’m proud of the progress we’ve made. We’ve boosted American exports to this region, part of trade that supports jobs for Africans and Americans.
To sustain our momentum-and with the bipartisan support of Members of Congress, 20 of whom are here today-I recently signed the 10-year renewal of the African Growth and Opportunity Act,” he stated. It’s worthy of note that Obama hardly mentioned the UN except that he said, “The world must do more to help as well. This fall at the United Nations, I will host a summit to secure new commitments to strengthen international support for peacekeeping, including here in Africa. And building on commitments that originated here in the AU, we’ll work to develop a new partnership between the UN and the AU that can provide reliable support for AU peace operations.” That was the closest Obama got to responding to the AU’s request that Africa should be allotted a permanent seat in the UNSC.
The merits and the merits of Africa becoming a permanent member of the UNSC had been much commented on. Why the five permanent members of US, Britain, France, Russia and China would want to hold onto their elitist membership of the UNSC had also been extensively treated. But the question of which African country should occupy the permanent seat if the continent is ever allocated one has been left hanging.
What I want to call attention to here is the fact that, the desire of the five permanent members to hold on to their powers in the UNSC may not be the only reason they have yet to decide to bring Africa on board. Another reason may be that the continent itself has yet to decide on how it should be represented or which country should represent it in the UNSC, and that way vigorously pursue its request from a common front.
As things stand each African nation engages in diplomatic persuasion, using every opportunity to ask foreign diplomats to support its bid. Nigeria and South Africa have been long on this. Much as I desire that Nigeria should be the occupier of the UNSC seat in Africa, the reality on the continent makes it tough for one country to grab it for itself, although it’s not impossible. In any case, most countries on the continent aren’t even at par with the least powerful of the permanent members of the UNSC. So, the picture of power relations that one gets is that of a valley beside Mt. Everest if a nation on the African continent, rather than the AU, sits at the UNSC and chooses to veto what the current permanent five decide to do. A permanent seat that speaks the unanimous decision of Africa, and is regularly rotated among the AU members, looks more like it. Something close to this is being practised at the moment which sees the AU zoning seats to each of its regions, while the region decides which country fills the post.
That’s how Nigeria gets to occupy a non-permanent seat in the UNSC at the moment. If the decision is therefore taken in Addis Ababa that a seat be given to the AU while how the continent sends a country to occupy it is left for it to decide, one more hurdle may have been cleared for the permanent five to take their decision. It’s one reason I advocate that Africa should request a permanent seat for the continent, not for one African country.