Alemayehu G Mariam
When President Obama recently visited Africa, he announced a “Power Africa” initiative. In his Cape Town University speech, he proclaimed, “I am proud to announce a new initiative. We’ve been dealing with agriculture. We’ve been dealing with health. Now we’re going to talk about power: Power Africa, a new initiative that will double access to power in sub-Saharan Africa. Double it. We’re going to start by investing $7 billion in U.S. government resources. We’re going to partner with the private sector, who themselves have committed more than $9 billion in investment.”
In the speech, President Obama used the word “power” 21 times in a variety of contexts. He philosophized about “power that comes from acting on our ideals” and the “power of human beings to affect change”. He urged Africans to act “through the power of your example”. He encouraged support for programs “that empower women”. He mildly chided “those in power who make arguments to distract people from their own abuses.”
He puzzled over “what it will take to empower individual Africans” and enable Africans to have the “power to feed themselves.” He pleaded for “unleashing the power of entrepreneurship and market” and the creation of “partnership that empowers Africans.” He spoke about “the power to prevent illness and care for the sick” and “the power to connect their people to the promise of the 21st century.”
He lamented “Africa’s lack of access to power” and the need “to have power.” He “talked about power — Power Africa” and “doubling access to power in sub-Saharan Africa.” He pitied those Africans who “live currently off the power grid.”
He wistfully spoke about Nelson Mandela “leaving power” which “was as profound as his ability to claim power”. He spoke of Mugabe’s “corruption of power” and Zimbabwe’s economic collapse.
To power Africa or to empower Africans, that is the question
Africa has a power problem. There is no question about that. Africa needs protection from thugs-cum-leaders who abuse power, misuse power, confuse power and excuse and justify their abuse and misuse of power. President Obama is already powering Africa. Every year, he hands out billions of dollars to Africa’s worst dictators (excuse me, he calls them “partners”) who abuse power in countries like Ethiopia. Africa needs people power not thugs in power.
On second thought, Africa does not have a power problem. Africa has a problem of powerlessness. The people are powerless against thugtators who use power to abuse their human rights. Africans are powerless against the powerful forces of corruption – officials and their cronies who “illicitly transfer” (steal and stash) tens of billions of dollars in foreign banks. For instance, “Ethiopia lost $11.7 billion to outflows of ill-gotten gains between 2000 and 2009” and “in 2009, illicit money leaving the country totaled $3.26 billion.” Africans are powerless and disempowered against powerful election thieves who claim electoral victory by 99.6 percent. Africans are powerless against powerful warlords who seek to divide them along ethnic, religious, linguistic and regional lines. Yes, Africa’s powerless have a big problem with Africa’s powerful thugtators.
President Obama does not seem to get it. The question is not whether to power Africa but how to protect powerless Africans from those dictators America has powered and empowered by doling out billions of dollars in aid, loans and technical assistance every year. If he wants to power Africa, he should begin by empowering ordinary Africans against those who abuse and misuse their power. He should power up the youth grid that remains unused, abused and disused by those who manage the political power grid. He should use the billions of dollars of annual aid to disempower the few powerful African thugtators and empower the hundreds of millions of African youth.
Last week, in his New York Times opinion piece, Eskinder Nega, the symbol of press freedom in Ethiopia and Africa, made a simple but effective recommendation to President Obama: “I propose that the United States impose economic sanctions on Ethiopia (while continuing to extend humanitarian aid without precondition) and impose travel bans on Ethiopian officials implicated in human rights violations.” This proposal is in line with established U.S. policy. Beginning in 2001, the U.S. has imposed “targeted sanctions on the Government of Zimbabwe, including restrictions on U.S. support for multilateral financing, financial sanctions against selected individuals and entities, travel sanctions against selected individuals, a ban on transfers of defense items and services, and a suspension of non-humanitarian government-to-government assistance.” The official reason for these sanctions is the “Zimbawean Government’s increasing assault on human rights and the rule of law.” The human rights record of the regime in Ethiopia is far worse than the regime in Zimbabwe. That is a fact that can be demonstrated. President Obama should understand that what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.
If Obama wants to power Africa, let him empower African youth
President Obama has been talking about empowering African youth for years. In August 2010, he talked about launching “the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) as a signature initiative that supports young African leaders as they work to spur growth and prosperity, strengthen democratic governance, and enhance peace and security across the continent.” In June 2012, some “60 young African leaders” participated in “the Innovation Summit and Mentoring Partnership with Young African Leaders” for a “three-week professional development program”. To support the “empowerment of young African leaders” and provide them “significant and ongoing professional training, access to mentorship, and networking opportunities in Africa”, USAID “awarded two grants totaling $1.3 million to support the core principles of Young African Leaders Initiative.” In his Cape Town speech, President Obama told Africa’s young people: “You get to decide where the future lies. Think about it — over 60 percent of Africans are under 35 years old. So demographics means young people are going to be determining the fate of this continent and this country. You’ve got time and numbers on your side, and you’ll be making decisions long after politicians like me have left the scene.” But Africa’s young people do not have the numbers on their side. They got $1.3 million from America while Africa’s dictators get billions every year.
In June 2013, President Obama talked about “launching a new program” called the “Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders” which is “going to give thousands of promising young Africans the opportunity to come to the United States and develop skills at some of our best colleges and universities.” A lot of nice talk and promises for African young people; but promises and talk are more convincing when one puts money where one’s mouth is. Since YALI, there has been more talk than action.
But there is another side to the African youth story. President Obama in Cape Town said, “And I’ve traveled to Africa on this trip because my bet is on the young people who are the heartbeat of Africa’s story. I’m betting on all of you.” Which segment of the African youth is he betting on? The Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders promises to “give thousands of promising young Africans” the “opportunity to come to the United States and develop their skills.”
What about the millions of not-so-promising African youths who waste away in the urban areas without educational and employment opportunities? What about those African youths mired in rural poverty unable to get even the most basic educational services? Those young Africans who have acquired college education but are unable to find employment because they are not connected to the ruling parties in Africa? Those young Africans who are leaving the continent for menial employment in the Middle East and elsewhere and are subjected to the most inhumane conditions and treatment. Recently, BBC reported the discovery of a grave in the desert of Yemen containing some 400 bodies of young Ethiopian immigrants escaping the oppressive conditions in Ethiopia. Do the not-so-promising youth matter to President Obama?
Along the same lines, what does President Obama offer Africa’s young freedom fighters? In 2009, in Accra, Ghana, he warned, “Now, make no mistake: History is on the side of these brave Africans, not with those who use coups or change constitutions to stay in power. Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions.”
Does President Obama know of brave young Africans in prison named Eskinder Nega, Reeyot Alemu, Woubshet Taye, Andualem Aragie, Olbana Lelisa, Bekele Gerba, Abubekar Ahmed, Ahmedin Jebel and so many thousands of Ethiopian political prisoners? President Obama needs to live up to the standards he set for Africans and answer one question: Is he, like history, on the side of brave Africans or is he on the side of Africa’s strongmen. President Obama must choose between making brave young Africans strong or African strongmen stronger.
Would $7 billion make a difference?
Lighting the dark continent is a daunting task. Enlightening the benighted “leaders” of the dark continent is an even more daunting fact. Over 130 years after the invention of the light bulb, the vast majority of Africans remain in total darkness. It is a historical enigma that as technology enlightens the world, Africa is enveloped in darkness. For instance, Ethiopia got a functioning telephone system in 1894 and over the past decade “invested some USD$14 billion in infrastructure development” including communications. Yet today Ethiopia has the worst telecommunications system in Africa and quite possibly the world.
Power outages and blackouts are common in every part of Africa. In June 2012, as U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton began her speech at the African Union, she experienced firsthand what Africans face every day. She had to stop her speech because of power outage.
Africa’s electrical power problem is not merely low access and insufficient capacity; it also involves poor reliability and extremely high costs. The regime in Ethiopia windbags day and night about a pie-in-the-sky dam on the Nile. They say it will be the largest dam in Africa and cost USD$6-7 billion. This fantasy dam is supposed to resolve the power supply problems of not only Ethiopia but also the region and beyond. The fact of the matter is that the regime aims to export much of the power produced from the dam and not use it for domestic power self-sufficiency. It is also ironic that the regime seeks to convince the population and the world that it can run the “largest dam” in Africa when it cannot even manage efficiently the few dams that are currently in existence. Yet the regime in Ethiopia keeps on windbagging the Nile dam canard to create the grand illusion of development, hoodwink the population and panhandle China and the international banks for more and more handouts.
The World Bank says Africa needs USD$43 billion annually to improve its power infrastructure. Would dropping USD$7 billion in American tax dollars plus $9 billion from the private sector over five years to “double” the power capacity make a difference in lighting Africa or enlightening Africans? Throwing USD$3 billion a year to help “Power Africa” for 5 years sounds like chicken feed. According to IMANI, the Ghanaian Center for Policy and Education, “If all the electricity generated in Africa was shared equally, each household would have enough to power a normal light-bulb for about 3.5 hours a day per person. With President Obama’s new initiative, this can increase by roughly 18 more minutes if implementation was perfect.”
President Obama cannot power Africa by empowering Africa’s strongmen. To power Africa, he must first help empower Africa’s youth. He cannot empower Africa’s youth with promises and silky words. He cannot power Africa by empowering a few of Africa’s “best and brightest” by providing them leadership training or skills. It is said that more than 600 million of Africa’s one billion population is below the age of 25. The vast majority of these youth are poor, undereducated and with little prospect for lifetime economic viability. Vast numbers of these youths are forced to work in whatever capacity to help their families survive while losing educational opportunities that could free them from poverty. He must come up with a different plan for Africa’s not-so-promising youth. They are the majority of Africa!
The real answer to Africa’s problems lies in creating a power grid among its youth. Any program that is narrowly targeted to Africa’s talented youth will merely perpetuate existing inequalities and keep the sons and daughters of the rich and privileged at the top. The masses of youths at the bottom will not accept this condition. Sooner or later, they will rise, power up and disempower the strongmen who abuse their power. That’s how Africa will be powered and empowered, President Obama!
Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam teaches political science at California State University, San Bernardino and is a practicing defense lawyer.
Previous commentaries by the author are available at:
Amharic translations of recent commentaries by the author may be found at: