Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Commentary: Obama's Accra speech

Pambazuka News

Obama in Ghana: The speech he might have made
Firoze Manji
2009-07-16, Issue 442

Obama, Africa, and Truth-Telling

by Valerie Elverton Dixon 07-14-2009

Now that the Cold War that was anything but cold in Africa is over; now that the CIA, as far as we know, no longer pays for the overthrow and murder of democratically elected leaders as it did with Patrice Lumumba of the Congo in 1960; now that the United States no longer supports African kleptocrats that hold power through brutal thug rule as did Joseph Mobutu in the Congo later named Zaire; now that the U.S. through the CIA no longer sends millions of dollars in cash and weapons to support one side of a civil war in Angola, the side also supported by the apartheid government of South Africa; now that the U.S. no longer provides weapons to a particular side of a conflict in Somalia, leaving leftover weapons to fall into the hands of clans at war; and now that the U.S. no longer ignores genocide the way it did in Rwanda, the vote of Africans is sacred. Now, according to President Obama, “Africa’s future is up to Africans.”

In other important speeches to the world, President Obama has been courageous in telling the truth of the misdeeds of the United States. His critics call these simple statements of truth apologies. I have never heard an apology, even though an apology would be fitting. Still, stating the facts is important. It is important not only for the Other, but it is important for citizens of the United States to know what various administrations have done in our name. Truth-telling is an important element of just peacemaking. The truth is that our hands are not clean when it comes to much of the post-colonial confusion in Africa.

President Obama spoke about the colonial history of Africa from within the context of his own family’s story – his grandfather who was both a village elder and a cook for the British in Kenya and his father, a goat herder, who made his way to a university education in the United States. President Obama and his family visited the site from which Africans left to sail as cargo to the new world. It was a voyage of unspeakable horror that diminished the humanity of all of humanity. Remembrance is an important ethical act.

In an African cosmology, the community is composed of the living, the dead, and the not-yet-born, those who have yet to be conceived. Thus, when we think about moral choices within this cosmological framework, we ought to think of the past, present, and future of now. To think of the past honors the dead. They are among the great cloud of witnesses watching as we run our race. When we remember the truth of history, including our own bloody acts, we start from a righteous starting line. To forget, to leave the truth unstated, is unrighteous because it puts us at greater risk of repeating the unacknowledged wrong.

President Obama was right to speak of corruption, the importance of strong institutions, the efficacy of bottom-up change, self sufficiency, and the triumph of justice. He was right to remind young people of their responsibility to hold leaders accountable. This includes holding leaders accountable to face and to state the truth of history.

This is important not only to honor the past, but to plan wisely for the future — so that when we have joined the great cloud of witnesses, and the not-yet-born are the living members of the community, they will find inspiration from our courage to face the facts and to move forward.

Dr. Valerie Elverton Dixon is an independent scholar who publishes lectures and essays at She received her Ph.D. in religion and society from Temple University and taught Christian ethics at United Theological Seminary and Andover Newton Theological School.

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