When President Obama visited Africa he took the opportunity of being in Africa to speak to the truths about Africa. He correctly stated that the African continent is overflowing with potential for progress and growth. He also correctly stated that until Africa confronts its challenges with respect to women, governance and human rights that it will never reach that potential. In other words, there is unfinished business in Africa.
When he spoke before the leadership of the African Union, President Obama said things that it would have been difficult for an African leader to say. As President of the United States he is cloaked with the power and prestige of his office. As the son of an African, as the grandson of Africans, as the brother of African brothers and sisters, Barack Hussein Obama has family ties that remove the possibility of him being considered a disinterested outsider lecturing the “natives”.
It is difficult to imagine President Mitt Romney giving Barack Obama’s speech in front of the African Union. It is virtually impossible to envision President John McCain, or President Donald Trump or President Scott Walker at the podium delivering that message. For that matter, it is difficult to envision President Hillary Clinton or President Bernie Sanders standing in that place – it had to be Obama.
And President Obama told the truth about the role and status of women in Africa – it must change. He said that the African traditions that oppress women and mutilate the genitals of girls and bind women with the chains of ignorance are bad traditions. He told the truth when he said that Africa will never, can never, reach anywhere near its true potential while half of its population is entrapped in the rickety cages of “tradition”.
President Obama was faithful to the truth when he pointed out that in a democracy there can be no “presidents for life”. He told the leaders of the fifty four countries on the continent that the peaceful transfer of power ensures peace just as holding on to power indefinitely ensures that there will never be peace. And, just as importantly, the peaceful transfer of power guarantees that the energy and genius of the youth of Africa will be encouraged to stay in Africa rather than taking their talents elsewhere.
President Obama also took the occasion to point out that respect for the human rights and dignity of all persons is necessary, otherwise no one will have their human rights and dignity respected. Marginalizing or imprisoning or murdering someone because they are from a different country or a different tribe, or because they love a man instead of a woman or a woman instead of a man are practices that keep Africa mired in the past. And marginalizing, imprisoning or murdering in the name of tradition can only mean that the tradition is wrong – as President Obama put it, “it is a bad tradition”.
What was so interesting about his address is that President Obama ultimately spoke in terms of unfinished business in Africa. But he alluded to the fact that there is also unfinished business in the United States. He could have pointed out that while American women have made major strides during the past fifty years, women still earn less than men and women are the majority population of the poor in this country.
He could have said that while this country has been governed by a democracy for over two hundred years, and at this very moment there are cadres of lawyers and activists all over this country who celebrated the demolition of the Voting Rights Act in 2013. He could have mentioned that voter suppression has now become a political tactic and that thanks to the Citizens United and McCullough Supreme Court decisions, obscene amounts of money flood and pollute the political process like never before.
President Obama could have mentioned that while there have been major advances in respecting the rights of individuals in this country, there are still states that fly the Confederate flag and there are legislatures considering bills that will somehow outlaw same sex marriage and constrain a woman’s right to choose.
He could have said all of those things. There is unfinished business in Africa. And there is also unfinished business in these United States.