The most powerful man in the world, Barack Obama, is visiting South Africa, and a controversy has erupted at the University of Johannesburg following the decision to award him an honorary doctorate. Students, trade unions and Muslim groups have voiced their protest.
It is important, under these circumstances, to present a solid case for the prosecution, acting as a Counsel for Damnation in “trying” the first black president of the US for six “crimes” of omission and commission.
The first crime for which Obama will be tried is rank hypocrisy. Two years before becoming president in 2008, in his book The Audacity of Hope, he sought to educate Americans about their country’s past sins, exposing its historical “gunboat diplomacy” in Latin America and the Caribbean; its proxy wars that propped up corrupt autocrats throughout the Third World; and its “extraordinary rendition” of terror suspects to countries in which they could be tortured.
As he noted: “Manifest destiny also meant bloody and violent conquest – of Native American tribes forcibly removed from their lands and of the Mexican army defending its territory.
“It was a conquest that, like slavery, contradicted America’s founding principles and tended to be justified in explicitly racist terms, a conquest that American mythology has always had difficulty fully absorbing but that other countries recognised for what it was – an exercise in raw power.”
Before becoming president, Obama also condemned the truculent George W Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 as a “dumb war”. At the time, Obama showed a clear understanding of the need to address the root causes of poverty that allow terrorists to find fertile ground for recruiting followers.
Under his leadership, Obama’s administration stopped using the widely despised “war on terror” slogan which marked Bush’s crusading militancy. For a while, Obama seemed to have restored his country’s reputation across the globe.
Some of Obama’s foreign policy actions have, however, now come to resemble his predecessor’s homicidal belligerence. Obama’s first military action as president, within days of taking office, was to sanction two missile strikes against Pakistan which killed 22 people, including women and children.
Three more US missile strikes a month later, in February 2009, killed another 55 people.
In his first three years in office, Obama ordered targeted assassinations of suspected terrorists through an average of one drone strike every four days, compared to Bush’s average of one strike every 40 days.
While Bush ordered about 50 drone strikes in eight years, Obama has ordered 375 strikes in four-and-a-half.
These actions have mostly been conducted in the border area between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and by last month they had killed an estimated 3 500 people, including hundreds of civilians who have accounted for an estimated 10-15 percent of fatalities.
In September 2009, Obama also ordered the assassination in Somalia by US commandos of the alleged ringleader of an al-Qaeda cell in Kenya. As a result of these actions, critics have noted that Obama has come to represent “Bush with a smile”.
The second “crime” for which Obama should be charged is for continuing Bush’s militarisation of US engagement with Africa.
“Extraordinary rendition” of suspected terrorists abroad has continued; 1 500 American soldiers remain in Djibouti to track terrorists, while officials of America’s Germany-based Africa Command (Africom) have continued to swarm around the continent in search of enemies. Africom now spends $300 million (R3.03 billion) a year on 100 training programmes and exercises in 35 African countries.
The Pentagon is using the command to intervene on the continent to fight terrorism, and in the case of the Libyan intervention to topple Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, to promote “regime change”.
Africa should be wary of a self-appointed American policeman offering to patrol the continent in a vainglorious quest to eliminate “mad mullahs”.
The Obama administration has also dispatched drones to Somalia and Mali. With a continuing focus on a militarised US policy, Obama drastically cut Aids funding to Africa by $200m last year.
The third charge against Obama is condoning and coddling autocrats despite his pledge during a July 2009 speech in Accra to promote “strong institutions, not strong men”.
A month earlier, Obama delivered a speech in Cairo in which he spoke out forcefully for democratic values in Islamic countries, but then diluted his message by arguing that “each nation gives life to this principle in its own way”.
He thus appeared to support autocratic stability over democratic freedom, and as Lebanese-American intellectual Fouad Ajami observed: “The Arab liberals were quick to read Barack Obama, and they gave up on him. They saw his comfort with the autocracies, his eagerness to ‘engage’ and conciliate the dictators.”
The Obama administration continued to provide Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year mummified dictatorship in Egypt with $1.5bn a year: more than the assistance provided to all 48 sub-Saharan African countries combined.
Clearly fearing the uncertainty of a possible Islamist takeover in Cairo, Obama spoke out of both sides of his mouth during the 2011 “Afro-Arab Spring” until it became clear that the political wind was blowing the way of the protesters.
Just before Tunisia’s 23-year autocracy of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was toppled in 2011, Obama’s administration had approved $12m in military aid to the regime.
Not wanting America to be caught on the wrong side of history again, Obama belatedly threw in his lot with the Egyptian people. But despite his lofty rhetoric following Mubarak’s ousting, this was an unedifying spectacle.
Autocratic regimes in oil-rich Gabon and Equatorial Guinea also remain staunch US clients.
The fourth “crime” for which Obama must be charged is turning a celebration of peace – his Nobel Peace Prize speech in Oslo in December 2009 – into a justification for war. Obama was controversially made a Nobel laureate after only nine months in office.
His speech was delivered in the shadow of two inherited American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, with the ennobled president explaining why it was “necessary” to use force to bring about peace.
Sanctimoniously employing the concept of “just wars” to explain why he could not be guided by fellow Nobel laureate and civil rights leader Martin Luther King’s example alone, he noted that non-violence could not have halted tyrants such as Adolf Hitler.
In stark contrast to his earlier recognition of the historical imperial actions of the US, Obama glorified his country for having “helped underwrite global security for more than six decades”.
He went on, rather inappropriately in the context of a Nobel peace speech, to criticise Iranian and North Korean nuclear ambitions, while reserving his own country’s right to act unilaterally, thus echoing Bush’s doctrine of the “pre-emptive” use of force.
The fifth “crime” for which Obama should be prosecuted is peddling negative stereotypes about his ancestral home, with his father having been a Kenyan citizen.
In The Audacity of Hope, Obama talks about Africa in broad-brushed, Afro-pessimistic strokes: “There are times when considering the plight of Africa – the millions racked by Aids, the constant droughts and famines, the dictatorships, the pervasive corruption, the brutality of 12-year-old guerrillas who know nothing but war wielding machetes or AK-47s – I find myself plunged into cynicism and despair.”
The African references in Obama’s Nobel speech in 2009 perpetuated similar stereotypes, with the Kenyan-Kansan referring to Somalia as a “failed state” of terrorism, piracy and famine, as well as talking of genocide in Darfur, rape in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and repression in Zimbabwe.
The sixth “crime” for which Obama must be charged is historical ignorance and lavishing praise on an anti-African racist.
In his 2009 Nobel speech, Obama controversially referred to Albert Schweitzer (who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952) as among the “giants of history”, placing him alongside previous peace laureates such as Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and American war hero General George Marshall.
Schweitzer was a French-German doctor who set up a mission hospital in Gabon in 1913 to help the local population cure diseases and convert African “pagans” to Christianity.
He worked tirelessly in Gabon – with some spells in Europe – until his death in 1965. Schweitzer, however, is widely viewed as a racist who frequently referred to black Africans as “primitives” and “savages”. As he put it:
“The native moves under patriarchal authority. He does not understand dealing with an office, but dealing with a man.”
Schweitzer also despised Islam – the religion of Obama’s grandfather – dismissing it as having “never produced any thinking about the world and mankind which penetrated to the depths”.
As Kenyan scholar Ali Mazrui - himself, ironically, the Albert Schweitzer Professor at the State University of New York – noted about the German doctor: “He could be accused of behaving as if the only good African was a sick one.”
Despite Obama’s sporadic diplomatic safaris to his ancestral continent, his Africa policy has represented more continuity with, rather than change from, a discredited past.
In spite of the pretty poetry heard during the 2008 US presidential campaign by the most cosmopolitan and worldly of the 44 individuals to have occupied the White House, Obama has ruled in pragmatic prose.
He is a dyed-in-the-wool politician who has consistently demonstrated a willingness to sacrifice core principles at the altar of political survival. For his six “deadly sins” Obama will surely suffer the curse of Africa’s ancestors.