All were among the 115 young leaders from more than 40 countries across Africa , hand-selected to meet with President Barack Obama this week. Their Town Hall meeting in the East Room of the White House was part of the United States’ participation in this year’s celebrations of 50 years of independence by 17 African countries.
Almost in unison, the crowd audibly caught its breath as President Obama entered the room. Their excitement and pride were palpable as the young men and women welcomed a man whom many consider one of their own – a son of Africa.
Quickly, though, the two sides got down to business. Even the White House noted the “honesty” of the exchange. With Attorney General Eric Holder, U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk, Commerce Secretary Gary Locke and USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah looking on, President Obama repeated many of the themes, the core messages of his Administration’s Africa policy, which he first articulated last year in a speech to the Ghanaian Parliament in Accra.
“Your prosperity can expand America’s prosperity. Your health and security can contribute to the world’s health and security…but Africa’s future is up to Africans.”
“We are rooting for your success; we want to work with you to achieve that success, but ultimately success is gonna be in your hands. Being a partner means that we can be there by your side, but we can’t do it for you .”
The disccussion took on a personal tone for the President.
“I think it’s important for us to be honest with ourselves. Africa has also missed huge opportunities for too long. And I’ll just give you one example. When my father traveled to the United States and got his degree in the early ’60s, the GDP of Kenya was actually on par with, maybe actually higher than the GDP of South Korea. Think about that. All right? So when I was born, Kenya per capita might have been wealthier than South Korea. Now it’s not even close.
Well, that’s 50 years that was lost in terms of opportunities. When it comes to natural resources, when it comes to the talent and potential of the people, there’s no reason why Kenya shouldn’t have been on that same trajectory.” Many Afropolitans, avid followers of U.S.-Africa relations, have been taken aback by this White House’s “tough love” message. And, when it was time for the young African leaders to ask questions, they didn’t hold back. When called upon, men and women from Ghana, Mali, Malawi , Liberia, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Somalia did not hesitate to ask very pointed and direct questions.
• Why was this American president not providing even more funds to fight AIDS on the continent through the PEPFAR program?
Mr. Obama answered: “What the critics are saying is that although I’ve increased the funding of the PEPFAR program, they would like to see it increased even more, which I’m sympathetic to, given the fact that the need is so great. But understand I’ve increased it; I haven’t decreased it — at a time when the United States is suffering from the worst economic — just coming out of the worst economic recession that we’ve seen since the 1930s.
• Just how committed is this President to partnering with African countries to promote trade?
Mr. Obama said: “All countries look out for their interests.So — and I’m the President of the United States, so my job is to look out for the people of the United States…. Now, I actually think, though, that the interests of the United States and the interests of the continent of Africa greatly overlap. We have a huge interest in seeing development throughout Africa — because we are a more mature economy, Africa is a young and growing economy, and if you can buy more iPods and buy more products and buy more services and buy more tractors from us, that we can sell to a fast-growing continent, that creates jobs here in the United States of America.”
The young leaders did not pull their punches. In advance of the Town Hall, however, critics – even some friends of the Obama White House — had complained bitterly about the 25 to 35 age limit of the participants.
An African diplomat-turned businessman felt the White House had failed to understand an important cultural reality of Africa. “The young in Africa who matter today are mostly between 35 and 45! What I can tell you is that the age limit has frustrated many influential young Africans who are in the ditches today trying to make a difference politically, socially or business wise!”
The complaint continued: “The White House meeting is a missed opportunity for a real dialogue with those in the know and in the midst of action!“
President Obama had an answer for these critics. “Africa is the youngest continent. Many of the countries that you represent, half of the people are under 30.”
The President went on to say: “Oftentimes if all you’re doing is talking to old people like me, then you’re not reaching the people who are going to be providing the energy, the new initiatives, the new ideas.And so we thought that it would be very important for us to have an opportunity to bring the next generation of leaders together.”
Indeed, one Senegalese 32 year old in the audience felt that the gathering did have great value – that the young people brought together in Washington now knew each other, have spent almost a week together, and can begin to work together across the continent.
Toward the end of his remarks, President Obama quoted Robert Kennedy as he urged the young leaders to demand changes that will benefit the African continent — greater transparency and accountability from their governments and non-violent ways to address conflicts.
“Robert Kennedy had a wonderful saying, where he said, some people see things and ask why, and others see things that need changing and ask, why not. And so I think that your generation is poised to ask those questions, ‘Why not?’
Why shouldn’t Africa be self-sustaining agriculturally? There’s enough arable land that if we restructure how agriculture and markets work in Africa, not only could most countries in Africa feed themselves, but they could export those crops to help feed the world. Why not?”
President Obama ended the Town Hall with a metaphor. He said the real winner of the recent World Cup matches was the host country, South Africa. He contrasted that country’s experience this summer with the terrorist attack in Uganda.
“I think that this metaphor of the success of the World Cup and the bombing shows that each of you are going to be confronted with two paths. There’s going to be a path that takes us into a direction of more conflict, more bloodshed, less economic development, continued poverty even as the rest of the world races ahead — or there’s a vision in which people come together for the betterment and development of their own country.”
The President urged the young leaders to look back 50 years from now and make sure that they chose the path of progress. The message he hoped the leaders would take away is :“The United States wants to listen to you and work with you.”
Photo credits: White House official photographers