Skip to content

obama africa visit

Power Africa? Empower Africans!

youth powerPower, power, power…

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:

Obama is Coming! Obama is Coming to Africa!!

Obama Accra (This week my regular Monday commentary is presented in the form of a “flash drama” on Obama (a sub-genre of theatrical play sometimes described as a “ten minute one-act play”).  

The scene is a barbershop somewhere in Africa. Two young African college friends are talking soccer as they await their turn in the barber’s chair. Their conversation shifts from sports to international politics on the news that President Obama is scheduled to visit Africa in late June 2013.  

I have opted to use “flash drama” to add creative range to my commentaries and expand my reach to the younger generation of Ethiopians and other African youth. The names of the two characters have special meaning.)

Shudi: By the way, have you heard?!

Duma: What?

Shudi: Obama is coming!

Duma: Where?  Here.  To Africa?

Shudi: Here. To Africa! How cool is that?

Duma: For summer vacation?

Shudi: No, man. To make glorious summer of the winter of discontent in the dark continent! Ha ha… ha…

Duma: Who was that African prince in “Coming to America”? Eddie Murphy?

Shudi: That’s right. American President Obama is “Coming to Africa”.

Duma: Ah! Xi Jinping was here.

Shudi: Who?

Duma: China’s new president. A day late, a dollar short for Obama!

Shudi: Aren’t you excited, Duma?!

Duma: Obama coming?!  Obama came. Obama saw. Obama conquered! Obama promised!  That was in ’09. Accra, Ghana.

Shudi: He is coming to…

Duma: Wait, wait, don’t tell me!  He is coming to go on a safari?

Shudi: Yes, but that was cancelled. In Tanzania.  But he is going to Robben Island!

Duma: But Nelson Mandela is no longer there? Long Live Nelson Mandela!!!

Shudi: Of course he is not.

Duma: Let me guess. He  is coming to visit Nigeria and Ethiopia? And Kenya, his “father grew up there herding goats in a tiny village…”

Shudi:  No, Duma. He is not going there.

Duma: Not going to Ethiopia!? America’s no. 1 African “partner” in the “war on terror”! Not going to Nigeria!? America’s biggest oil supplier in Africa!  Not going to Kenya…

Shudi: Not even…

Duma: Rwanda, Uganda, Liberia, Libya, Namibia, um…?

Shudi:  Try Cape Verde, Senegal, Tanzania, South Africa.

Duma: What!? Cape Verde? Senegal? Big oil suppliers to U.S.A.?

Shudi: No, no. Not that.

Duma: Tanzania, South Africa? Big partners in the war on terror?

Shudi: No, man.

Duma: Why is he going to Cape Verde and…?

Shudi: To “reinforce” how much Africa means to America.

Duma: Africa means something to America?

Shudi: He wants to tell Cape Verdeans, Tanzanians and… he will be working to “expand economic growth, investment, and trade in Africa.”

Duma: China has that locked up! A day late and a dollar short again.

Shudi: But not for “strengthening democratic institutions and investing in the next generation of African leaders.”

Duma: In South Africa, Senegal and…

Shudi: But the South Africans, Senegalese, Tan…

Duma: Already have the next generation of African leaders?

Shudi: Sort of…

Duma: What is the population of Nigeria and Ethiopia, Shudi?

Shudi: Don’t know.

Duma: 255 million.

Shudi: That’s a quarter of a billion people.

Duma: And Cape Verde, Senegal, Tanzania and South Africa?

Shudi: Maybe 70 million.

Duma: Barely 100 million.

Shudi: Cape Verde has only half a million people… tiny island.

Duma: What’s the percentage of young people in Africa, Shudi?

Shudi: Don’t know.

Duma: Seventy percent!

Shudi: Hmm! Oldest continent. Youngest people?

Duma: No, Shudi. Africa is the Continent of Young People.

Shudi: What are you saying, Duma?

Duma: If Obama wants to talk to the “next generation of African leaders”, wouldn’t it be better to go to a place where you have the largest number of young Africans?

Shudi: Or talk to your best and closest partners in Africa?

Duma: That’s right. Preach the gospel of democracy in the jungles of African tyranny.

Shudi: Or where democracy is an elaborate corruption game?

Duma: Is Obama ashamed to be seen in public with America’s best friends and partners in Africa?

Shudi: What do you mean?

Duma: Ethiopia, Nigeria. He can do business with them, but can’t be seen in public with them?

Shudi: If you must put it that way… Well, can’t be seen going into a bordello.

Duma: Aah! Obama is coming back to his African roots, that’s good Shudi.

Shudi: No, coming to talk to Africans.

Duma: Talk… Sweet talk. Tough talk. Small talk. Talk peace. Talk war. Walk the talk. Don’t walk the talk. Talk the talk. Talk sense. Talk nonsense. Talk is cheap. Money talks, bull_ _ _ _ walks.  Talk, talk, talk…?

Shudi: You know…

Duma: I know. Heard the talk before.  “Africa is a fundamental part of our interconnected world.” “Africa’s future is up to Africans.” “This is a new moment of promise.  It will not be giants like Nkrumah and Kenyatta who will determine Africa’s future… It will be the young people…”

Shudi: What do you want him to talk about, Duma?

Duma: Talk about… no. Talk to us.

Shudi:  Us. Who is “us”?

Duma: We, the young people of Africa. We, the future of Africa. We, the next generation of African leaders. We, the  70 percenters.

Shudi: We, the African Cheetahs!!

Duma: Let him tell us which one of the promises he made in Accra, Ghana he’s kept?

Shudi: He promised “us” in Accra? “This is a new moment of promise…”

Duma: We Africans say, “A promise is a cloud; fulfillment is rain.”

Shudi: But he…

Duma: He promised  to “support strong and sustainable democratic governments.” He promised to support “strong parliaments and honest police forces; independent judges and journalists; a vibrant private sector and civil society.” Where is the rain?

Shudi:  Cape Verde, Senegal, Sou…?

Duma: Maybe?

Shudi: He wants to preach to the choir?

Duma: And sing and dance with them too.

Shudi: That don’t make sense.

Duma: Obama prefers silent diplomacy.

Shudi: What’s that?

Duma: Silent diplomacy, Shudi, is like expecting rain without clouds, without thunder and lightning.

Shudi: No omelet without cracking eggs? They should call it diplocrisy.

Duma: Is that  diplomacy by hypocrisy?

Shudi: It’s the diplomacy of silence.

Duma: With your friends and partners, Shudi, you speak in the language of silence?

Shudi: Only when you speak with them behind closed doors and the light’s off.

Duma: In the end, we will remember not the words and promises of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.

Shudi: Or those who say are our friends? Who said that?

Duma: Martin Luther King.

Shudi: The hypocrisy of the powerfully silent!

Duma: Don’t you remember Shudi how we felt when Obama said in Accra, “We must stand up to inhumanity in our midst. We need for an international system where the universal rights of human beings are respected, and violations of those rights are opposed.”

Shudi: Maybe I shouldn’t remember those words.

Duma: No free expression, unending press suppression, religious persecution, dissident intimidation, detention… in Africa.

Shudi: Gender discrimination, tribalization, ethnic subjugation…

Duma: Didn’t we chant “Oh! Bama, Oh! Bama” when he told it like it is: “Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions. Make no mistake: history is on the side of these brave Africans, and not with those who use coups or change Constitutions to stay in power.”

Shudi: If history is on the side of few brave young Africans, who is on the side of Africa’s strongmen?

Duma: Obama?  Did he make a mistake?

Shudi: Who is on the side of the millions of frightened Africans living in misery and quiet desperation?

Duma: Under the boots of Africa’s strongmen?

Shudi:  With iron fists.

Duma:  God. Ask Obama. No, tell him.

Shudi: What?

Duma: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

Shudi:  I know somebody said that.

Duma: Desmond Tutu.

Shudi:  Is Obama on the side of the elephant or the mouse?

Duma: He is on the side of history.

Shudi: What should he tell Africa’s elephants, I mean strongmen?

Duma: Shudi, to tell or not to tell Africa’s strongmen to take their foot off the mouse’s tail, that’s the question.

Shudi:  Tell them what?

Duma: They are doing a good job.

Shudi: A good job?!!!

Duma: Fighting terrorism, of course.

Shudi: Not fighting corruption, human rights violation?

Duma: Fighting the independent press and winning a crushing victory. Smashing civil society organizations. Trashing elections, how about that? African strongmen are doing a great job!

Shudi:  Then on whose side is Obama?

Duma: History, of course.

Shudi: But is history on the side of Obama?

Duma: History is on the side of the brave…

Shudi: I don’t understand.

Duma:  Shudi. There is nothing to understand from history. To learn or not to learn, that’s the question with history. “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

Shudi: What do you mean?

Duma: History is not about remembering. It is about forgetting.

Shudi: Promises?

Duma: Forgetting mistaken promises.

Shudi: Don’t you care about what Obama has to say when he comes to Africa?

Duma: I care only about what he does. Let him speak with his actions.

Shudi: But…

Duma: What has Obama done for Africans lately?

Shudi: “My fellow AfricanCheetahs, ask not what Obama can do for Africa, ask what you can do for your Africa.”

Duma: That’s JFK. Kennedy said something like that to Americans.

Shudi: What do you say to Africans.

Duma:  Make a choice.

Shudi: Like Obama?

Duma: That’s right. Choose between African elephants and African mice.

Shudi:   Between African Cheetahs and Hippos.

Duma:  Between human rights and government wrongs.

Shudi: Obama has made his choice?

Duma:  Might trumps human rights. Wrong is right if the choice is between brave young Africans who march for the love freedom and African strongmen who chase terrorists for the love of power. Only the strong survive, the brave…

Shudi: I think the brave survive and thrive more than the strong. You know why Duma? There is a brave new young Africa rising, rising like the sun on the dark continent. When the sun rises and shines on the brave new young Africa, right shall make might, Duma.

Duma: When the sun rises and shines on the brave new Africa and the darkness is lifted from the dark continent Shudi, human right shall make human might.

Shudi: What do you dream for the brave new young Africa, Duma?

Duma: “I dream of an Africa which is in peace with itself.”

Shudi: Like Nelson Mandela?

Duma: Yes, Nelson Mandela, the Dreamweaver of Africa. I dream of a brave new young Africa at peace with itself.

Shudi: Peace, truth and reconciliation for Africa. May he live a thousand years!

Duma: A thousand long years! Long Live Nelson Mandela!!!


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: