Can African Heads of State Speak?

These days, well-behaved African heads of state are rewarded by Barack Obama with the chance to meet with him in groups of four and have their picture taken with him. It’s like meeting Beyonce, but you get to call it a state visit. That’s what happened on Friday when Malawi’s Joyce Banda, Senegal’s Macky Sall, Cape Verde’s José Maria Neves and Sierra Leone’s Ernest Bai Koroma were paraded before the White House press corps, sitting in star-struck silence as Barack reeled off a kind of wikipedia-level roll-call of their accomplishments. They beamed like competition winners. It was all very feudal.

You get the sense that they were given a nice White House tote bag, perhaps a signed copy of Dreams from my Father, and were then patted on the head and sent off to inconsequential NGO-led roundtables. Presumably the thinking is that being thus sprinkled with all-American stardust plays well back home. (Joyce Banda has already boasted of being the first Malawian president invited to the White House, perhaps forgetting that Kamuzu was a master of political theater and would never have allowed himself to be wheeled out as somebody else’s prop.) The wider symbolism is unmistakeable: These guys, Obama is saying, work for me. African visitors (unlike all other heads of state) can be received in groups, and, as they’re all Africans, don’t need to be spoken to individually. Politics? Negotiations? They’re just happy to be here. The East African called it as they saw it: “The meeting was to reward them for their support for US interests in Africa.” Though some others wanted to be there. In Uganda, some sites were wringing their hands over why Museveni hadn’t been invited. Of course, in the past, Barack and Michelle have been happy to be snapped with any old African leader, so it seems the realization that these photocalls can themselves be a kind of diplomatic prize has been relatively recent. Here are some of our favorite meet-the-president moments. We don’t need to remind some of you, but the first three were from Obama’s first term when he went to address the United Nations (they are: Paul and Chantal Biya; Joyce Banda’s predecessor Bingu wa Mutharika; the Musevenis and, finally, King Mswati III) while the final one was his meeting with Hosni Mubarak, before that Life President was dispatched by his people.

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Elliot Ross

Elliot Ross is senior editor at Africa is a Country. He tweets at @africasacountry and @futbolsacountry

33 Comments
  1. Great insight on privilege from another perspective. He’d never have Presidents from France, Spain and Ireland meet him all at once. Thanks for hipping a brother!

  2. Reblogged this on 4th World Initiative and commented:
    Great post on power, powerlessness and the global institutional order from the geniuses Africa Is A Country! Highlight: “These guys, Obama is saying, work for me. African visitors (unlike all other heads of state) can be received in groups, and, as they’re all Africans, don’t need to be spoken to individually. Politics? Negotiations? They’re just happy to be here.”

    1. ladies and gentlemen.we need to appreciate the good pattern of leadership.our mama has taken,because she can now committe with essential advice from grass roots,as you and me.but i wonder,several of us we just criticise everything.no! its no good.

  3. I live in Senegal, and most of the press coverage of President Sall’s visit to the White House has been somewhat cynical, highlighting Senegalese awareness that President Obama and President Sall are not equals in power. Much of the press has depicted the visit as if President Sall traveled across the Atlantic to pick up a cookie and a pat on the back. Depressing, but at least Senegal is aware of the injustice. Now, the question is… will Pres O be making his way to Dakar any time soon?

    On an unrelated note, nice to see that Chantal Biya is still her in her rare form. SMH.

  4. Obama competing with Xi Jinping to further suck Africa dry ..while the incompetent pets sit, watch, and follow orders. It’s almost primitive. And is Chantal Biya’s hair/wig deliberately modeled after Marie Antoinette’s? I’d say she’s reminiscent of her in other ways as well.

  5. Great article, Joyce Banda has left behind hunger and an economic crisis for a photo opportunity… Talk about priorities.

  6. Shanta Biya one leg forward, she ahead in Fashion, I looked up a story of Joyce Banda and her children looting the already impoverished African country..

  7. Unfortunately, some of the presidents consider this acheivement, ignoring the fact that visiting President O, does not translated into any economic development in their respective countries, afterall, the main drive to development is sound national policies and trade relations. Much as these presidents have seen the dining room of the white house, should they fail to reshape their weakening economies home, they could be better placed at home than at the white house…

  8. Africa wakeup now,its time to take back our values from outside our continent.democracy is wishing to handover powers to young blood that is patriotic.forget about harassing and interfearing young generation.leadership is wisdom not intelectuality.

  9. There is total hope, that Obama loves africa,not for a purpose of feeding on a shirink resources.but rather to defend africa from asians,middle east and our african dictators.look china is cheating africa.they lik war as source of richness

  10. Awesome takedown. One question though: Maybe the African leaders didn’t speak because this was meant to be theatre just for the U.S. audience and its investors? It’s still the U.S. throwing its weight around, but why not believe that Banda et al. would have spoken if the real audience had actually been their own people?

  11. Another insightful piece indeed! I’m going to choose to be a little bit controversial here, however. All these honorable visitors lead very tiny economies (seemingly Pres Obama’s preference, having not stepped a toe into Africa’s most significant economies (vis-à-vis South Africa, Nigeria, Angola, Kenya…), with the exception of Egypt), who have little leverage on anything that could make significant change to the world. Truly, I praise them for their apparent great ambitions for their home countries (transformational education in Senegal, youth empowerment in (previously) war-torn Sierra Leone etc) but I will prefer to judge these leaders retrospectively (after their tenors). They may be able to cajole Washington but their true judges lie back home, the places where actual change needs to be realized. So, in the spirit of being controversial here, Washington should be praised in bringing these four to grace the ceilings of the White House. Hell, it is less costlier than visiting the respective countries, like seen in President Xi’s Congo and Tanzania post and pre BRICS-summit-in-South-Africa stoppages, given Washington’s budget deficit woes. Maybe the question should not be whether Africa leaders can speak, but whether African leaders can do, particularly at home, where reality lies.

  12. He invited the President of Somalia a few weeks ago (alone, might I add). I think focusing too much on the # of visitors is unnecessary. In any case, if the leaders/governments were insulted, they shouldn’t have come or should have requested individual visits.

  13. Meanwhile, Kenya elects president and deputy that are both indicted by ICC for mass murder and mass rape.

    That is the other extreme. Extreme bad boys who do not want or need Obama cookies.

  14. Oh please! Let’s not be so quickly offended and judgmental by such a relationship. In my opinion, it’s all relative.
    If by sitting in Obama’s white house with a group of other African presidents opens doors to a couple of million $$ from NGOs to help feed the hungry and build more schools back in your home country, then why not? If by being in DC will make you a more competitive counterpart to the Chinese forcing them to increase their offers, then why not? But if staying at home for that week could be used to get better results, then it’s time to stay put than schmooze.
    I think it’s time for us as Africans to find ways to get the most out of any situation. Realistically, it’s not in Obama’s interest to meet individual African heads of states one at a time if they do not threaten or control his country’s interests. But, there’s a lot that the US has that we want and need as Africans (yes, you know it’s true). So either we make ourselves a more competitive counterpart or we competitively get what we can with the current dynamics. Either way, reality is always there waiting to hit you in the face.

  15. Uhmm Obama seems to always strike the same pose. Is that really him or just a cardboard or even better some wax doll as they can be seen at Madame Tussaud. In the later case, those head of state that pose with it are really lame…

  16. As funny as this is, it is the reality of the situation. The relationship between America and Africa is hardly on equal footing as much as the “Africa Rising” posse would like you to believe. America needs partners in the region and in exchange for acquiescing to American demands and businesses, these countries get aid to help solve several problems. He who has the power plays the tune I guess.

    1. You write truth to power. World power dynamics dictates that Afican states must acquiesce to the U. S. or be undermined and exploited Aby the Chinese and/or the Western Europeans. In general, the Chinese enchroachment onto the African continent in search of natural resources does create a more fortuitious dynamic for the Africans. African states must prepare themselves both academically and professionally for the pending internation trade boom between them the United States and China.

  17. This rawly shows how the scheme works in the whole world. In Africa, there are much less need to conceal the true power lines. The colonies are behaving as expected.
    Obama, you are really embarrasing.

  18. Obama leaves very much to be desired.Since becoming President of White America,he has danced to the tune of their music.Why hasn’t he had the balls to visit Africa for an African Summit?Obama is tasked with fixing the problems of the white world and shows little sympathy for his native land.Before been an American he is first an African for no matter what he does for white peopole he will always be America’s first ‘Nigger President’
    .If President Obama does not change his attitude to Africa soon,all African heads of State should snub his offer to visit the ‘White House’ where he livesafter all.Africa does not really need America,they need us the world over to keep them safe from the people they once terrorised and who now give them sleepless nights.

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