Analysis of the first-ever visit of a sitting US president to Ethiopia. (August 2015)
Reporting from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
As rumours that Barack Hussein Obama, the first ever sitting US president to come into Ethiopia, were confirmed by the White House a few weeks ago, people in this part of the world received the news with the same enthusiasm that later on would switch onto skepticism because of the complete digital silence about the details of his visit. The when, the where and the how, were completed eluded on the media during the following days, when all relevant information was veiled to most of us. “Wore Tefá”, they would say here. “We know nothing anymore”. Obviously, for security reasons, we guess; this is not Central Park, but rather the Horn of Africa, and these fellows must be careful with these kinds of games.
It was only recently, after seeing him on the news ready to fly to Kenya, when we realized that he was indeed coming to do his Africa Tour, so we rapidly asked for the corresponding press passes to attend his visit and cover the historical event. Lots of journalists were expected to come from everywhere, international and local correspondents, being many of them part of the very same US delegation. The number was that big that it was not assured that even being part of an Ethiopian media corporation we would be granted with our permits.
But we did. We missed the first encounter with the current Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, as it was designed for a selective group of correspondents, most of them with an international scope of operation. However, at least, we were allowed to access to the meeting which would be held at the African Union´s headquarter in Addis Ababa, during the second day of his visit, where he would address hundreds of delegates not only of the continent but of all around the world.
Before his coming, things were getting ready in Ethiopia: gardens were beautifully settled; roads quickly asphalted; Ethiopian police suited-up their most elegant uniforms; federals secured every single corner of the city; CIA and FBI came in advance and did their street job as well; cars were inspected regularly; American and Ethiopian flags undulated at every post or light of the main avenues; beggars were taken away –don´t ask where, for that is always a mystery to me; pictures of our dear visitor were hanged on the bridges where he was expected to pass through; Ethiopians even composed a song and marched in a parade to welcome him! In the same way, we prepare our homes for a special visit, Ethiopia prepared herself for this historical moment.
In a country like this, madly-obsessed with photography, where from official levels till the most unpredictable person everybody will ask you why in the world are you are taking a picture –lucky me, couldn´t have I chosen another country to practice my profession–, I knew things would be tough and that it was going to be hard to move around and have a vivid coverage of the events. But I managed to sidestep the annoying –but again, necessary- controls, safely arriving at the meeting with my whole equipment ready to work in what I found an unusual environment of permissiveness within those walls. The international presence, I guess, made the exception in a country when to do your job as a photographer is an adventure and a challenge itself.
But let us go back to the big boss. What did his visit leave us, then? What did make Obama come all the way down here to the Horn? I believe that he (or his team if you want to call it like that) was indeed very intelligent in the way messages were delivered. During the first meeting that he had with the Prime Minister, he did not get into much trouble: he praised few things here and there, talked about principles and the future of Africa, and advised what he could, but not much more than that. He was concise, conservative and polite. He left without going any further, leaving many people unsatisfied regarding certain things they expected him to have talked about. Fear? No. Strategy.
He gave the government officials what they wanted and now was time for the offensive. It was during the meeting held at the African Union the day after when he raised some of the topics that many Ethiopians –and Africans by extension– were waiting for. And the intelligence of his strategy is precisely this: by talking in this African environment, he could not be accused of wounding anybody’s feelings or criticizing any particular government. Those who are failing in practicing real democracy knew it and agitated on their chairs when they listened to his words. “He who has ears to listen, let him hear”, says the Bible proverb.
So the sequence was basically like this; after greeting the audience with the unavoidable and honest smile of the one who feels is a brother, and after making a very inspirational speech for the new generations to come, using examples of different young he met on the way and being very graphical on the cases he provided, he went directly into what I believe it was his main reason to be here and probably his last will regarding Africa as US president: that was the speech for change. In his words: the need to start thinking of ending international aid and think more on investment; the possibility of rising from the ashes and become whatever your dreams lead you to, no matter your geographical context; a new approach on having difficulties, as many African have considered as a challenge and an opportunity rather than a handicap to reach your goals; the importance of giving place to women in society; the obligation of differentiate from Muslims and terrorists; the necessity of having the same rights whether you are born in Europe, America or Africa… Things were getting warmer already at this point, but his gun had many more bullets on it yet, bullets that were followed by big acclamation of the crowd present at the hall. He followed: the need to revise the elections system and oppositional roles in countries were current parties are getting almost 100% of the parliament seats; the right to Freedom of Speech in countries were journalists and bloggers are been detained (some of them, for example in Ethiopia, curiously released little after the White House announced that the president was coming); the inexorableness of stepping down when you are ruling a country after certain years no matter the case (this last one done in an unprecedented-funny comparison with his own experience and destiny of forcedly leaving the White House for some new fresh air to come, even though his desires could easily be to continue being president and working for his people).
All this, he said it explicitly as “a proud American” and aware of the “gift he was given when elevated president”, but recognizing at the same time the weaknesses that his country also faces in trying to pursue full democracy, insisting on the necessity of tireless waking up every morning with the desire of improving our democratic status wherever the case is.
What impresses me more about Mr. Obama is that, without being an absolutist, the way he speaks inspires security, certainness, realism, common sense and trust. With few exceptions, most of today´s world´s leaders are whether relativists, saying many things without saying anything at all, just to cover their backs and wanting to please everybody, or in the other side very dogmatic, trying to portrait a kind of security which actually scares me more than anything else.
We cannot forget that Obama is a leader with a very diverse and cosmopolitan background, with parents from two different continents, raised in different countries, who had gone in his life through any kind of experiences, including initiation to drugs and street activism, a background that has undoubtedly shaped what he is today, a comprehensive man open to discussion, debate and new ideas, but with his values and principles.
In this stage of his life, where he knows he has another role and another mission as president of the United States of America (in the same way he reckoned that when he steps down he will have another role), he has found the way to talk to the people´s hearts.
An open-minded man, therefore, but not a relativist. A fellow with charisma, but not presumptuous. A gentleman who knows how to speak to the crowd switching from seriousness to hilarious stories and anecdotes in order to get the attention and affection of the people without praising himself for doing it. That is to me who Mr. Barack Obama is. A president who has been able to rise back USA´s public image that his predecessor George Bush managed to destroy almost all over the world in about eight single years.
To add more on this, he almost did not look at the speech he had written, stating many facts and data just by heart, demonstrating good research and wide knowledge of the African reality, apart from an excellent memory. Far away from being demagogic, he was indeed very realistic about African story and the timeframe these countries need to reach democracy. However, with great strength and conviction, he insisted that this should not be an excuse to not to go forward, that democracy evolves through our daily tireless efforts and that its time for Africa to do it, right now. He visibly pointed out many on the hall by assessing the countries that seem to not to want to let democracy in with the excuse of safety. And he did it quoting old US president Thomas Jefferson in a phrase that is already a classic on quotation books: “Beware those who sacrifice democracy in the name of security, for they will gain none of them”.
To the success of Obama´s speech, it clearly helped the fact that he is a black man, as many of us whites who live in Africa clearly know how we will never be completely part of them no matter how long do we live here. The wound is still there. We know how eagerly Africa preserves its blackness and we know that for Africa, even though Obama was born abroad, the fact of being black and having a Kenyan father grants him immediate symbolic African citizenship. He had all the doors opened, and this obviously helped a lot.
It would be very unfair to finish without stating something that has been worrying me these days, and which, by the way, I might have fallen to do while writing this article, such is the strength of the man who we are talking about. I am talking about the divinization of what, after all, is nothing else than a human being. A president, yes; the president of the United States of America, true; the first time a sitting US president visits Ethiopia, I understand; but, hey! he is just a man after all. The world needs leadership, I reckon. The big mass needs this kind of people as models and references for their dreams to be accomplished. Not only this; nothing would make me happier than thinking that what Obama has said during his visit sets once and for all a starting point for certain changes that need to happen in Ethiopia and in Africa as well. True. But yet again, he is just a man. That´s it. Because, honestly, while in Ethiopia Mr. Obama has been treated with the honors of an old Emperor, a Pharaoh, a God. And as he himself said, Africans should not depend on other countries, other people, or other´s dream and ambitions. They should finally be the masters of their own destiny once and for all. No one should tell them what to do or how to do it. Sure that we may sometimes need a push, as Obama may have done with Africa this time, but let that push be clearly defined to avoid misunderstanding, as there is a big difference between the push you give a wild horse to let him run free and trace its own path and the continuous strike given to a tame one which is always under your control.
If Africa is ready to run free, which is what most of us believe today, and if it does it respecting full democratic values and human rights, America will be one of their allies standing side by side with them. That was the message. It seemed as if Obama renewed his old candidature slogan for an African context letting them know that if they wanted, “Yes, they could”.