Tarikua Getachew (@tarikawipeace)
Obama and My Mother
I hesitated between hundred ways to begin this piece.
I wanted to write the Kenyans have treated President Obama like their runners do our runners on track: they wear us out but we still win. But then I figured nah… the Kenyans, more brothers to us than to Americans, can’t be responsible for Obama.
I considered starting with an anecdote of the salesman who said too much and lost his sale. You know? The guy you get into his shop, he tries to sell you stuff, tells you all the good things, actually manages to convince you to buy it and then, just when you were about to pay, asks when your baby is due when all you have is a weight problem.
And the pat! That one would actually have led me straight into a lawsuit from my favourite TV Show on earth – the Nigerian Keeping it Real. You know? The Kenyan leader got such a brotherly, affectionate, warm, loving pat on the back that you could not only hear it but was loud enough to blow your ears off. Poor Obama was so exhausted by the time he reached Addis Abeba that Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn almost got a shrug off, a distant, tired arm pat. (You see now why Adeola might think I stole these lines from her head?)
So I have opted for something much closer to home, my home that is, but will not strike as much a nerve with you. (HEY! Similes and metaphors are the only prerogative I enjoy as a Local Ethiopian journalist, so NO comments on that!) I will therefore exercise my right to assimilate Obama with my mother.
My mother. Well. She is that person you all know who considers people as ATM machines and is shocked when told she has ran out of credit. She is the person you all know who consistently believes is deserving of eternal gratitude for doing the bare minimum such as…giving birth to you. She is that person you all know who tells you they did something huge for you that you do not remember getting at all.
Obama came and was, annoyingly, predictable. First, all our forecasts came to be. He came and sold us his plans, Bush’s plans and a little of Bill Clinton’s plans. We expected the salesman Obama and we got him. He even sold the Somalia war back to ourselves (Another note here to say that bad grammar is not my prerogative but I am begging my publisher for an exception). So much so that I thought the White House read Addis Standard to write his speech. Second, and then some. Now, it is the “some” part that caught us all by surprise.
Surprise over, and suffering from chronic professional deformation, I asked why. Perhaps Obama is new to the job of salesman. Perhaps we have really overestimated ourselves and we don’t know what democracy really is. Perhaps our conspiracy theorist uncles are right and Obama is not really the president.
So I looked away
I decided to search for explanation, something, anything to make me see The Truth. At least to tell me What to think.
I turned to the experts, the Chinese. Oh there were some good analyses from the American media. After all, it is FOX NEWS that did ask that one question that we were all hoping be asked. Fox News? The New York Times World was good. But they all left me still perplexed. For example this sentence: “After years of working on Afric, the official said, ‘I’ve never seen a day like today [Monday July 27,2015]’.” Shame the US official in question “did not want to be named”.
This is Africa we are talking about. The Americans never understood us. Even the pundits I respect(ed?) were not helpful. They all think the trip was between the US and China. Howard French for instance Tweeted : “The essential problem here with Obama is an American policy leaning too heavily on personality (his) and on rhetoric” and confused me further when I read his tweet: “What a strangely tired speech. Running on bald tires” [Tuesday 28 July, 2015 at the African Union Hall]. It was not that he was not right, he was. It is the reason French and I don’t agree with.
Back to the Chinese. Their unequivocal state media was enlightening before the visit and during the Kenya trip. It made puns at the US President which Foreign Policy qualified “almost racist” and “insecure” but which seemed to me, exaggeration granted, only a repeat of everything Obama either said himself he would do and did do. CCTV’s Beatrice Marshall’s pronunciation of “US is playing catch up with China” sounded a lot like “US is playing Ketchup with China” nonetheless they did call US African policy “lip service”. But we already knew that (Last note here- To their credit CCTV edited one Kenyan opinion giver just before he blurted that as a Luo he is happy Obama is the first….). In short, China also thought it was about them.
It is what happened after the press conference in Addis Abeba that I found interesting. Even Xinhua had quieted down. Visit the website and you will find news of the speech and photos but none of the speculation, theorizing and we are much better partners to Africa boasting. I laughed at the, albeit unhelpful, silence but is it funny?
Where to turn next if not the engaged and engaging Europeans who know Africa much too well for our own good? The EU delegation to Ethiopia has had a static web front page since the FFD3 conference. In any case, what can they say? The vocal European Ambassadors to Ethiopia and the African Union have either ReTweeted other positive Tweets from positive Ethiopians or government institutions (Eg- the Ambassador to the Netherlands) or expressed a sort of dismay at having “missed the event”. After the AU Hall speech, the EU Delegation to the AU has sent just one Tweet and it is a Retweet of the Dutch Ambassador’s “had a great time at the party”. Others have Retweeted the understandable Tweets from IGAD, The African Union and Ethiopian Diplomacy. Overall, they seemed to have taken “silence is gold” to heart. What Europeans thought of all the hype or if they were concerned at how the US President’s extra mile undermined their own miles, we will never know.
Apart from the vast coverage of the BBC, both prior and during, the other big European media, such as France 24, the DW, and Euro News reported the news of the visit but stopped short of further analysis. Euro News did not even report on the AU Hall speech. You might consider it is a good thing they did not tell us Obama is trying to outdo them in Africa or reminded us of something like DFID is still the biggest donor to this “single largest recipient of official development assistance in Sub-Saharan Africa that is Ethiopia”.
Al-Jazeera was very thunderous, as usual. On every front. This way and that all boiling down to their familiar line with regards to the United States of America. But none of what it said I found eye opening.
Ah ha or Huuuh huh then?
Tongue-biting. You know President Uhuru said Obama and him “share the same constituency”. Whereas Foreign Minister Dr Tewodros Adhanom told Amanpour that his government considers Obama a “friend”. See the problem with not being a constituency, I find, is being told that what happens behind closed doors is none of my business. I find it hard to stomach that I am the one who has to bite my tongue, and preferably bite it off.
In my quest for some accounting, I remembered something: that the solution is always much simpler than one thinks. I am Ethiopian too! Even though Obama called Ethiopia a small country, not even he could deny that we are still a country. I remembered, Mr Obama, that it is the Ethiopian government that I should demand the explanation of what was promised to you as payment from me that you sold us everything, including a government which your own constituents told you “its own officials have shown unease with”. What do I owe Obama is my question.
In your strange orchestrated flyby in my city, Mr. President, you left with many quotes for the Ethiopian government (they had run out of things you said about them). You have left Ethiopians with enough arguments to demand a monument in Washington DC for all Ethiopians who paid with their lives in Somalia for America, so far. You left migration to be a European problem with not even a word much less a wreath for Ethiopians slaughtered like animals by ISIS. You left with an eerie joke about our black mane lions the same day Cecil the proud black mane pride leader of Zimbabwe lions was beheaded by one of your own. You left not knowing how many languages we have in Ethiopia or how to correctly say Oromo. Most of all, you left us with a repeat of white supremacist thinking that it’s ok for black people to not live in democracy while they are mature enough for one.
ED’s Note: Tarikua Getachew is a graduate of the Addis Abeba University who writes for local newspapers