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Dear President Obama: A Reflection on Your Legacy in Africa

Dear Mr. Obama,

Although far from America, my mother was among the many who cried when you were elected president in 2008. We were living in Uganda then, far from the crowds in Chicago, yet your zeal and pure-hearted ambition conveyed clearly across the Atlantic and through the small living-room television set my mother, brother, father and I huddled before. My mother had brewed caffeinated tea—Kenyan, I believe—in a bid to keep her two boys awake through the triteness of CNN’s political punditry. She wanted us to not only witness the moment, but to feel part of it—this new world order that we believed you would usher into being.

As much as we wanted it in that moment, we knew that you could not be the whole world’s president. Yet, we believed that you would herald a new era of international relations, one based on peace and mutual respect as much as American interests. We hoped that you may be the first American president to see African countries not as chess pieces in America’s geopolitical machinations, but as colleagues, friends even.

And so it seemed when you made your first visit to Africa, visiting Ghana in 2009. You duly remembered that Africa is a continent of many realities that America would be ignorant to approach as a homogenous whole. You spoke of partnerships and trade, and opening American borders to African goods. You denounced the corruption that plagues many of our states and promised not to stand for it. But you also left us with words that I have since struggled to forget:

We must start from the simple premise that Africa’s future is up to Africans … the West is not responsible for the destruction of the Zimbabwean economy over the last decade, or wars in which children are enlisted as combatants.”

The irony of this statement might have induced in me a dismissive chuckle if it was not accompanied by the gut-punch of Africa’s post-independence histories. Too often, when African states have sought futures worthy of their people, it has been the United States that has insisted upon a more regressive version. The world’s policeman, arresting development. So it was the case with Lumumba. So it was the case with Hissene Habre in Chad. So it was the case for decades in South Africa, where the United States supported an Apartheid regime happy to turn heavy-duty weaponry on its own people. When we watched you take the Oath of Office, our hope sprung from the belief that this pattern would be rebuked.


On Tuesday, you will speak at the celebration of Nelson Mandela’s would-be 100th birthday, one of your few public addresses since leaving your post as Commander-in-Chief. The theme shall be “Renewing the Mandela Legacy and Promoting Active Citizenship in a Changing World.” Perhaps, however, before renewing Mandela’s legacy, you should reflect on your own.

In Uganda, we have a president who has clung to power for over thirty years and has a strong case to be indicted by the International Criminal Court. Let me tell you, it is tough to ask for justice from such a man when he also receives $170 million worth of American military aid per year (a figure agreed upon in your last term). Under the guise of a mission to capture Joseph Kony (who is yet to be brought to justice), you trained and equipped an elite Ugandan military force. A force that president Museveni now employs as his own personal protection agency. A force that Museveni has used to intimidate his own people during election season. A force that has plundered and exploited the people of Congo and has committed similar crimes under the auspices of the US military mission in Somalia. The only slap on the wrist you ever gave Museveni for all the crimes he oversees was cutting less than $10 million of the $750 million aid Uganda receives from the US, when Uganda passed anti-gay legislation. Yes, you supported him as an ally in a fight against a terrorist-led Somalia, but the price paid for that fight, ostensibly about America’s freedom, is Uganda’s own.

I am upset that the Nelson Mandela Foundation asked you to be the torchbearer of Mandela’s legacy. Mandela was a man who fought for the freedom of all people, not just those within his sovereign domain. His ANC trained thousands of individuals who became the liberators of their own nations. Despite their own domestic struggle, they lent their hand to the independence wars of Namibia and Angola, knowing that their freedom was just as valuable as their own.

A less remembered part of Mandela’s legacy was his involvement in ending the Burundian civil war that raged during most of the 1990s and 2000s. Soon after leaving the presidential office in 1998, Mandela was invited to mediate peace negotiations in Burundi after the untimely death of Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere. Mandela’s moral authority as a unifier was crucial to the successful signing of the Arusha Accord peace treaty. And while the accord did not immediately bring an end to the conflict, it laid the groundwork for the introduction of an African Union peacekeeping mission in Burundi, to which South Africa committed almost twice as many soldiers as any other country. It was Mandela that convinced his initially reluctant successor Thabo Mbeki to do so. It was this force that eventually helped secure peace in 2005.

Not two years after you reminded us that Africans must take responsibility for their own problems, you agreed to the US-NATO mission to drop bombs on Libya in an effort to depose Gaddafi. Then, once Gaddafi was gone, you asked us to take responsibility for the problems you were part of creating too. In your remaining time as president, you did little to prevent the chaos that emerged from the debris of your intervention–one that the experiences of Afghanistan and Iraq should have taught you how to handle better. The weapons from Libya have since reached the hands of West African terrorist groups who currently wreak havoc in Nigeria, Mali, Burkina Faso, and the Central African Republic. Libya itself is still engulfed in civil war today. Over one-third of the country has fled from what has become a breeding ground for every kind of human rights violation. Imagine, the world’s first African-American president, sowing the seeds for modern-day slavery.

Mr. Obama, we adore and admire what you stand for, but we hold you morally accountable for what you have done. Millions in Egypt, Uganda, and elsewhere remain oppressed by dictators you gave your military and economic support. Libya has become a failed state, home to countless human atrocities. When acting in Africa, you left your ideals and values at the door and marched in with your military boots. Your legacy in Africa is only a continuation of America’s, marked by self-interest, illiberal alliances and a global indifference toward African bodies we have sadly come to expect. Frankly, the shadow you cast on the African continent does not belong next to Mandela’s memory.

You are not at fault for the invitation, but you should know that the only way for you to renew Mandela’s legacy, is for you to publicly reckon with the sordidness of your own.