Barack Obama's East Africa tour was a visit that would have made any foreign affairs lecturer proud. Obama came, saw and said the right thing wherever he was: Polite calls to respect human rights and democracy to sooth civil society, uplifting rhetoric that Africa can solve its problems, and he had the necessary pragmatism to foster cooperation with Kenya and Ethiopia in security and business matters.
But with Air Force One in the air to Washington and Nairobi's streets coming back to life, one thing is clear: There's no reason for "Obama-Mania" in Africa and there never was. The visionary champion of democracy and human rights who scooped the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 has left the stage. The political realist has taken his place. The world won't be a better place when Obama leaves the White House in 2016 and neither will Africa.
Business as usual does not bring about change
His calls to Kenyans to shun ethnic politics and fight corruption will lead nowhere. Kenyans have stopped counting how many times they heard such calls from visiting foreign dignitaries and how many times they heard promises from their own politicians to root out these menaces. Frankly, Kenyans do not need to hear such calls, because most of them have a very clear vision of what sort of country they want to live in. They simply lack the necessary politicans to turn these calls into reality. Whirlwind tours and speeches won't create a better Kenya.
If Obama had really wanted to make a difference in the country where his father was born, he should not have mingled with President Uhuru Kenyatta and Vice-President William Ruto. The International Criminal Court accuses the two of being among the masterminds of the ethnic violence after the elections in 2007. Calling for change but carrying on with business as usual in security and trade matters does not lead anywhere. Supporting Kenya's security forces, which are known for corruption and gross human rights abuses, does not make his calls sound credible.
Lip service to democracy and human rights
If Kenya was not enough to show the gap between the president's visions and current US Africa policy, his visit to Ethiopia definitely was. Obama visited a country where the prime minister's party controls all seats in parliament. Where press freedom is under serious threat and opposition politicians are intimidated by the ever present security forces. Obama did call for more democratic space for all Ethiopians, more respect for press freedom and human rights. Then he agreed to extend cooperation with Ethiopia's security forces in the fight against the Islamist al-Shabab militia in neighbouring Somalia.
That's good news for Ethiopia's government. It's the right thing to do for an American president who wants to protect his country from the risk posed by al-Shabab. But what signal does it send to Ethiopia's opposition and civil society who feel the pressure from these very security forces every day?
In his passionate speech in front of the African Union assembly, Obama showed a glimpse of the visionary man he is deep inside. The audience was glued to his lips when he challenged Africa's leaders to respect term limits and step down. When he emphasized how much he is looking forward to life outside the White House. When he beseeched the audience to eliminate corruption once and for all.
But changing Africa is more about deeds than about words. If Obama really wants to make a difference in the continent his father came from, he has to dare to turn his visions for Africa into government policies. His present pragmatism won't make Africa a better place.