Can African Heads of State Speak?

President Obama meets with President Sall of Senegal, President Banda of Malawi, President Ernest Bai Koroma of Sierra Leone, and Prime Minister José Maria Pereira Neves of Cape VerdeThese 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.


33 thoughts on “Can African Heads of State Speak?

  1. 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.

  2. 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…

  3. 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.

    • 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.

  4. 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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