Letter from Africa: The continent no longer needs lectures from the US

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In our series of letters from African journalists, Waihiga Mwaura looks at what the continent could expect from new US President Joe Biden.

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The red carpet was unrolled, the hall was packed, security was tight and Joe Biden took to the stage.

This was Nairobi in 2010 and Kenyans had come to listen to the-then US vice-president.

“I hope what I am saying doesn’t come across as lecturing,” he said in a phrase that usually heralds a lecture.

“I am not,” he insisted. “But too many of your resources have been lost to corruption and not a single high-ranking official has been held accountable for these crimes.”
I was one of those watching and, at that time, the US was a beacon of democracy and the rule of law, the land of the free and the brave and the source of an aspirational dream.

A decade on and a lot has changed.

Could Mr Biden now get away with a lecture – how ever well meaning – if he decides to visit Kenya?

President Donald Trump, through his America First policy, redefined the US’ image abroad. But that image has also been altered through his actions and words – not least his reported dismissal of African countries in highly derogatory terms .

And though the office of the president can be separated from the individual, President Biden will, in the light of the last four years, have to address Kenya and the rest of the continent in a markedly different tone and with a markedly different message.

‘No longer the shining city’

Examples of how Mr Trump steamrolled norms, and thereby tarnished the view of the US, are too many to fit in this piece.

But aside from the failure to release tax returns, undermining intelligence agencies and contradicting scientists in the midst of a pandemic, the events of 6 January, when the president’s supporters stormed the US Capitol, showed that this went beyond one man.

The US was no longer the shining city on the hill.

Five people died as the protesters attempted to stop a joint session of Congress to certify Mr Biden’s election victory, leading to accusations that the outgoing president was attempting a coup.

The world watched in horror as scenes only witnessed in – shall I say – less developed democracies unfolded before their eyes.

Kenyan newspaper editors were not alone in describing the events as “chaotic” and “shameful” – and calling Mr Trump “disgraced”.

And terms like “banana republic”, “failed state” and “fragile democracy” were thrown the way of the US.

Mr Biden takes over in the White House with the knowledge that the world no longer respects the United States in the same way.

And this could have implications for governance across the continent.

Presidents no longer hold the US in awe and will find it easier to dismiss concerns about democratic processes.

In the run-up to the vote in Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni told a Channel 4 reporter that his administration’s crackdown on protesters was aimed at preventing scenes similar to what unfolded in Washington.

"President Biden may now know what it feels like to live in a country where individual leaders can easily trample on norms and conventions"", Source: Waihiga Mwaura, Source description: Kenyan journalist, Image: Waihiga Mwaura
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In military terms, for many years the US has been described as the world’s policeman but when it comes to democratic norms it has also been called the world’s prefect. But can opposition movements and civil society groups in countries like Kenya now rely on Washington for support when elections come?

Ugandan opposition candidate Bobi Wine appealed to the US to keep the government accountable during and after the polls but some wondered whether it was too engrossed with internal strife to have had any impact.

Despite the heightened security, there was an orderly transfer of power in the US and Congress has gone back to the business of legislating suggesting the importance of strong institutions that rise above the individual.

Also, President Biden may now know what it feels like to live in a country where individual leaders can easily trample on norms and conventions.

Nevertheless, he will now need to tread more carefully when it comes to relations with Africa and he’ll need to carefully weigh up any words of advice.

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