More Than A Personal Journey

"How do you answer the critics who say President Obama hasn't done enough for Africa?" I struggled with an answer to that first interview question during my visit to Nairobi last weekend as Chairman of the U.S. African Development Foundation. It's a question that got raised often in the coverage of the president's visit to Kenya. The expectations were high for the first African-American president, especially here in Kenya, and the comparisons with his predecessor, President George W. Bush, were inevitable. President Bush, after all, had secured his legacy with PEPFAR, the U.S.-funded HIV/AIDS program that has saved millions of lives on the continent.

I discovered my answer to that important question as I sat in the Safaricom Arena listening to President Obama's address to the Kenyan people.

Most of us expected a speech laden with the emotions of the president's personal journey. His sister's introduction certainly reinforced that expectation. This was a unique moment in history; the most powerful leader in the world returning to his ancestral home after a long wait.

The president did begin his remarks with many of the stories recounted in his autobiography: the airline losing his luggage, the old VW breaking down on the ride in from the airport, sleeping on his sister's couch. In short order, he re-established familial bonds with all those in the arena and millions watching across the nation. He was one of them, he loved them and he was there to support them.

And then, the speech took a turn that many may not have expected. He transformed from brother and son to village elder. He used his enormous influence to address directly and forcefully all the core societal issues that are too often ignored or swept under the rug by politicians in this country and others. He urged everyone listening to "confront the dark corners of our past."

First, he tackled ethnic divisions that have stymied democracies and long been the source of violence in Kenya and across Africa. A few feet away, leaders who have preyed on those divisions sat and listened to a stern warning from the president. "A politics that's based solely on tribe and ethnicity is a politics that's doomed to tear a country apart," Obama said.

Then he turned to the issue of corruption, identified by most experts as the single greatest threat to economic progress in Africa. He gave very specific examples, as the political elite listened intently. He talked about paying bribes and hiring someone's brother, and finally declared that corruption should be attacked not just at the lower levels of the bureaucracy, but at the very top as well. You could just sense some people squirming in their seats. To thunderous applause, the president concluded, "Ordinary people have to stand up and say, enough is enough."

The brother turned elder was not finished. He moved on to the rights of women. Adroitly, he pivoted off an explanation of the controversy over the Confederate flag in the U.S., saying "just because something is a tradition doesn't make it right." The president went on to give specific examples; men beating their wives, genital mutilation, not sending girls to schools. And he concluded, again to thunderous applause, "Treating women and girls as second-class citizens, those are bad traditions. It holds you back... They have no place in the 21st century."

I sat there and watched the rapt attention every Kenyan in the arena was giving this man they claimed as one of their own. And I came to understand the extraordinary contribution this president has made to Africa. I had the answer to what President Obama's legacy in Africa will be.

It isn't really the billions of dollars from his initiatives like Feed the Future and Power Africa. He said it himself, "For too long, Africans looked outside for salvation. The future of Africa is up to Africans."

No other president could have given these messages to Africans, especially Kenyans, with the credibility and directness that President Barack Obama did. Uniquely, he ably represented fundamental American values, but he was not an outsider here. He was not a foreign power intent on lecturing Africans. He was one of them. And that made his messages all the more powerful.

In the end, President Obama spoke truth and inspiration to millions of Africans by reminding them of the responsibility they have to create their own change. What greater contribution is there than that?