A tragic history is no excuse for a failed future.
Western celebrities, aid organizations and ex-presidents have spent generations trying to fix Africa, rarely to good or lasting effect. So kudos to President Obama for encouraging Africans to take charge of their own fate and fix themselves.
Speaking on Sunday in Kenya, Mr. Obama acknowledged Africa’s bleak history, from the racism his grandfather suffered as a cook for the British during the colonial era—“he was referred to as a boy, even though he was a grown man”—to the ethnic violence that erupted after a disputed election in 2007. But he argued that history is no excuse for a failed future.
“For too long, I think that many looked to the outside for salvation and focused on somebody else being at fault for the problems of the continent,” he said. He notably confined his discussion of U.S. aid to two oblique paragraphs, while devoting the better part of his speech to urging Africans to build stronger and more tolerant democracies. Traditions such as female genital mutilation, or keeping girls out of school, or sticking to Masai, Kikuyo, Luo or other tribal identities, he said, “may date back centuries; they have no place in the 21st century.”
At times Mr. Obama reminded us of Paul Wolfowitz, the former World Bank president who ran afoul of that organization by insisting that it actively fight corruption instead of merely pushing aid money out the door. Graft, the President said, is “not something that is just fixed by laws, or that any one person can fix. It requires a commitment by the entire nation—leaders and citizens—to change habits and change culture.”
Mr. Obama has the personal background and standing to make these points to an African audience with an unapologetic clarity and a resonance that other Western leaders can’t match. And it follows an equally powerful speech he gave in Ghana in 2009, when he noted that “in my father’s life, it was partly tribalism and patronage in an independent Kenya that for a long stretch derailed his career.”
Put simply, what Westerners do to Africans, for better or worse, ultimately counts toward the continent’s future far less than what Africans do to other Africans. The President was right to deliver that message where it most needs to be heard.