The story shouldn’t have struck me as odd, given that I had grown up watching Yaliyotokea on Monday evenings when VoK (Voice of Kenya) would bring documentaries of the president’s local or international trips. But it did, because this time, I knew too well that President Moi's visit was not in the American papers or the news. In the US, you wouldn’t tell there was a foreign head of state or government in the country unless the person was from one of the G8 countries or from the hotspots like Israel or Afghanistan.
And as it so happened, I had just read an article by an American journalist that marveled at how African presidents seem to jump at a chance for two seconds of the US president’s time. Unfortunately, I cannot remember who wrote it, but one thing I remember reading was that African presidents are treated badly when they visit the US. Apparently, one can find them sitting in the corridors of the White House, waiting for a seven or another odd minute window in the US president’s busy schedule when they could be allowed to talk to him briefly between meetings.
And then it all came together.
So this year’s US-Africa summit didn’t fool me. Not one bit.
I actually didn’t care about the summit. When the foreign minister Amina Mohammed hyped up Kenyatta II’s visit to the US as an opportunity to meet investors and set the record straight about Kenya, I wondered to myself how different this trip was going to be from the useless but expensive “benchmarking” ones that have made foreign governments plead to Kenya for a break from MCAs. I smelled a rat when a tweet praising the US-Africa business forum appeared on my wall from Michael Bloomberg (whom I don’t follow, no sir). What disturbed me was the program that Bloomberg posted. Unlike what our Foreign Affairs office was saying, Obama was a mere participant in a forum organized by Bloomberg, and Obama was scheduled to speak only on the last day of the forum. I was like: why on earth are our presidents – voted in (or not) by the great people of Africa – sucking up to a mere business man, rich as he may be?
But what clinched it for me was the photo of the Obamas with Uhuru Kenyatta that our media splashed on their front pages. Shortly afterwards, I saw Robert Alai’s tweet
And sure enough, all the photos taken of the Obamas and the presidents of our dear motherland were taken on the same evening. And just in case you don’t believe me, all 50-plus African heads of state and government with the Obamas in the same spot are on the flickr account of the US Department of State. But it gets worse. These photos were probably taken before the dinner, because Michelle Obama is in the same dress at the dinner, which means that although our presidents are flashing their photos with the Obamas like they actually had conversations with the Obamas, what happened was more likely photo ops similar to what we see celebs doing as they enter the hall to receive the Oscars or Golden Globes or Kalasha awards.
In other words, what is being celebrated by Kenyan government and media as a turning point in US relations with Africa is just a glamorous version of the same old thing. First of all, the meeting was not called by the White House. Or even the US State Department (which would have been palatable). It was called by the Department of Commerce and a philanthropist called Michael Bloomberg. So forget what they say about aid not trade – as the Americans say, talk is cheap. If anything, the summit is actually worse than Africa being treated as a country and not a continent, or than Maina Kageni and Mwalimu King’angi’s jokes wondering whether it would not have been cheaper for all the presidents to meet in Africa instead of going to the US.
So all that talk about the US wanting to pamper the motherland because it thinks we’re becoming too close to China is just the usual African thing of reading too much into whatever America does. Nothing significantly beneficial happened at the US-Africa business summit. The US-Africa summit was not to send a message to Africa. It was to send a message about Africa to China that Africa is still beholden to the West. And for those skeptics who think the US policy towards us is no longer condescending (I’ll resume using the word “racist” when Obama leaves office), just check the photos of the summit on American government websites (White House, State Department), in the American media, and on Google image search. Photos which have African presidents in them are not in the majority.
And let me rub in our humiliation: when I tried googling the photos of the Obamas with African presidents, the top pages were US media reports that Michelle Obama wore a stylish yellow chiffon dress by Prabal Gurung (and by some strange coincidence, one of the reports picked the photo with Kenya's president). Earlier on, she and Laura Bush were to be interviewed by Cookie Roberts about “Advancements for Women and Girls in Africa,” which ended up a conversation about America’s youth, Michelle’s hair bangs, Laura Bush going gaga over her 16-month old grand-daughter, an occasional reference to Africa but worse, with no African woman in the conversation.
I think I have said enough about America. Now to us Africans. Our presidents wasted our hard earned taxes and resources and subjected the whole continent to this ridicule. And shame on the African mainstream media for following the governments’ hype about this whole charade. And about that photo of the president dancing with Kenyan kids: afadhali the bow-tie and a boring speech – it’s more dignifying when you know what the whole evening is replacing. And how dare we make an interview with CNN a news report on its own, which is actually a substitute for the reality that Kenyatta II was not one of the plenary speakers at the summit? Next time I hear the media calling itself the people’s watchdog, I’ll remind myself that talk is cheap.