The war in Libya: An African perspective

    Here’s a quick quiz culled from the opinion pages in Ghana, where I’m teaching this summer: Who is the imperialist race traitor waging war on Africa?

    The answer, of course, is Barack Obama. The reason is the bombing of Libya, which is immensely unpopular over here. And so is President Obama, who now stands accused of betraying his own African heritage.

    That’s a big change from the last time I taught in Ghana, during Mr. Obama’s state visit in 2009. His smiling face was everywhere, from T-shirts and soccer balls to billboards and murals. Gripped by “Obama Fever,” as Ghanaians called it, massive crowds lined the streets to welcome the first African-American US president to Africa.

    You can still see Obama’s likeness around town these days, especially in the tourist areas. But for many Ghanaians, the honeymoon with Obama is over. And it started to go sour when the first warplanes strafed Benghazi and Tripoli, in a NATO effort to protect civilians from strongman Muammar Qaddafi.

    That was the Libya-intervention’s official purpose, anyway. But Ghanaians aren’t buying it. To many observers here, it looks like a grab for Libya’s oil riches; to others, it’s a nefarious Western plot to re-colonize Africa.

    Ghana’s soft-spot for Qaddafi

    Astonishingly, some Ghanaians also have a soft spot in their hearts for Mr. Qaddafi. “Does Obama know what Muammar-al Qaddafi means to Africa?” one Ghanaian columnist asked last month, citing Qaddafi’s generous aid to poorer African countries.

    Others have hailed the Libyan’s 2009 demand for a “United States of Africa:” a federation of countries with a single government, currency, and army.

    To many Ghanaians, this vision conjures the pan-African philosophy of their own independence leader, Kwame Nkrumah, a key figure in the 20th-century struggle to liberate black peoples around the world.

    Nkrumah traced many of his ideas to the decade he spent as a student in the United States, where he received two university degrees. He also encountered the harsh racism of mid-century America, which reminded him of colonial subjugation in his native Gold Coast.

    So when Nkrumah declared independence for the colony in 1957, renaming it “Ghana” after an ancient African kingdom, he pointedly connected its fate to other black freedom struggles. “Our independence is meaningless unless it is linked up with the total liberation of Africa,” Nkrumah insisted.

    But pan-Africanism was always easier to proclaim than to practice. Shuttling across Africa, Nkrumah could not persuade newly independent nations to unite with each other. At home, meanwhile, Nkrumah, the tribune of African freedom, denied freedom to his own people by declaring a one-party state and jailing his opponents. He was deposed in 1966, during one of his many trips abroad.

    But he wasn’t Qaddafi. And the comparison is actually an insult to Nkrumah, who was a genuine revolutionary; Qaddafi is a murderer and – by most accounts – a nut job. Among other things, Qaddafi is responsible for the torture and death of thousands of his countrymen. That’s why the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued a warrant for his arrest last week.

    So when Ghanaians imagine Qaddafi as a successor to Nkrumah, they’re engaging in a flight of fancy. But the pan-African impulse still remains strong across the continent, where memories of colonialism are still fresh in millions of minds.

    ‘Move outta Libya, Obama’

    Meeting recently, the African Union condemned France for air-dropping weapons to the rebels fighting Qaddafi. It also criticized the ICC for the arrest warrant against him. Some African leaders have denounced Qaddafi, of course. But there is enough support for him – and enough backlash against the US – that Obama needs to listen.

    He might hear echoes of his own 2009 speech to the Ghanaian national parliament, which sounded a strong note of continental self-determination. “Africa’s future is up to Africans,” Obama declared. So why are Western powers now attacking the continent, over the objections of most of its governments?

    I’m sure Obama has some good answers, starting with the fact that Qaddafi’s victims are Africans as well. So he should make his case directly to the African Union and to other local critics, who haven’t drawn a lot of White House attention thus far.

    But they should. No lasting peace will take root in Libya without strong African support. Ditto for America’s ongoing struggle against terrorists like Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian who tried to blow up an American plane on Christmas Day in 2009. Africa remains a fertile field for terrorism, and we need African cooperation in order to contain it.

    We need to remember that the Libyan war is an African war, too. That’s the theme of a new hit by the Ghanaian reggae rapper Blakk Rasta, who struck gold three years ago – on the eve of President Obama’s election – with a catchy tune celebrating “brother Barack.”

    But this year’s song takes a very different tack. “Move outta Libya, Obama,” Rasta urges. “Now is the time to put on your African thinking cap.” Let’s hope he does.


    Jonathan Zimmerman is a historian with the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and teaches history and education at New York University. He is teaching in NYU’s study-abroad program in Ghana this summer.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal