President Barack Obama speaks to crowds attending the memorial service for former South African president Nelson Mandela at the FNB Stadium in Soweto near Johannesburg, Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2013. World leaders, celebrities, and citizens from all walks of life gathered on Tuesday to pay respects during a memorial service for the former South African president and anti-apartheid icon.

Evan Vucci, Associated Press - Ap

In Mandela eulogy, Obama challenged Africa to do better

  • Article by: MARK LANDLER
  • New York Times
  • December 13, 2013 - 9:12 PM


– When President Obama delivered his eulogy of Nelson Mandela in Soweto on Tuesday, he intended it as both a celebration of Mandela and a chastisement, not just of himself for failing to live up to the Mandela legacy but also of the African leaders who listened to him.

Obama’s message to the rest of the continent was overshadowed by his deeply personal linking of Mandela’s life to his own.

But Obama’s chiding tone was unmistakable. “There are too many of us who happily embrace Madiba’s legacy of racial reconciliation but passionately resist even modest reforms that would challenge chronic poverty and growing inequality,” he said, using Mandela’s clan name.

Africa’s struggle, Obama said, didn’t end with liberation, equal rights or universal suffrage. It continues with the push for better governance, less corruption, stronger human rights and less sectarian strife — a struggle, his aides said, that he believes is stymied by corrupt leaders.

It is not the first time Obama has called for more accountability in sub-Saharan Africa. On his first trip there as president, in 2009, he said in Ghana that Africa “doesn’t need strongmen. It needs strong institutions.”

The difference now is that Obama is no longer just a symbol of hope. He has a record of engagement, which has fulfilled the hopes of some but disappointed others who see a gap between his words and deeds.

“I give him credit for raising this,” said J. Peter Pham, the director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council. “Because of who he is, what he looks like, the president is able to say it.”

But, Pham added, “it would be far more credible if they actually followed through.”

Obama helped nudge out Laurent Gbagbo, the despotic leader of the Ivory Coast, but the United States continues to back Joseph Kabila, the president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, despite a tainted election.

Critics said the administration overlooks abuses in countries with which it has strong security ties, such as Ethiopia, Uganda and Rwanda, and Obama has struggled to keep a focus on Africa.

The good news, said Jennifer G. Cooke, director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, is that Obama’s approach in his second term reflects how Africa and America’s role have changed. During a trip last summer, he stressed energy investments. “A lot of these authoritarian leaders are much less inclined to listen to the U.S., because they have other alternatives,” Cooke said.

Given Obama’s mixed record, it is apt that he said Mandela’s death “should prompt in each of us a time for self-reflection.”

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