We can use President Obama’s historic visit to make a fresh start

Monday July 1 2013


By Ali Mufuruki

It has been fascinating listening to the lively debate that has been triggered by the announcement last month of US President Barack Obama’s visit to Tanzania.

First it was the Kenyans bickering about being left out of Obama’s itinerary. Then there were political pundits and commentators speculating on why Obama should choose to visit Tanzania so soon after the visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping, raising the prospect of the second Scramble for African resources—this accompanied by bleak warnings about how apocalyptic it would be this time round, as if it was less painful the first time it happened.

I choose to believe in more benign reasons for Obama’s visit. For starters, he is returning a favour. Our own president has made numerous visits to his country. Secondly, such a visit becomes even more meaningful, if not urgent, when Tanzania is about to enter a second and likely bigger compact with the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), the US government agency that gave Tanzania $750m in its first compact a few years ago.

The final reason is that, this being summer and with Sasha and Malia out of school, what could be better than getting out of noisy DC, heading south with the family to the tropical heaven called Tanzania, enjoying tranquil moments watching millions of wild animals roaming the open land, far away from the annoying noises of GOP Senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Ted Cruz?

Simplistic? Maybe, or maybe not.

But, on a more serious note, I remain conscious of the historic nature of this visit. In

Obama we have, after all, not only the first African American president of the United States but also one whose heritage can be traced to neighbouring Kenya, where he still has many blood relatives, as do many of us here in Tanzania—lending this visit an aura of a returning relative.

The visit comes at an interesting time for Tanzania. We recently discovered vast reserves of natural gas in our territory which—along with our rich mineral deposits, huge tracts of arable land, forests, rivers, lakes, youthful population, a peaceful and stable political history of more than 50 years—have the potential to transform Tanzania into a prosperous and happy nation within our lifetimes.

It is also a time when the people of Tanzania are engaged in the very important task of creating a new constitution—one that will ensure that our collective aspirations as a people are attained in a fair, just and equitable manner for all.

These are very interesting times for Tanzania. The opportunities open to us are unprecedented but the challenges we face are equally daunting. We know the mere presence of natural resources does not guarantee success for there are enough examples of African countries for whom resource wealth quickly turned into a curse.

We also know that the much talked about demographic dividend attributed to our young population can only be reaped if we invest in our youth, enabling them to grow into well-educated, healthy and productive adults, capable of managing our success and securing our future in a very complex world driven by the ever-changing and unpredictable forces of globalisation.

This is why I was very pleased to learn that one of the key reasons for President Obama’s visit is his passion for youth, in whom he sees the stewards of a better future. It should come as no surprise that President Obama holds this view when you consider that he himself started his journey to the White House at a very young age.

Analysts frequently attribute his hugely successful election campaigns to the support he enjoys among young Americans. Like no other contemporary world leader, Mr Obama understands best the power of the youth, not only as a very potent political force for change but also as a guarantor of our world’s future—a pool from which future leaders of the world will emerge.

If we could use this historic visit by the American President to engage in a serious debate about our young people and what we can do to make sure they are empowered and ready to face the leadership challenge of a constantly changing and globalised world, I would be the happiest person in the world.

And what better person to help us with empowering our youth than Barack Obama.

Here is a man whose dramatic rise to the top of the world has equally amazed and inspired billions of people around the world, Africans in particular, because many of us didn’t—or rather couldn’t—believe he could accomplish what he did, which was to be elected by the American people as their president not once but twice.

His success has shown us, especially Africans, that nothing is impossible.

More importantly, his achievements have given us a sense of self-confidence that has eluded many of us Africans for generations—a sense of self belief that comes only with the knowledge that you are as good as anyone else around you or, even better, that you too can be the best if you work hard enough, as Obama has done.

We should draw from Obama’s life experience the inspiration to believe in ourselves, to have confidence in our own ability to achieve great things, to build a great nation with a sustainable future for many generations to come. But inspiration and self-confidence alone will not be enough.

We will need to agree on how to go about building that future together and we will of course need to work very hard to achieve our goals. The American people, with all their generosity, can only provide limited support.

We must be prepared to do the hard work that needs to be done in order to move our country forward. I join my compatriots and the leaders of Tanzania in welcoming President Obama and his family to our country.

Mr Ali Mufuruki is Chairman, Infotech Investment Group Ltd; Chairman, CEO Roundtable of Tanzania; Co-Founder, Africa Leadership Initiative (ALI); and Co-Founder, Gro Energy