By Gbemisola Olujobi
A mobile phone text message spread across Africa in the wake of Barack Obama’s victory. It said “Rosa [Parks] sat so Martin [Luther King] could walk, Martin walked so Obama could run. Obama ran so our children can fly!”
And why should African children not fly in the wake of the senator’s triumph in the U.S. presidential election? The president-elect’s father was Kenyan, and Africans, whose ties of kinship stretch beyond the limits of modern sociology, generally regard “our brother’s victory” as everyone’s victory.
“After all, he’s one of us,” says Frank Chikonga, one of hundreds of jobless people in Cape Town, South Africa. “He has to help us.”
Shamina from Malawi says of Obama, “Africans are supporting him, so he should support us as well.”
Ray Hartley, editor of The Times of South Africa, compares Obama to George W. Bush, whose administration has paid quite some attention to Africa, and says, “We expect so much more of Obama, who has a direct link to this continent via his family in Kenya. We look to him to finally turn decades of fine words about debt relief and open trade on the world stage into a job-creating reality for this continent. It’s a change we can believe in.”
Emmanuel Otaala, Uganda’s state minister for primary health care, says, “We have been receiving a lot of financial support from the Global Fund and the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. If President Bush has been providing this much, what about our very own [Obama]? We expect increased support from Obama’s government.”
In anticipation of this “increased support” from Obama and the United States, Mohamed Shennawy, a Cairo resident, says, “Now we are hopeful that things will change for us.”
Abdul-Azizi Kazembe, a Malawian, says in an interview with Voice of America, “We are asking him to consider increasing the aid package offered to African countries.”
Bayo Laja, an unemployed architect, of Lagos, Nigeria, says, “I hope he [Obama] would do something about the indignities the American Embassy visits on Nigerians who want to go to the United States. Some of us can make useful contributions to that country, but the obstacles in the way of going there are just too many. I hope Obama would address that situation urgently. After all, we are his brothers and sisters. We deserve more respect now that our man is in charge.”
Raymond Atuche, a retired civil servant, also of Lagos, says, “The man [Obama] should start by ensuring that all debts owed by African countries are written off so that we can start afresh. He can do it for us. He has the power.”
And according to Priscilla Oyibo, another Lagos resident, Obama should make reparation the cornerstone of his efforts to help Africa. “He should get back for us all that was stolen from us by the white man. This is payback time. He should do everything he can to put an end to our pain and suffering.”
Fazila Farouk of the South African Civil Society Information Service expects Obama “to finally admit to America’s complicity in Africa’s crisis areas” and possibly make amends.
Farouk waxed eloquent on Obama’s victory. “Miracles happen when people no longer believe in them. Barack Obama has now proven that he is the miracle that the entire world has been waiting for.”
William Kioko, a bus driver in Nairobi, Kenya, also describes Obama’s victory as a miracle that could open a floodgate for miracles on the African continent. “If this change is possible in the United States, then curing African wars is easy.”
Kioko obviously shares the sentiment that Obama can work magic in Africa’s conflict zones as Africa’s new “favorite son.” Indeed, militants of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), who are fighting in the beleaguered Niger delta region of Nigeria, were reported to have stated recently that they would seriously consider adopting a cease-fire in response to a personal appeal from Obama.
Although Obama’s campaign denied reports that he had made such an appeal, MEND’s statement suggests he might be able to mediate in African conflicts.
Such sentiments, along with many others, may have prompted Meshack Nyakitare, a graduate student at the University of Nairobi, to declare after Obama’s victory, “We feel a sense of a new beginning, of possibilities.”
One such possibility, according to Kenyan Graphine Okinda, is a boost in Kenya’s tourism industry from which he would expect a personal gain. “People will come from America to see where he [Obama] is from. The tourism industry will improve. Maybe, when I finish school, I can be employed in a big hotel.”
Kgalema Motlanthe, the new South African president, told Obama in a congratulatory message that his election “carries with it hope for millions of your countrymen and women as much as it is for millions of people particularly of African descent both in the continent of Africa as well as those in the Diaspora.”
Motlanthe also urged Obama to use his presidency to tackle poverty in Africa. “We express the hope that poverty and under-development in Africa, which remains a challenge for humanity, will indeed continue to receive a greater attention of the focus of the new administration.”
Obama is not unaware of these hopes and expectations. Indeed, they have been high since he visited the continent as a senator in 2006 and proclaimed, “You are all my brothers and sisters.” In Kenya, South Africa, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Chad, he told cheering crowds that he would lobby for help back in the U.S. to solve their problems.
And even though he was quick to remind his kinsmen in western Kenya that he was the senator for Illinois in the United States—not Kogelo, or indeed Africa—the foreign policy page at barackobama.com states that Obama worked with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid “to secure $20 million for the African Union peacekeeping mission in Darfur.”
Obama co-sponsored Senate legislation that would enable federal, state and municipal government entities to divest themselves of Sudan-related stock. He co-sponsored, along with Sen. Sam Brownback, who accompanied him on his August 2006 trip to South Africa, Kenya, Djibouti, Chad and Sudan, the Darfur Peace and Accountability Act of 2006, which classified the Darfur conflict as genocide and authorized U.S. assistance for African Union peacekeeping forces in the region.
He also co-authored, with Brownback, an Op-Ed article published in The Washington Post about the Bush administration’s efforts regarding the genocide in Darfur. On the subject of the African Union, the two senators wrote: “First, the administration must help transform the African Union protection force into a sizable, effective multinational force. … The African Union has begun discussions with the United Nations about folding itself into a follow-on U.N. mission, but because of the West’s reluctance to offend African sensibilities, all parties seem resigned to muddling along. It has become clear that a U.N.- or NATO-led force is required, and the administration must use diplomacy to override Chinese and Sudanese opposition to such a force and persuade outside troops to join it.”
And even now the man who traveled on dirt roads in bumpy buses with chickens nestled in his lap as he traced his Kenyan roots still has Africa very much on his mind. According to Witney Schneidman, a deputy assistant secretary of state for Africa in the Clinton administration who is now an Obama advisor, the president-elect has three fundamental objectives for Africa: to accelerate the continent’s integration into the global economy; to enhance peace and security; and to deepen democracy.
Whether he will be able to realize these objectives has, however, become a matter of grave concern across the African continent. After the riotous celebrations of the election of “one of our own,” reality is beginning to set in. While the less informed continue to daydream about the loads of benefits that might flow to them from Obama’s presidency, the elite are aware that Obama faces momentous global challenges, especially in Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Israel, Palestine and North Korea. There are also the global economic crisis and the current budget deficit in the United States.
The sobering reality therefore is that an Obama presidency may not bring a concrete change in terms of U.S. policy in Africa. The challenges Obama will face as president are so daunting that, according to Mark Schroeder, director of risk analysis for sub-Saharan Africa at the political intelligence group Stratfor, “Whatever his personal preferences are, he is going to face much more immediate pressing concerns. And those are dealing with Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Russia and the global financial crisis.” Schroeder concluded that “there is not going to be a lot of political capital left over to devote to Africa.”
Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade has cautioned that “Africans must not ask extraordinary things from him [Obama], must not expect ... that through the miracle of his election America will rain money on Africa to change our continent. I don’t think that’s going to happen, and it wouldn’t be a good thing.”
Cameroonian historian and political theorist Achille Mbembe also warns that Africa’s expectations of Obama are “too emotional, irrational, and unrealistic.”
Says Mbembe: “I would make a distinction between the symbolic significance of this black man being elected to the most powerful position on Earth and the political consequences. Obama will be pushing the interests of America first. He would not be there as an African; he would be there as an American.”
Ousmane Sene, a professor of literature and American civilization at Senegal’s University of Cheikh Anta Diop, says, “we [Africans] should be drawing [inspirational] lessons from Obama’s victory rather than that … the coffers will open and billions of dollars will come. ... It doesn’t work like that.”
Those who are well aware that Obama’s presidency may not bring much to Africa in terms of concrete change, however, agree that it has great symbolic value for Africa and Africans. Political theorist Mbembe argues that Obama’s rise to office “holds the promise of a shift in Africa and the Diaspora from a politics of victimhood to a politics of possibility.”
According to Mbembe, “the Obama phenomenon reframes the black question. It pushes it to a level that we have not achieved in the history of modernity. It’s more than Frederick Douglass; it’s more than Martin Luther King Jr. It’s something else.”
That “something else” is succinctly articulated by Ghanaian journalist Kofi Akordor, who says, “Ever since Africa and its people and natural resources were ‘discovered’ by white adventurers, ever since Africans were shipped into slavery and ever since some Europeans met in Berlin in 1844 and shared Africa among themselves, the continent and its people have been struggling for a psychological valve to redeem their image.”
According to Akordor, “The Obama victory [it is hoped] has restored the confidence of the African. If great America can see something good in the African, to the extent that it is ready to entrust its destiny into his care, what about the African? How does he see himself? [Does he still see himself as] a miserable being who cannot survive without foreign assistance?”
Akordor points out even more inspiration from Obama’s feat to “our African-American brothers and sisters in the U.S. and other places.” He says, “They have no excuse to remain where they are now [societally]. Obama has shown that they can go beyond the boxing ring, the tracks and the musical stages just entertaining others. They can also reach the top. That barrier of inferiority complex, that barrier of inadequacy, that barrier of self-pity and dependency has been broken.”
“History has been made,” Alhassah Adamu told AfricaNews at the celebrations that greeted Obama’s victory at the Headlines Hospitality Centre in the Ghanaian capital, Accra. “Obama has proved to the world that everyone irrespective of race, culture and background is equal. He has made blacks proud.”
Desmond Tutu, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and archbishop emeritus of Cape Town, who was in the vanguard of the anti-apartheid struggle, says Obama’s victory shows that “for people of color, the sky is the limit.”
Drawing on his memories, Tutu says the feeling Obama’s victory gives is “almost as when Nelson Mandela became president of South Africa in 1994. We [Africans] have a new spring in our walk and our shoulders are straighter.”
The day after Obama’s victory was announced, Tutu is reported to have left a religious service in Tygerberg Hospital in Cape Town with tears in his eyes.
The iconic Nelson Mandela himself told Obama: “Your victory has demonstrated that no person anywhere in the world should not dare to dream of wanting to change the world for a better place.”
Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the first woman elected to head an African country, says she had not expected to see a black American president in her lifetime. “All Africans now know that if you persevere, all things are possible.”
Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki declared a public holiday “for Kenyans to celebrate the historic achievement by Sen. Obama and our country.” Kibaki described Obama’s victory as “momentous” for Kenya. “The victory of Sen. Obama is our own victory because of his roots here in Kenya,” Kibaki said. “As a country, we are full of pride for his success.”
Kofi Akodor of the Daily Graphic (Ghana) asks all black people, “Shall we begin to see ourselves in a different world, a world of hope, prosperity and progress after Obama’s achievement?”
Answering that question in the affirmative may be a greater gain for Africans than any aid that may come from having “our brother” in the White House.
AP photo / Riccardo Gangale
Kenyans in Kisumu, in the west of the country, celebrate the U.S. presidential election victory of Barack Obama.