While Celebrating Obama, Africa Must Solve its Problems

Published on 27th January 2009

It was difficult to discuss anything last week but the inauguration of the first Blackman to be elected President of the United States of America. It is an election that is resonating with historical symbolism, promises of a new beginning and great expectations.  

A nation whose wealth was built on genocide of the indigenous peoples and slavery of Africans has elected, not a direct descendant of these slaves but a descendant of the enslaved peoples as its president. America does not disguise its White hegemony which it proclaims more symbolically in the name given to its seat of power: WHITE HOUSE. Now, that house built on Slave labour and proceeds of slavery is to have a Black Man calling the shots. Talk of poetic justice and the empire striking back! But beyond the symbolism and the historical proportions of Obama’s remarkable ascendancy to the Presidency of the USA there are many challenges.  

One’s disappointments are usually directly proportional to one’s expectations. Obama is not a messiah even though that is what many expect him to be. He cannot solve all the problems of the world. He cannot even solve all the problems of America. However, potentially, his election gives both Americans and the rest of us a chance to look at things afresh and probably find a solution that we can all live with even if it may not be perfect. 

In a Presidency replete with all kinds of havoc both internally and internationally, one of the worst damage that George Bush did to America and the world is to make unilateralism on all issues his default position. Even where other countries may agree with him, he made it difficult by insisting that he would have his way. The world was very simple to him: ‘You are either for us or against us’. Even the powerful needs friends.  

The expectation of many peoples across the world is that Obama will listen more and lecture or hector less. America cannot bomb all its enemies, real or imagined. Military might alone cannot win hearts and minds. That strategy made George Bush the effective organizing secretary for Al Qaeda winning its many converts. Countries that did not have terrorists quickly became breeding ground for them the moment Bush came calling. 

Obama has to ask himself why the so called terrorists come predominantly from countries whose leaders are allies of America. There are other areas in which Obama has to pursue a policy change that we can believe in. The illusions of many in the Middle East is already dampened by the loud silence of the President Elect over Gaza. When terrorist bombings were inflicted on Mumbai residents, he was quick to condemn it but when it came to Gaza, he claimed there was only one President at a time.  

For a candidate and President elect that had opinion on everything, maintaining silence over Gaza merely showed where the heavy weight of Zionist influence in American Middle East policy is. If he really wants to make a difference, he needs to redress the balance in favour of just lasting solution. For now America is not an honest broker because it is on the side of Israel, right or wrong. His campaign declaration that ‘the security of the state of Israel is sacrosanct’ means continuing Israelisation or Zionisation of US Policy and more conflict. He needs to use his leverage to convince Israel that like America, it cannot bomb all its enemies into submission.

Finally Africa may be more disappointed than most regions because our expectations from government houses to the streets, markets, beer parlous, matatu or Danfo driver to street hawkers, are just too high. Obama is not our saviour. Our capacity to leverage anything from Washington beyond good intentions will depend on how clear we are in terms of our own interests. We should deal on a Pan African multilateral level instead of lining up as Obama’s ‘bestest’ country or ally. Maybe the biggest disappointment will be in Kenya.  

One other area we can benefit from is Obama’s commitment to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Multilateralism is better than bilateralism which often shows up our dictators.  

One thing may change with Obama. African leaders’ who guilt trip western leaders for being interfering colonialists may have to find other default responses. Many of them who acted as Bush’s henchmen in Africa are worried about Obama. Therefore he has to avoid the well meaning Liberal patronage of Clinton’s regime in Africa. Many of Clinton’s friends in our state houses graduated to becoming even closer allies of Bush. If Obama chooses the easy option of relying on Clinton’s men and women for his Africa policy as many of his key appointments have indicated so far, then Africa should be prepared for an early rude shock in Africa-USA relations. 

Meanwhile enjoy the honeymoon and celebrations. If nothing changes under Obama we cannot take one thing away from him: he has made hope and possibility of change more desirable. From the Obamas of America may be inspiration for other Obamas in Africa and across the world. Change is no longer a dirty word and those who say ‘No change’ had better be on notice. 

Dr Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem writes this syndicated column in his capacity as a concerned Pan Africanist


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