What Africa needs from Obama
By FEMI MIMIKO
Published: Sunday, 30 Nov 2008
WHILE not denying the principal place of providence in the election of the US president-elect Barack Obama, I hasten to note that the events that led to his election November 4, 2008, the election inclusive, were all largely predictable. At an interactive session with the African Security class of cadets at the United States Military Academy, West Point, NY, late March 2008, the course director, a professor and brigadier-general in the US Army asked pointedly whether one thought Obama was going to win. She actually wanted, she said to members of the class, to be in a position to say after November 4 that a visiting professor from Nigeria made that prediction first in her class. While recoiling from making a pointed statement in that direction, yours sincerely left the class in no doubt that if Hilary Clinton agreed to drop off from the Democratic Party primary early enough, knowing full well that there was by that date no question of her winning the nomination, Obama would coast to an easy victory. As it happened, Clinton dropped off, although not so early, but whatever downside that could have represented was compensated for by the Clintons‘ unequivocal support for Obama soon after Hilary had adjusted to the painful reality that she was not going to be able to go beyond inflicting 18 million cracks on the glass ceiling brooding over the heads of women in US politics. And Obama went ahead to win.
Whoever had any illusions about the very powerful place of race in the US system should at the end of the grueling campaign that Obama had had to go through have been convinced that in the United States, racism is alive and well, the profoundly significance of the election of an African-American November 4 notwithstanding. For but for the fact of race, the distinction between an Obama and a John McCain were so clear that it was a scandal that only a maximum seven-point differential was recorded between the two candidates in the run-up to the election. Were Obama to be a white man, it can be argued, it would have been too clear to everybody that the impending election was not going to be much more than a mere formality as the figures would not have been anything less than 80-20 in favour of Obama, especially soon after McCain committed what perhaps would go down as the most incredible error of judgment in any presidential campaign, his choice of that most unlikely candidate called Sarah Palin as running mate. To perceptive observers, the McCain campaign effectively ended after that choice, the so-called ability of the Alaskan Governor to rally the core conservative base notwithstanding. Her intellectual firepower was just too modest to make the requisite impact on the electoral process in the United States.
Even so, a number of factors combined to ensure that race did not become the dominant force in the election and that in spite of its relative importance; it did not prevent Obama from coasting home to victory. Some of these had to do with the person of Barack Obama himself. Others were due to forces not exactly his own making. First, the fact of the involvement of a woman, of so much accomplishment like Hilary Clinton, somebody the award-winning novelist Maya Angelou described most aptly as ‘some cookie too hard to crack‘, and on the platform of the formidable, indeed fearful Clinton political machine, helped to mainstream the issue of gender and what role it was going to play. That in a way served to reduce the wholesale focus on race that would have been inevitable if a strong female contender had not been involved in the race. The heat, as it were, was shared by the black man and the female Caucasian who on different tracks sought to make history.
Second, the mortgage crisis early in the year in the US had displayed all the features of a major recession in the making. Indeed, in a bold appreciation of the impending crisis, the IMF noted way back in March that the emergent crisis had all the potentials of snowballing into a major global recession within four to 12 months. That precisely was what happened. And it served to make the economy the most important issue to all of 70 per cent of American voters who at any rate had convinced themselves that while McCain was stronger on national defence, Obama looked more like the person that understood the nature of the economic crisis and would be better able to handle it. It was thus obvious by early March that since the economy crisis was not going to go away very quickly, and in the context in which McCain himself, unsolicited, had declared his lack of interest in economics, that important as Iraq could be, a good majority of Americans were going to be influenced to cast their votes by the trend presented by the economy.
Third, Obama‘s background in Africa rather than in the highly divisive civil rights culture of the United States also detracted from the level of discomfort that the average white folk felt towards him. The palpable anger in the real African-American, of slavery origin, is something the white folks would remain uncomfortable with for a long time to come. But Obama has none of this. He therefore came across as the average first generation American, a son of an immigrant the type that massively populates the US from across the world.
To be sure, it had to take an African-American of such origin to accomplish what Obama has achieved. Way back in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1993 at a semi-formal forum of discussants of the African-American condition in the US, one had argued that given the depth of the psychological (and perhaps physical) damage that the system had either wittingly or otherwise visited on the descendants of African slaves in the US, the depth of their anger and doubtful self-confidence consequent upon this experience, it was going to take only an African-American of African (not slavery) origin to make an impact on the US political system. They alone could have the type of confidence (audacity of hope?) that was the bedrock of an audacious act of running for president at the time Obama did.
Note for instance that in spite of all entreaties, Gen. Colin Powell, a man who qualifies to be called an American hero, if one exists, refused to be drawn into the fray in 1994. Not even after all opinion polls had indicated that he alone from the Republican Party could beat President Bill Clinton in the impending election made him change his mind on not contesting. Even after Senator Bob Dole became the candidate, opinion polls suggested that he would win only if Powell agreed to run on his side as VP candidate. The newly retired soldier would have none of it, not even when it was suggested that he could be allowed to combine the position of Vice President with that of the Secretary of State. That is the nature of the trepidation that an African-American of African origin would probably not suffer from.
The good thing about the Obama phenomenon now, as several commentators have noted, is that the African-American community now have a real role model beyond what the rap artists and the sports divas presented. It is therefore a settled matter that Obama the self-confidence of the descendants of African slaves would thenceforth become real players, and no longer on the sidelines, in America‘s highly engaging political system.
A close examination of the Obama and McCain plans on national security, on the economy and other issue areas no doubt reveals the superiority of the former over the latter. But that hardly was the basis of Obama‘s ultimate triumph. Rather, more than any single factor, the man‘s deep understanding of the American political system, including the psychology and political behavioural pattern of the American people accounted for his victory. Of course the place of organisation and access to funds – perhaps the two most critical variables by which electoral victory is determined in climes where voting is consequential – cannot be overemphasised. He understood very clearly Americans‘ distaste for division and campaigned on the basis of rallying everybody – Democrats, Republicans and independents. He provided a platform broad enough to appeal to Americans across this wide spectrum. He knew Americans do not feel comfortable with attacks on opponents. Thus, rather than join the Republicans in what has become a tradition of ‘water-boarding‘, Barack Obama simply took time to point attention to the weakness of the approach in the McCain Campaign. Knowing that the average American voter watches keenly for the slightest evidence of discomposure on the part of their leaders, he maintained a consistency and steadiness that put McCain‘s movement back and forth on the economy in bolder relief.
Obama appreciated the premium Americans place on family values and played the card to the hilt. First, he and Michelle always made a point of demonstrating their closeness. Where McCain would hardly notice the presence of his wife, the Obamas ensured, with the appropriate body language, that they made a point of their closeness. Obama‘s decision to skip campaign and visit his ailing grandma 12 hours away from continental USA in Hawaii was as much an indication of the deep love he had for the woman as it was a clear signal to Americans that this Barack is also a human being too. It was also such a huge statement to the women folk on how highly esteemed women were in his reckoning.
The manner of Obama‘s frontal attack on the race issue, an opportunity for which was provided by his former Pastor, also left Americans wondering for the first time whether there was any sense in the very pivotal place that they had given to the race question for years. He thus was able to use the platform of Pastor Jeremiah Wright to lay the race issue to rest. Rather than deny race and racism as most Americans are wont to do, Barack Obama decided the bigot must be confronted. In his March 18 speech on the subject, undoubtedly the most profound statement and a classic for all time on race relations in the US, the man who would be President reviewed the position of the angry African-American and the concerned Caucasians and concluded that there was no point running away from these realities. Rather, he argued that it behoved on all to confront these prejudices that had served to limit the promise of the American dream to so many.
All said and done, one cannot but note with much admiration the sensitivity of the American people to the opportunity for a national renewal that on Obama Presidency presented them with. That they chose to rise above all prejudice and embraced the definitive agenda of change that Obama espoused is a sure guarantee of the continued global leadership of the United States. A vote for the old ways of looking at issues and the rustic ways of doing things that McCain in spite of his personal goodness and history of service to America represented would have signalled the inevitable and perhaps irreversible downward spiral of US power and global influence. Hesitation at a similar historical juncture at the beginning of the last century, precisely in the period of the Great Depression, on the part of Britain marked the attenuation of British power and influence around the world. The country that prided itself and about which all other peoples were compelled to sing, ‘Rule Britannia, Britannia rules the waves. Britons never, never shall be slaves!‘ failed to provide the leadership consistent with its history and image. Meanwhile President F.D. Roosevelt‘s New Deal programme was so imaginative and pivotal. It turbo-charged the US economy ahead of all others and sealed US global influence and leadership. It is their weakening hold on the globe that the Americans chose to tighten by embracing what but for Hannah Ardent‘s insistence that a revolution must of necessity be violent, would have qualified to be called the Obama revolution.
Now the question that arises is, having won the election and made history by so doing, what exactly does a President Barack Obama hold in trust for Africa? There is no doubt about the tendency on the part of many of us to assume that Obama‘s roots in Africa is a sure guarantee of a more pro-Africa foreign policy on the part of the US of the post-January 20 era. It would be a surprise indeed if this turns out to be so on the basis of Obama‘s pedigree. The truth is that to all intents and purposes, Obama is an American. His African roots are incidental and are not going to be a huge factor in the attitude of the US to the continent. In his ‘My American Dream‘ published soon after he left the military, General Powell gave vent to the surprise he felt at the elaborate reception he got on his first visit to Jamaica after his appointment as US‘ top soldier. He said he wondered whether his hosts had any illusion that he was anything other than an American, the fact of his roots in Jamaica notwithstanding!
All of these are not to say however that the fortune of Africa will not be better under an Obama Presidency than it was under several contemporary US Presidents. But the source of this optimism is not because of his roots, but because the man has this general orientation that is supportive of the weak and the disadvantaged, something that arguably is a carryover from his mother who married twice in her lifetime to Third World husbands. As we noted at an academic Seminar of the Department of Political Science at Ile-Ife in March, a McCain victory would not have changed the direction of extant US policy towards Africa in any significant way. And while Clinton‘s palpable desire for political correctness would have undercut her government‘s commitment to Africa if she had won, an Obama Presidency promises to be epochal for the continent, but not necessarily because of his African pedigree. If we extrapolate on his profound appreciation of, and courage in articulating the racial challenge that his country faces, a deep passion for the weak and disadvantaged and the higher morality of sharing (remember McCain‘s ‘spreading the wealth‘ charge?) to enhance societal harmony that defined his March 18, 2008, ”We the people, in order to form a more perfect union” address, an Obama presidency should ordinarily rub off well on Africa – a hugely disadvantaged region – in its search for democracy and development.
-Prof. Mimiko is head, Department of Political Science, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife