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The International Writers Magazine: US Politics and Africa

Obama and the phenomenology of Change
Ronald Elly Wanda

I am still trembling from the griping suspense of watching the so called "Bradley" theory demolished by the Obama phenomenon in the concluded US election. Barack Obama, the Democratic presidential candidate on Wednesday 5th November 2008 secured a resounding victory over John McCain- the veteran Republican candidate, overcoming the country’s bitter legacy of slavery and bigotry, matching straight into history books as the country’s first black president.

Earlier in the year, in a published piece titled "The Contrast of ‘Political Opportunity Structure between the US and Kenya", I’d argued that one thing that fascinated me the most about Americans was their extraordinary sense of appreciation for ‘newness’- a factor that has so vividly been demonstrated by the outcome of this year’s historic election.

So historic is Obama’s victory in that even the country’s founding fathers, I am sure, would have been astounded by the very suggestion of a black man as the president. Their failure to tackle slavery, which the best of them acknowledged was incompatible with the values of the American revolution, remains the largest stain on their legacy.
However, one thing that perhaps deserves them our commendation is their construction of a flexible constitution that has survived their own failings and has been ‘sustainable’ enough to accommodate a man of immediate Kenyan origin (and undoubtedly many others like him still pending) to stand a reasonable chance of leading the world’s most powerful nation. As a person of African origin, albeit British, I feel immensely proud of his achievement made possible by Washington, Adams and Jefferson’s et al’s earlier sense of constitutional ‘fairness’.

Contrary to what we have in Africa, where constitutions are hardly ever upheld, and in some case scenarios, not even worth the papers they’ve been written on, because certain leaders have felt the need to extend their tenureships through systematic alterations. Yoweri Museveni of Uganda is one such a case in point. A White House snub would thus be his ultimate nightmare and others like him. Conversely, because for such leaders a White House pat on the back has been their ultimate legitimation they’ve need to continue their crimes against African citizenry.

The cornerstone of the assassinated civil rights movement leader Dr Martin Luther King was to elevate black people to a level where they would be looked at as any other person in society. This, he argued would lead to total emancipation from the bondages of slavery and racism that had plagued the black man in American society. Therefore, Obama’s victory is in part, a realisation of Dr King’s powerful "I have a dream" ambition. It is inspirational in nature and psychologically soothing for all men that have, for far too long, been classified as "others", and whose relevance has been seconded in contemporary political discourses. Political culture in America has changed, the ramifications of which will be forever felt throughout the global political arena. "Change we can believe in and Yes We Can!" Obama’s slogans will be closely associated with this fundamental chasm of newness.

As Professor Ali Mazrui of New York University has recently pointed out in an East African daily: "It is now conceivable that the world may one day witness a Black Prime Minister of Great Britain, or a Black President of France, or a Black Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany." By breaking the glass ceiling against Black ascendancy in the United States, the Professor said "Obama has increased the probability of Black Heads of Government in other Western countries before the end of this twenty-first-century."

Elsewhere in Africa, others have been quick to down-play Obama’s victory in relations to Africa’s problem. "Why should America do anything for us? What Obama does should be important to Americans because he is an American citizen", cautioned Professor Dani Nabudere of Afrika Study Centre, in Mbale, Uganda. And it easy to see why.

Obama comes to office at a time of grinding national and global economic difficulties, and when US is embroiled in two major wars. With these issues demanding his immediate attention, there is a real danger that an Obama presidency may not have much left to pay attention to Africa's debilitating problems that includes abject poverty, diseases, underdevelopment and social progress. Yet we have ample resources, which if properly exploited, could help alleviate wanainchis problems.

Our hopes and expectations of an Obama presidency ought to therefore revolve around us Africans as a people if not necessarily Africa the geography. For in the western prism, Africa has always been much more important than we Africans. ‘Africa’, Chinua Achebe reminds us, ‘is people’. And that is the problem. The philosophical basis from which Africa is approached has never moved beyond geography and resources. The worst Mr Obama will do is to continue the practice of protectionism. However, I am hopeful that he will extend (AGOA) Africa Growth Opportunity Act, as he obviously has a clearer understanding of Africa's problems than George Bush resultant of his umbilical ties with the continent.

© ronald Elly Wanda December 2008>

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