“Obama is a white man in a black man’s skin and Africans need to awaken to the fact that like his predecessors, he will put the interests of America at the front”.
These were the words resonating from my learned friend who kept nudging me during Obama’s sensational inauguration.
Seated and glued to the screen all the way through the build up to the inauguration, like many in Africa and the Arab world I could not help but get caught up in the euphoria that is Obama.
He must be the ‘chosen messiah’ sent to deliver this dark-continent from the woes that have engulfed it for decades. He has to be the answer to the prayer vigils going up from the dry wells and plains of Zimbabwe; the liberator of the tortured, sick, hungry and helpless widows and orphans braving the conditions whilst roaming the streets of Darfur, Harare, and Congo.
Oh how these embattled youth and old dare to hope! How else they seem to question can you explain a ‘son of the soil’ bearing the name ‘Hussein’ a connotation to the Arab world that would in normal circumstances have been a major barrier, rising up to the most powerful position in the world?
True Obama’s victory may be a sign that this generation has finally crossed the threshold to a place where issues of color are of no consequence and one’s abilities determine how far up the ladder they can get. But to African, his victory is more than just a triumph against theories of black inferiority.
Despite the general ridicule of America’s claim to being a beacon of hope, most of Africa has by and large remained profoundly attached to a vision of it as a land of opportunity and freedom.
It’s therefore not surprising that Obama’s rise to power has intensified those feelings across the African continent and that the nearly one billion people plagued by corruption, poverty, lack of accountability by governments, undemocratic elections, regional conflicts and many other countless problems look at Obama, by virtue of his unique and intriguing background as offering a particularly compelling potential for impact.
As Africa watched him take the revered oath of office with such charisma and spirit amid an emotional, cheering and inter-racial crowd, the general feeling was that this is was the game changer in America’s relationship with the continent.
However, optimism aside how plausible are these expectations? This is a man inheriting a crippled system with far many problems than any of his predecessors.
He is expected by many Americans to be the miracle worker who will reverse the financial crisis, create jobs, improve health care access, appeal to the untamed youth in schools while also mending America’s foreign policy and image.
In addition, being the first president of color also creates expectations from the marginalized minority races in America who for long have felt they had no true representation.
Obama however wisely attempted to down play these very expectations in his inauguration speech which underscored the fact that the task would not be done in a short time and that things would only get tougher before they got better.
His speech also echoed warnings to countries that were waiting for America to solve their problems, a statement which is seen to have been directed at African countries.
The question remains, ‘where do you draw the line between desperate hope and positive optimism, between idealism and realism’?
Going back to his campaign, Obama always maintained that his job is to look out for the interests of the American people.
Conversely, haven’t we learnt that America’s protectionism policy works to the detriment of Africa’s growing economy?
Take for example the retaining of farm subsidies for American farmers which prevents African farmers from competing in the world’s biggest market.
America like its western counterparts, has time and again preached the removal of trade tariffs and barriers in order to advance world trade but when it comes down to making concessions that will benefit Africa’s mainly agricultural economy, they hardly compromise on eliminating subsidies to their farmers. This has been the key impediment in the continued failure of the Doha Round world trade negotiations.
But having made more than 500 campaign promises to the American populace, (he made by far the most campaign promises in America’s recent history with Clinton and Bush making not more than 250 each) his priority obviously lies in solving the myriad of problems facing him at home and the fact that there is even an ‘Obameter’ to track his progress in fulfilling these promises puts him under extra pressure.
The quest into what Obama’s presidency means to Africa cannot at the moment be answered with certainty for like the rest of world we can but wait and see if he will rise to the task as promised.
In the meantime I will be musing over the Obamania that’s hit so close to home where recently a neighbor named her new born son ‘Obamazana’! I hope this elation over Obama doesn’t spring from the donor mentality that continues to hold us back. Africa don’t hold your breath!