11 November 2008

Africa: Challenges as Continent Celebrates Obama


Barack Hussein Obama sitting in the White House as President of the United States of America is arguably one of the wonders of the 21st century - one that has changed the direction of world politics forever.

But that is not the only reason the entire world celebrates Obama and America as indications have since shown.

Beneath the ecstasy is the feeling that the people of colour have proven they can hold their own in the white world. Perhaps greater than that is the optimism in Africa that the victory signals a turn-around for the black race, the supreme percentage of whom is located in this part of the globe.

Africans were glued to the satellite while the campaign lasted. And so did other people of colour across the world - all of whom erupted in wide jubilation and celebration when Obama outpolled Republican Party's John McCain his opponent at the end of last Tuesday's election to emerge America's first black President.

For black Americans, the election is a page-turner, a blessing as the name Barack implies, and a good tiding to the terrified world, as signified by his middle name, Hussein.

Obama was born on August 4, 1961, and was until now the junior United States Senator from Illinois and presidential nominee of the Democratic Party in the 2008 presidential election.

He was born at the Kapi'olani Medical Centre for Women & Children in Honolulu, Hawaii, to Barack Hussein Obama, Snr., a Luo from Nyang'oma Kogelo, Nyanza Province, Kenya, and Ann Dunham, a white American from Wichita, Kansas.

His parents met while attending the University of Hawaii at Manoa, where his father was a foreign student. They separated when he was two years old and later divorced. Obama's father returned to Kenya and saw his son only once more before dying in an automobile accident in 1982.

For Africans Celebrating Obama for other reasons a shocker may be in the waiting. While the campaigns lasted, from January through to November, Africa got negligible mention; and Obama visited every other continent but Africa.

Analysts say Obama had to avoid playing the African card, if he must get white votes. African-Americans account for only 10 per cent of the United States of America's 300 million people.

Regardless, Africans are united in their view of Obama as one of their own, but differ on how much his presidency could impact on the continent considered the least developed in the world. Talk of the reparation and official apology for centuries of slave trade. Talk of the expectation of policy change towards fatherland. Talk of fair trade. The expectation is sky-high.

Home Front Challenges

As election day approached, both presidential candidates were reportedly given a CIA briefing, sketching out the shape of the world the winner would inherit. At the end of an exhausting and sometimes terrifying list of global threats, Obama took a deep breath, according to someone familiar with his session, and said: "Good grief, why do I want this job?"

Now, the job is his, and he has until January 20 to prepare himself and his staff before taking on a troubled world. Obama has, of course, been preparing for years. Analysts say he has approached foreign policy in the same cool and strategic manner he handled the long campaign. By the end of the race, there were 300 foreign policy experts - divided up into groups by region and issue - brainstorming for him.

That huge think tank moved from campaigning to transition mode weeks before election day, so that it would be ready to break to the surface as soon as the votes were counted.

The new president-elect is said to be anxious to avoid the mistakes of Bill Clinton and George Bush, who took months to get their policies and staff in place while the world changed around them. Some reports from the Obama camp suggest a national security team could be named any moment from now.

Meanwhile, a plunge in Wall Street stocks provided a sharp reminder of the scale of the financial challenges facing Obama as gloomy economic data fuelled fresh fears of a deep, prolonged economic recession.

Obama owes a large slice of his electoral success to the global financial crisis. Exit polls found that 62 per cent of voters put the U.S. economy as their number one issue - while 85 per cent of Americans termed themselves 'worried' about the direction of the economy.

Last Wednesday, amid celebrations, the Dow Jones industrial average tumbled more than 5 per cent, or 486 points, to 9,139, more than eliminating penultimate Tuesday's 300-point rise, the biggest election day gain since 1984.

Monthly employment figures showed that 157,000 jobs disappeared during October, as service sector activity contracted sharply. The numbers reinforced the bleak outlook soon to be inherited by Obama, who faces plummeting real estate prices, seesawing stocks, failing banks and a crisis-stricken U.S. automobile industry.

His first act will be to select a Treasury Secretary, America's equivalent of Nigeria's Finance Minister, who will be responsible for spending the $700 billion banking bail-out fund; and will need to be a credible name. Candidates are said to include the Clinton-era Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers and the former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, a close economic adviser to Obama who is possibly too old at 81. A third widely tipped candidate is Timothy Geithner, president of the Fed's New York branch, who has won plaudits for his cool-headed involvement in supporting teetering Wall Street institutions.

Even before his inauguration, Obama observes say will be pivotal in negotiating a stimulus package to kick- start economic activity. Already the House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, wants a $100 billion programme that would include money for states to create employment by building new transport links, schools and public facilities.

It could involve food stamps for the poor, relief for people struggling with mortgages and, possibly, a round of tax rebate cheques.

For Dean Maki, an economist at Barclays Capital in New York, the U.S. economy is expected to contract by 2.5 per cent in the final quarter of the year: "Given the majorities the Democrats have in both houses, it might be easier to agree on a stimulus bill. It could be passed before Obama even takes office, but he will have a role in shaping the legislation," he said.

Next on the list of reforms will be regulation. The U.S. treasury has spent $250 billion buying stakes to part-nationalise struggling banks. But critics say few strings have been attached to these handouts.

In a speech earlier this year, the president-elect declared that 'old rules' and 'old institutions' needed reform to fit the changing shape of the financial system: "Our free market was never meant to be a free licence to take whatever you can get, however you can get it."

In all that he does, analysts believe Obama will need to be diplomatic. In an economic environment of extreme twitchiness, the new president's intentions will be scrutinised as never before they maintain.

Those are the local challenges before Obama. Add that to national security and guard against terrorist attacks, as has been predicted by the United States' Head of National Intelligence, Mike McConnell.

Pitched against the uphill tasks, how far can Obama go in helping the African continent from which America, by all means possible, hopes to get 25 per cent of its energy requirements by 2015?

Forlorn Hope In Africa?

Africans are not celebrating Obama for the sake of it. Neither was Mwai Kibaki, Kenya's President, saying 'we are proud of your roots' for nothing. Such joy is informed by a world of expectations, hope that Africa would fare better under an Obama presidency. Would that be?

Can Obama in any way influence democratic culture on the continent replete with sit-tight leaders and notorious for fraudulent electioneering processes, unlike the one that produced him?

Asked what Obama's victory means for Africa, former Nigerian Representative at the United Nations, Arthur Mbanefo, said his presidency would not bring any major shift that would result in any radical change for economic benefit for the continent.

To him, it was a thing of joy that a first black man would hold the clutches of political power of the most powerful country on earth, but added that (Obama) is not going to be partial just to give Africa special favour.

His words: "As far as I am concerned, the Obama phenomenon, one would say, is founded on hope and people will continue to live on hope that they will somehow benefit from his being elected as the 44th President of the United States, the most powerful country on earth.

"I personally do not believe that there is going to be a major shift simply because Obama is an African and, therefore, he is going to be partial to Africa. In the world today irrespective of his Africanness he is first an American and the leader of the Americans, not the leader of Africans, although by extension because of the position of his country, leader of the world."

Mbanefo said it was wrong to think that the president-elect would perform any special magic for Africa because he is black.

"For us to think that he is going to single out Africa and try to do things for Africa immediately, I think will be far fetched. But there is no reason why we cannot continue to hope that he would," he said.

"I don't think the American government will automatically shift their policy on Africa, even if they will, they may not be in a position to do too much looking at their economic situation at this point in time.

"Their national debt, their government in total deficit, as well as fighting two wars already and then the invisible war on terror, to my mind we should be realistic, to make sure that our hopes and our wishes would be matched with reality and in that way our disappointment will be containable," Mbanefo posited.

House of Representatives Committee on Media and Publicity Chairman, Eseme Eyiboh, agreed with Mbanefo. Eyiboh, meanwhile, went ahead to say reasons why Africa may not get so much from the Obama presidency - however hard the man tries to help his fatherland, one of which according to him was the kind of politics played on, His words: "First and foremost, we have to look at the election generally. From the American presidential campaign the opinion polls were very consistent from the campaign to the general election and the near needle point precision of the polls have underpinned the critical relevance of communication infrastructure in the attainment of credible, transparent and participatory election.

"The challenge to us in Africa is that if such situation presents itself in Africa, do we have the capacity to respond in that direction? Two, if you listened to the campaign from the beginning to the end, three things were the major drivers: the economy, America, and the American people. If such situation presents itself in Nigeria - does our political culture promote constructive discourse?

"Is the relationship between the electorate and the candidate robust, or does it encourage discussion premised on the economy, national consciousness, and the future of our people? Now, look at the candidates from the beginning to the end. McCain had an opportunity to play the racist card, but if he were a Nigerian - would he refrain from playing such card knowing it would favour him? That underscores our emphasis on the politics of contents of the pockets, unlike America's politics of contents of the mind. If American society did not promote opportunities, there would have been no Obama. Now, there are so many Obamas even with greater potentials in Nigeria, but our culture, or our society, does not avail the potentials the opportunity to blossom.

"Therefore, Africa and indeed Nigeria can only attract attention and development if and only when we are ready to promote our governance and politics within the purview of capacity. I expect that Nigeria indeed will need to avail itself of the lessons of American election and, indeed, Obama's emergence and from the lessons should now be able to set an agenda for the pursuit of national goals."

Asked what Obama could do for the continent, Eyiboh said: "The principle of you can't place something on nothing now comes into play here, because Obama indeed would have the capacity to do something for Africa, but is Africa ready to accept his contributions in view of the collapse of the public governance in Africa, arising from inability to differentiate between politics and governance? Whatever Obama has, he cannot assist Africa and if he does the impacts would not be felt. The fact is Africa is not prepared to take advantage of any such opportunity."

Not even on the foreign policy front can Obama tilt the balance in Africa's favour, because, as Eyiboh put it, "when you are talking about foreign policy you are talking about how to create constructive partnership for the interest of the citizens of the country you lead. Africa is yet to position itself in a way to command the respect and attention of developed countries because of the way governance and politics are conducted. Africa has constituted itself in a way that makes it a dumping ground for other countries - a place of alarming capital flight and laundering of investment benefits."

But former Africa Democratic Congress (ADC) governorship candidate in Anambra State, Njideka Anyadike, said the Obama presidency would positively touch Africa in its foreign policy.

She expressed optimism that despite the fact that he was first an American, the situation would be different as far as it concerns Africa.

"It may not be proper for him to say it, but I know he must have something because no matter how you view it, the situation then and now cannot be the same. There will be a positive impact on Africa because he is attached to Africa

"I see him as someone God would use to change the probability of action for good. Already, there is a wind of change across the world and God will use it to also impact positively on Africa. I believe the hand of God is on it and we can't but benefit from it" she said.

Anyadike said Obama's government would favour Africa with great benefit insisting that, "as far as Obama is concerned the story cannot be the same again because there is hope in the air.

"I have no iota of doubt in my mind that his government will be better. There is no way he can't do things for Africa, but we still need the spiritual and physical strength to sustain it. We still need prayers and God's continued intervention."

For Festus Iyayi, former president, Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) Obama's victory represents a landmark in the many struggles of the people of colour worldwide. But, like several other commentators, he does not believe Obama could help Africa materially.

His words: "What does this Obama victory mean? It must mean different things to different people depending upon the interests that are at stake. For peoples of African descent, it is a vindication of the view long held by Africans that they can hold their own and triumph over the greatest obstacles in the world; that the world began with them and it will be world without end for them. For racists around the world, the Obama victory is an affront that needs to be confronted, and perhaps aborted; at any rate, it is a development that must never again be allowed to happen. For revolutionaries around the world, the Obama victory provides an important postponement for the collapse of the American empire and of capitalism more specifically.

"For subordinated peoples around the world, especially those in Africa, especially those in Nigeria, the Obama victory not only shows that change is possible but what needs to be done for the desired change to occur. It shows that there must be in place a leadership, a visionary that is dedicated to achieving the vision. It shows that this leadership must build a movement that resonates with all the subordinated, that becomes involved with the vision of change as much as the leadership. It also shows that the leadership and the movement must have a strategy that takes account of developments as these impact upon the people. It also shows that change of a dramatic kind needs a combination of lucky developments for the strategy to deliver the desired results.

"Obama did not create his victory alone. It was created in collaboration with those who had become tired of an American empire that despised not just the rest of the world but its own people. It is a beneficiary of the resentment against the vices of capitalism that has long festered in America, a resentment harnessed in social movements, community organising and much else besides."

As for what material gains Obama could offer or imperialist policy he could halt, Iyayi offered: "Let us not forget that Obama is ultimately an American who will defend the American national interest. Let us not forget that the American interest has always been and remains the domination of the rest of the world, especially those parts of the world that has resources such as oil that America claims it has a right to access and appropriate. Let us not forget that we live under the American empire and that Obama is simply the new head of that empire. The style of the empire as it goes about shoring up its domination of the world may change, but that the empire will retain its essential character will not change.

"In Nigeria, the challenge of the Obama victory is that we must end the rule of the vipers who have poisoned our lives over the last many years. In Nigeria, the Obama victory calls on all those who are pained to their marrow by the vileness of those who have ruined our country to not just celebrate the victory but to learn and apply its important lessons. It calls on us to organise to ensure that the rot and the pain caused by this most corrupt, sadistic, hedonistic and unpatriotic band of rulers in the world is not allowed to continue. That is the challenge."

Optimism Still

Obama's victory at the American presidential poll has indeed created a torrent of excitement among notable Nigerians. National Chairman of African Democratic Congress (ADC), Ralph Okey Nwosu, who proclaimed Senator Obama as president of a new free world, noted that he was highly elated that an American of black descent would become the world's most powerful man come January 20, adding that he did not just emerge but that he had prepared for it and worked for it.

Said he: "Obama did not just emerge, he prepared for it and worked for it, and the system made it easier for him; in other places, the system would have made it difficult for him."

The party leader predicted that Senator Obama's presidency would impact positively on the world and that African leaders who had suffered from complexes would now shake off their complexes, seeing one of their own in the most exalted office in America.

"I can predict that Obama's presidency would impact positively on the world, and for African leaders who have always suffered from complexes, seeing their kinsman at the head of the American government will help them cast off their complexes," he declared.

Nwosu, who has been highly critical of the elections in Nigeria, noted that the country has a lot to learn from the American example.

National Chairman of the Democratic Alternative (DA), Abayomi Ferreira, while agreeing that Africans have understandably been carried away by the euphoria of a black man becoming the President of the United States, pointed out that the historic significance of the event lay more in the possibility that America has finally broken out of racism.

"Two or three years ago, no one would have thought that this was possible," he said. Though he expressed the belief that the development could change race relations in European nations such as Italy, France, and Germany, he, nevertheless, said he did not believe it would have much impact on Nigeria or any other African country. His reason was that if prevailing conditions at home were not amenable, situations outside would only effect minimal changes.

He stated: "The impact which external developments can have on Nigeria or any other African country is dependent on the momentum within the country. We can hardly benefit from external influences of change now because of the current political and economic momentum in the country. Unless we change the existing negative forces to positive ones, external influences can only have limited impact on developments here."

Lagos State Action Congress (AC) spokesman, Joe Igbokwe, also agreed that the greatest benefit Africa stands to gain from America during the reign of Obama is not financial grants but technical aid and support to eliminate corrupt leadership and electoral manipulation.

"All that Obama needs to do is to help rid Africa and, indeed, Nigeria of dictators and sit-tight leaders that have been thriving on tears, sweats and blood of their people," Igbokwe said.

For the Conference of Nigerian Political Parties (CNPP), Obama's presidency means much more than a mere victory for the black race, but provided the long-suffering African people the handle to change their political circumstances which had largely been imposed by bad leadership.

CNPP National Publicity Secretary, Osita Okechukwu, said Africa's expectations are high, but cautioned that the continent has to look inwards to solve its problem instead of waiting for Obama to perform wonder.

He posited: "Obama will be constrained by the institutions, not his intention to do good. So, we all, the leaders and the led need to pick up our democratic struggle from where he left.

Former Petroleum Resources Minister, Tam David-West, said Obama's feat is a major challenge to the Nigerian masses to rise up and demand the return of the country's democracy to its rightful place.

He said the reasons past political leaders are still maintaining their firm grip on the political power while sitting on top the nation's wealth is because the masses are complacent and lack the spirit of taking their leaders to the cleaners.

Without stripping all past corrupt leaders of their loot and returning the country's political power to the ballot box, Nigeria will not make any progress, David-West said.

"Nigerians should not expect miracle from Obama, but catch in on his triumph to rise up and ensure that our corrupt leaders are chased out and rightly brought to book," he said.

Having dealt a great ruin to white supremacist theory, Obama's headship of America is sure a gain whose reversal analysts believe would be on how much the president-elect does to save America. For Africa, however, his election is an eye-opener to what magic transparent election can do and a reason its leaders must give representative democracy a chance.

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