8 November 2012

Nigeria: Obama's Presidency and Re-Election

Photo: Scout Tufankjian/Obama for America
President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney at the second presidential debate.


The November 6, 2012, presidential election in the US has just whizzed past. Barack Obama has won re-election in what turned out to be the most expensive election in the US history. The tally in the number of Electoral College votes garnered by each candidate turned out not to be as close as the polls had suggested. And more importantly, the much feared 'Bradley effect' - the tendency for polls to be misleading when a Black candidate is running against a White candidate - failed to happen.

There are several observations on Obama's presidency and re-election.

One, it is to Obama's credit that he managed to avoid any major scandal during his first term in office, silencing those who feared that a Blackman in the White House would diminish the presidency with one scandal or the other. Many top Black American politicians and celebrities have not always been able to stand the test of public scrutiny that often comes with being in the public eyes. There is a long list of Africa-American politicians whose careers ended abruptly over scandals usually relating to sex, corruption or the use of illegal drugs. For instance, Herman Cain's strong bid to become the Republican Party's presidential nominee in the just concluded elections was torpedoed over scandals bothering on sexual harassment and infidelity. Similarly former New York's Governor David Paterson became sucked into a scandal after he admitted shortly after taking office in 2008 that both he and his wife, Michelle, had engaged in extramarital affairs during a bumpy period in their marriage. Again former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick's career unravelled in 2008 after he lied about having an affair with a city official named Christine Beatty. Some claim that African-American politicians and celebrities are more scrutinized than their counterparts from other racial categories. Obama deserves credit that he has so far carefully avoided matching on any banana peel.

Two, Obama won largely because the Republican Party was unable to successfully play the race card. Though the Tea Party - a largely White conservative movement which is anti-immigration and anti-compromise politics - tried to do so, Obama carefully avoided several baits such as when a particular radio talk show host called him and his family 'the trash in the White House'. Though some African-Americans felt that by not responding more forcefully to such insults he denied them the respect they felt they deserved by his being President, in retrospect, had Obama swallowed the bait, the issue of race would have become a prominent issue in the campaign which would have put Obama in an awkward disadvantage. Even when the right wing members of the Republican Party read race in the decision of the former Secretary of State Collin Powell to endorse Obama's re-election bid, Obama moved smartly to reject any endorsement based on skin colour. While rejecting race, he was however smart enough to recognize the changing demographics in the USA and the issues that would go down well with such key voting blocs as the Hispanics. This perhaps explains why on June 15, 2012 he granted deferred action - relief from deportation and the issuance of work permits to 1.4 million young undocumented immigrants. Immigration is a very sensitive issue among Latin Americans in the USA.

Three, the expectations in 2008 that the election of a Black man as President of the United States would lead to improvement in race relations in the USA and even globally appeared not to have happened. A recent poll by Rasmussen for instance found that only 36 per cent of voters believed that relations between Black and White people was getting better compared with 62 per cent a year ago and 55 per cent in April. I believe this trend is in line with what happens in Nigeria where the ethnic group that produces the President tends to court suspicion, if not hatred, instead of being better respected as they would hope. A possible explanation for this tendency is the interfacing of envy, jealousy, triumphalism with perceptions of bias by the President towards his ethnic group. Obama, it could be argued, demonstrated in actions and his rhetoric that he is the President for all Americans and that he was not just elected to pander to the special interests of his African-American constituency or the ancestral home of his Kenyan father.

Four, Obama's presidency appears to have triggered a me-tooist search for an 'European Obama'. In Britain for instance, Chuka Umunna, who like Obama is mixed race, is increasingly being touted as 'Britain's Obama', with some predicting that the 33-year old will be a future leader of the Labour party. A number of other European countries also appear to be 'searching' for their own 'Obama' - perhaps to show that their society has become post-racial. My issue with this however is that an impression seems to be given that there is a search for Obama's clone - someone who is male, mixed race, speaks well, is well- educated and good-looking - rather than Obama being used as a metaphor to show that one can overcome adversities that are tied to one's circumstances of birth to reach to the top of the society. This is where I think the 'me-tooist' search for Obama misses the point in some European countries. A crucial question now is how Obama's re-election victory will impact on the perceived hunt for a 'European Obama'.

Five, Obama's ascendancy appears to have led to a re-definition of colour and Blackness. Before he became taken seriously as a presidential candidate, the African-American community were concerned that he was not Black enough - his progenitors after all were not part of the civil rights struggles which meant very much to them. However once it became clear that he was going to be competitive in the primaries, the African-Americans embraced him. Under America's 'one drop rule', Obama is classified as Black. But in several countries such as the UK and South Africa, Obama would have been classified as 'mixed race'. It can be argued that with Obama the mixed race people in several countries are now being re-classified as 'Blacks' and they are not complaining.

Six, how would Obama's second term in office impact on Africa? There is a consensus that apart from being the first sitting American president to visit Africa during his first term in office, there has not really been any special benefit to Africa from having 'one of their own' there - apart from Obama's vacuous talks about promoting democracy and 'partnering' with the continent in its quest for economic development. I do not foresee any major change in Obama's policy towards Africa during his second term. Obviously there are expectation by some Africans that Obama will channel more development projects to the continent based on primordial sentiments - pretty much the way our politicians divert develop projects to their villages. Unfortunately or fortunately, America does not work that way because the institutions are strong and the system of checks and balances work well. It therefore behoves on Africa to articulate clearly areas it needs USA's assistance - or more appropriately partnership- and hope they will get more sympathetic ears from President Obama.

Seven, while our democracy is still evolving and America's has endured for over two centuries, it will still not be out of place to make a few comparisons: for instance it is instructive that Mitt Romney conceded quickly after it became clear he had lost. It is tempting to speculate on how this would have played out were it in Nigeria. Perhaps the newspapers would be screaming with such headlines as: "This is an open day robbery, which must be challenged - Romney". "Obama plans big party to celebrate victory". "Postelection blues: violence breaks in xxx state, 15 feared dead".

Reps' Peoples' Public Sessions on the review of the 1999 Constitution

The recent announcement by the House of Representatives that it would organise a public session on the review of the 1999 constitution simultaneously in all the 360 Federal Constituencies in Nigeria on 10 November 2012 is a welcome development. It is in fact arguably the closest to the idea of a national conference being canvassed by some Nigerians to discuss some of the fundamental issues that have made the challenges of nation-building in the country intractable. The House plans to make the process as participatory as possible and is urging stakeholders to utilise the opportunity to present their ideas on how they want to see the polity restructured. While the thinking behind this is unassailable, there are a few concerns: is this just a subterfuge to douse the clamour from some quarters for a Sovereign National Conference? How will the House ensure that all the memoranda submitted to it - not just those that fit into its agenda - are collected and allowed to impact on any amendment of the Constitution? Since a Constitution review process involves also getting a nod of a majority of the State Houses of Assembly, what are the House's strategies for 'carrying along' the Governors who control the state legislatures?

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