Africa: Continent's Eyes Turn to Washington

20 January 2009

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Africa's eyes were on Washington DC on Tuesday as Barack Hussein Obama, a son of Kenya, prepared to become the 44th President of the United States.

At the Obama family home in Kogelo, western Kenya, two bulls were slaughtered for the celebrations, reports the Daily Nation of Nairobi, and Kenyans in major cities will watch the ceremony on giant screens.

Some days ago, the Nation reported that Obama's grandmother, Sarah, and seven other members of the Kogelo community would attend the inauguration in Washington.

In the U.S. capital, the Washington Post reported that although Obama had avoided calling direct attention to the "divisive" issue of race in his election campaign, he was now talking more about how someone of his race "can unify and transform" America. The Post quoted him as saying:

There is an entire generation that will grow up taking for granted that the highest office in the land is filled by an African American... I mean, that's a radical thing. It changes how black children look at themselves. It also changes how white children look at black children. And I wouldn't underestimate the force of that.

But African heads of state aren't getting a look in on the action in DC. South Africa's government news agency,  BuaNews reports that "American authorities... [have] advised governments across the world that no invitations will be issued to foreign delegations to attend the inauguration ceremony."

This has not stopped other American institutions from inviting individual Africans, and it hasn't stopped the Nigerian foreign minister, Chief Ojo Maduekwe, from heading a delegation to Washington, reports Constance Ikokwu of ThisDay.

She said that as part of a strategic move by the Nigerian government, the delegation would attend high-level meetings with policy and decision makers, and the Nigerian Embassy would host a symposium to discuss Africa's place in the new administration.

Already in Washington, South Africa's Desmond Tutu wowed Ari Berman, a writer for the American liberal-left journal, The Nation. Berman reported that Tutu preached at a service organized by the Congressional Black Caucus in Washington's historic Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church. Berman wrote that Tutu likened Obama's election to that of Nelson Mandela, uttering in his speech what Berman called "the line of the day":

Isn't it awesome that the inauguration of the first African-American president of the United States of America should happen a day after Martin Luther King Day... Hey, is this for real? Is tomorrow for real? No, no, no, no, it can't be true! A black man, president of the United States, in the White House?!

The Washington Post gave a taste of the symbolic importance of the step for African Americans, in a report on the significance of a bus ride to Washington from Selma, Alabama, the city where peaceful marchers were brutally beaten in 1965 when they tried to march to the state capital as part of their campaign to win voting rights for African Americans.

In the African press, Philip Ugbodaga evoked the era in a piece on King Day for Vanguard newspaper of Lagos.

But much of the coverage of Obama's inauguration dealt with its policy implications for Africa. At the beginning of this interview former Nigerian foreign minister Professor Bolaji Akinyemi tells Vanguard that right now the U.S. and Nigeria face very similar problems, and Obama's solutions will be the kind of solutions that Africa also needs.

Across the continent, Rwanda's New Times is cautious about Obamamania, pointing out in editorial comment that "the man is first and foremost an American," and that "before we... look up to the USA for addressing our ills, how far can we go in terms of crafting homegrown solutions?"

But ThisDay probably reflects the prevailing mood of the African press when it editorializes:

The new American president deserves to be given the benefit of the doubt as he takes over the toughest, albeit, most influential office in the world. We urge him to do his best to make the world a more peaceful place even as we wish him well.

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