Why Africa should not ask anything more of Obama

Wednesday November 5 2008



Two weeks ago, we were walking through the Sarit Centre when we saw a tableful of (now) US president-elect Barack Obama badges.

We stopped and asked how come Obama buttons were being sold there, knowing that it was against US law for foreigners to contribute to its campaigns.

The young lady at the table told us it wasn’t to raise money for Obama, but for a Kenyan children’s charity — and they were selling fast. Our youngest daughter got one.

On Wednesday morning, I got up very early to watch the inevitable on CNN — an Obama victory. Later, my Obama badge-owning daughter came down for breakfast and found me waiting to do the morning school ride. She was wearing the button on her sweater.

She asked me who had won. I told her victory was Obama’s. She jumped in excitement and ran around the breakfast table.

It was 6.30am, not an hour when we do celebratory somersaults. She wasn’t alone. In many parts of the world, as in the US itself, millions of people were soon celebrating the victory.

I asked her about the Obama button. Many children at her school, she said, had an Obama button and it was a day when very many would be showing up with them.

Why is Obama’s victory important apart from the “ethnic” affiliation we might feel that, because his father was a Kenyan, he is one of us? Will Obama’s victory put ugali on our tables? many people have asked. To which the definitive answer has to be “No”.

A Ugandan friend finally nailed it down for me. “Obama doesn’t owe Africa anything, and even if he had ugali to give, he shouldn’t,” he said.

“He has already given us the best thing he can — inspiration. It is the only thing that can endure for Africa from his historic victory”. So, he argued, Africa should not ask anything more of Obama. He has already given her continent more than there is to give.

I read hundreds of articles and news stories about the US election and Obama. One of them stands out the most. It was an October 21 article in the Daily Mail (of London) by the maverick Conservative mayor of London, Boris Johnson, who endorsed Obama.

“If Obama wins, then black people the world over will be able to see how a gifted man has been able to smash through the ultimate glass ceiling,” he wrote.

“If Obama wins, then it will be simply fatuous to claim that there are no black role models in politics or government, because there is no higher role model than the President of the United States.

“If Barack Hussein Obama is successful next month, then we could even see the beginning of the end of race-based politics, with all the grievance-culture and special interest groups and political correctness that come with it.

“If Obama wins then he will have established that being black is as relevant to your ability to do a hard job as being left-handed or ginger-haired…”

I loved it so much because it spoke to the hopes that an Obama victory brings, but also the responsibility it places on us. Africa is a tough place and will still need a lot of work to fix it.

Now the easy prop we used to have, of blaming our individual and collective failures on white racism, has been chiselled away.

Similar sentiments came from the words of a senior executive at Nation Media Group more than a month back. One gloomy evening, the newsroom floor was quiet when he came to my desk.

The Nation Media Group was working on sending a team of journalists to cover the US elections. We discussed why Obama, even if he didn’t move on to win the presidency, was important.

We speculated about the “big” but, at the end of the day, obscure issues: The possibilities of strategic realignment between the US and Africa, and whether a President Obama might enable America to get a better footing on the continent in the race against growing Chinese influence.

We wondered how the politics of aid might play out, with Africa losing the ability to play the “Western guilt” card against a US administration led by an African-American.

Also the disappointments that waited the Africans who expected special treatment from a black president, when they find out that, at the end of the day, he is, and will always remain, an American leader whose primary business is to take care of his people first.

He got up to leave, turned back and said: “All these things we’re talking about are really not important for me. All he has to do is win this for our children. He’s almost the last man left standing who, by his example, will teach our children that they can be anything they want to be.”

Wednesday, November 5, 2008 must have been a very good day for the children at our daughter’s very multicultural school — and for millions other young people like them in the world.