The Election of America’s first African American President: What is there in it for Africa?

Fekade Shewakena, 14 November 2008 — Watching Barrack Obama’s election from the beginning of the campaign to the victory celebrations was like watching an epic Shakespearian movie. The death of his grandmother two days before the victory celebration appears like a plot that only Shakespeare can come up with. Whether you were aware of it or not, you have been sitting at the front row watching history live as it was being made. If you have not shed some tears of joy or have never felt the overwhelming weight of history when watching America elect its first black president, and seeing the tearful celebrations unfold on television, it is possible that some piece of your humanity has lost you or you have no idea what this means in history.

I admit that I did drop some tears of joy. I couldn’t help but cry as I watched people who were crying in joy and seeing some people sobbing with subdued and somber feeling of the breadth of history they seem to have difficulty putting their arms around. It was a long distance from Jim Crow to this beautiful new day. I was flipping between channels to see a glimpse of how people reacted on election night. I saw many, black, brown and white Americans shading tears of joy and a sea of humanity of multiethnic Americans jumping up and down in frenzy at Grant Park in Chicago and all over America. I saw the spontaneous celebrations on the streets of Washington DC where people of hundreds of different ethnicity sang and danced to the blaring multiethnic music, where complete strangers were hugging and kissing and high-fiving each other and others singing and shouting around the White House. That awesome scene contrasted in my mind with the May 15, 2005 of Ethiopia, where Meles Zenawi declared emergency and sent out his army to stop the celebration of the first ever genuinely contested sweeping victory of his opposition and subsequently crushed it by force before it meant anything – a flashback you hate to have at that moment.

It was one of those moments we say of “only in America”. I am not sure the often sanctimonious Europeans are anywhere near electing a none-white leader. Once again, America has shown that it is more than a piece of real estate on the planet and that it is a place defined more by its ideals than anything else. You can say anything of America’s shortcomings, and I know there are many to list, but it will be hard to watch this moment in history and deny that it is a wonderful country. It is this ideal that those of us who live under dictatorships and human misery, particularly those of us in Africa, always want to spill over to us more than the financial aid which often ends up helping our dictators buy the bullets they spray us with. It is a wonderful exhibition of the fact that people who live in freedom and democracy have the capacity to do things that seem unthinkable. I sometimes wonder why we are even surprised that they were able to send a human being to the moon. Freedom and democracy do wonders.

Congratulations to the many Ethiopian Americans who, in small and big ways, have worked your butts off to help Barrack Obama elected. You were sitting at the driver’s seat of history and should be proud of that. You have also earned the right to have your people’s voices heard a little louder in the White house. But don’t fold your tents yet. There is a lot more work to do.

Now that the celebration is over, and reality begins to sink in, the question is what do we in Africa expect from the first American president who has origins in the continent of Africa? First, we have to understand that President Obama is burdened with huge expectations of solving huge problems both in the US and globally. In fact, I see one of the first things he may be forced to do is manage these big expectations.

So we must understand that there is a practical and non-practical thing to expect as regards Africa. It will be naïve to expect that Africa’s problems will be his priority simply because he is African American. We can be sure that he is completely predisposed to do good to Africa. But the truth is there a limit to what he can and cannot do, which means that he needs help. It is important to understand that the amount of change he can bring to Africa is strongly dependent on the amount of help he can get from progressive Africans who want change in Africa. Those of us who are in the United States have a huge role in this. We also have to be convinced that the help we will be seeking would be meaningful if it comes in the form of a hand rather than a handout. Africa needs a significant policy shift more than money from the United States. But Africans who need change should ask a little more of ourselves than we even ask of Obama. We have to work harder and in a more organized manner. After all, Africa’s problems can only be solved by the people of Africa themselves.

The point of departure to develop a prudent Africa policy for president Obama is to realize that Africa’s problems are predominantly man made. It is not difficult to see that Africa’s monstrous leaders have dug deep hellholes of their countries and many are still digging. Those who follow Africa also know that some of this hellhole digging has been made while the West was looking the other way or, in many cases, with the West’s direct help in the digging.

I believe Obama understands that Africa is the most perilous of all parts of the planet that he often says is in peril. Poverty, war, hunger, famine, cruel dictatorships, and environmental degradation plague Africa more than any other part of the globe. Some of the misery is perhaps more visible in some parts of Africa where we hear a louder bang as in Darfur, Somalia, Ethiopia, Congo, Zimbabwe, but many are suffering silently. There may be bright spots in Africa among the very few who have chosen democracy. But they are the exception. Where we apparently see relative tranquility in many parts of Africa, it is where people are forced into total despair and have learnt to live with their pains.

The right place to begin to help Africa is to do a complete review of the failed, and in many cases, reckless African policies of past administrations. This change is long overdue and I don’t think it is big or revolutionary to expect of an Obama White House. There is a serious need for a bottom-up approach to the Africa Policy of the United States, rather than the top-down that we are accustomed to live with to date. I don’t think this is too much to ask and ask as early as possible. It is not too much to ask that Africans be viewed and afforded the same human dignity that civilized humanity takes for granted. President Obama will be making a huge mistake if he thinks throwing more funds at this problem will make any dent on Africa’s problems.

Yes it is understandable that all foreign policies of the United States are basically made with the national interest of the United States in mind. Obviously it is the primary concern of any US president including a president Obama. But it is possible to have an Africa policy that is beneficial to both the Unites States and the countries of Africa at the same time. There are many cases in Africa where the current US policies have served neither the interests of the United States nor that of the countries of Africa.

In my view there is no better place to begin a practical New Africa policy than the Horn of Arica. The Horn of Africa is burning as we speak because of a classic case of misguided policy and reckless handling. It is a typical case of a US involvement that has not helped the security interests of neither the United States nor the people in the region. Meles Zenawi is terrorizing his own people while latching himself to the United States for help. That he is terrorizing an entire nation of 80 million people is the biggest open secret but he is dubbed an ally of the US in the fight against terrorism. It is a sad farce and misnomer. As many credible human rights organizations have already said what Meles Zenawi has done to his people in the Ogaden region and to the poor people of Somalia may be a war crime of epic proportions.

After the war and mayhem in Somalia, we have now ended up with more, younger and fiercer extremists rising up in arms in Somalia. I am talking about the Al Shabhab and the pirates that have invaded the Indian Ocean. Millions of people in Somalia are living under trees and in crowded filthy makeshift camps fleeing the mayhem and suffering in a way that humanity should be ashamed of to watch. Nearly half the population of the country is now living on dust.

If only some cool heads have prevailed and some in Washington were willing to think on their feet and care for the consequences of a war on the poor people, this could have ended up differently. In my view the Islamic Courts, that were full of moderates, would have been negotiated into an agreement that even included handing over whatever terrorists may have been in their midst and Somalia, which has a history of secularism, would have been saved of the religious extremism that has engulfed it now. Even the useful moderates are now pushed to the extreme. Now that Meles Zenawi is on the verge of putting his tails between his legs and fleeing from Mogadishu, God knows what will follow. Thanks to the misguided policies, we now have to grapple with a more complicated problem. In Africa riding the anti-terrorism industry was a latch that helped these dictators and warlords as they terrorize their own people and the region. The first order of business in a Sane US Africa policy is therefore to wrench these dictators off of this latch that attached them to the United States.

Another important and no so difficult change for the US to make is to remove the second rate diplomats who have little knowledge of the regions they deal with. There is no lack of Americans who have studied the region and know the culture and politics of Africa and with compassion for human life. This will go a long way to dignify Afro American relations and benefit both. If I see another Jendayi Frazer or what was the name of that lady Ambassador in Addis Ababa, dealing with Africa anymore, I will see indications of another failed Africa policy.

So let’s begin with practical expectations and help Barrack Obama champion the cause of Africa and in the process help reclaim our pride and dignity.

As I already said this is not going to happen if we, the children of Africa, sit with folded hands and expect Barrack Obama deliver a miracle. It only means we need hard and organized work.

I see a flicker of hope shining on the horizons of Africa. Let’s work to make it shine all over.

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Posted by on November 14, 2008. Filed under VIEWS. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.