6 june ’08 (Daily Nation) Barack Obama’s nomination as the presidential candidate of a major political party in the US has caused a great deal of excitement in Africa. Nation correspondents ARGAW ASHINE in Ethiopia, ANGELO IZAMA in Uganda, CHRISTOPHER KIDANKA in Tanzania, and TONY ELUEMUNOR sample the reactions in a few countries. Africans clearly seem ecstatic and the American with Kenyan roots has a huge fan club. –Photos/Correspondent: Ethiopian opposition politician Birtukan Mideksa (centre),who says the Bush administration betrayed Ethiopians by backing the government of President Meles Zenawi.
Until he started making news as a possible contender for the US presidency, Barack Obama, who this week won the Democratic ticket in the White House race, was almost unknown in Ethiopia. Now, he has a huge fan club in the country, with one of his greatest fans being Ms Birtukan Mideksa, former deputy chair of Ethiopia’s opposition Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) party.
Mideksa, who was jailed by the government of Meles Zenawi for two years for “treason and inciting genocide” said that George W. Bush’s administration backed the Zenawi government despite its “betrayal of Ethiopia’s democratisation effort in 2005”.
Mideksa is inspired by Obama’s promise of change and hopes that, if Obama becomes president, the US will be more willing to nudge Mr Zenawi in a more liberal political direction.
“Senator Obama is an agent of change. I am sure he would restore basic civil rights, which many are being denied in the name of war on terror all over the world,” she said. “I am highly impressed by his determination, courage and wisdom. He is my role model and I have fallen in love with his philosophy of change.”
She said she hoped African leaders would learn from Obama how to win the hearts of their people and also respect their rivals instead of fomenting hatred and confrontation.
Meanwhile, Abreham Kumela, a young NGO worker, has been nicknamed “Obama” because of his strong support for the Illinois senator.
“He is not a politician; he advocates tolerance. He teaches us all how to effect change,” Kumela said, explaining his admiration for Obama.
He pointed out that, although Ethiopians at home will not vote in the American elections, he is campaigning among the thousands of Ethiopians in the US, who are also raising funds for Obama, to vote for Obama.
“Obama is bigger than just an politician with African roots; he is a symbol of tolerance and multiculturalism,” Kumela said.
Equally hopeful, but on for different reasons, was Dr Costentinos Berhe, former UN adviser to Nigeria. He believes that, if elected president, Obama might just solve the complex situation in the Horn of Africa.
“The war on terror should not just be a military project,” said Berhe. “It should also address the cultural, social and political changes in this part of the world. “I hope that, because of his African heritage, Senator Obama realises that this change is necessary.”
When Obama spent a day in Ethiopia during his African tour in 2006, many Ethiopians realised that he did not support the actions of the current Ethiopian regime. His support for the Bill accusing Ethiopia of having a poor human rights record and proposing serious sanctions, including aid cuts, helped strengthen that view.
Indeed, Dr Rewodros Kiros, an Ethiopian lecturer at Harvard University, US, argues that Obama’s victory might be disastrous for régimes like Ethiopia’s, which do not respect human rights.
Evne in Uganda, where the British Premier football league is a must-watch for many, Obama is as recognisable as the premiership superstars.
“I support Obama for ethnic reasons,” said a university lecturer. He is a black man doing something extraordinary.
In the capital, Kampala, Obama merchandise is highly visible, from locally made T-shirts bearing the senator’s picture and the words “Change you can believe in”, to bumper stickers.
Masaka town, 130 kilometres Kampala, has even named a road after the US Presidential candidate.
“Obama Boulevard”, though not a boulevard in the ordinary sense of the word, was the brainchild of a local businessman, Frank Gashumba, who together with his neighbours, decided to bestow the honour on the Illinois senator.
“Obama has shown us all that you can come from a humble background and give the entire world hope. He makes you proud [to be] black,” the businessman said.
Younger educated Ugandans have formed an Obama fan club. And their name, Ugandans for Obama, gives a notable ring to the senator’s meteoric rise in American politics. The founder, Bernard Sabiti, said he was inspired to form the group when he found people in a bar asking, “How is a Kenyan going to rule America?” The group mainly comprises university students with access to the Internet, where they campaign for him.
Another group, the Obama Support Group, says it admires Obama because of his oratorical skills and inspiration. Their aim is to lobby Ugandan-Americans as well as US citizens in Uganda to vote for Obama. Excitement about Obama’s candidature is also evident in neighbouring Tanzania, where many people view him as one of their own. After all, his father was a Luo from Kenya, but Luos are also found in Tanzania, some argue. The Obama-mania cuts across the different sectors of society, with many city commuter taxis now having the name “Obama” emblazoned on them.
As news of Obama’s victory in the Democratic party nomination spread in the Tanzanian capital, Dar es Salaam, a local fan, Ave-Maria given remarked: “At least America can have a president who is one of our own!”
Peter Tumaini-Mungu, a lecturer at the University of Dar es Salaam, gave a somewhat philosophical explanation for his support for Obama.
“Being a person of African origin might not be that important,” he said. “Obama’s policies towards Africa are ambitious, and he has a keen interest in the continent. That is something a person of any origin can have.”
The lecturer, who has attended several Obama campaign in the US, says Obama is a passionate and visionary whom the world needs to make it a better place.
“Obama articulates his policies in favour of the poor and the marginalised, something both Africa and Tanzania need,” he said.
And in West Africa, The Lagos State House of Assembly in Nigeria in April this year launched a website to popularise the Illinois senator and campaign for his White House bid.
During the launch, Lagos was turned into an “Obama state”, with taxis draped with banners bearing the senator’s pictures. Their Vote Obama Initiative website explains their stand thus: “Though without a voting right in the ongoing party primaries of the Democrats in the USA, like everybody around the world, we are very much involved because of the global implications the outcome of the elections would have on the world.
“We are particularly thrilled by Obama’s feat because, for the very first time in the history of the US, he has successfully broken the colour bar. We are even more thrilled that white voters can rally forcefully behind this charismatic black man in his quest to become the first black president in the most powerful nation on earth.
Like Martin Luther King Jr said, today he is no longer being judged by the colour of his skin, but by the content of his character, which has propelled him from near obscurity to international limelight.
In Barack Obama, the agitations of early black nationalists such as Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey and so many others found concrete expressions as he attains leverage in the political calculation of the US that would no longer ignore Afro-Americans and their electoral strength. To us, this is a feat worthy of celebration as the dawn of a new era.”
So potent is the Obama spell that a group of militant youths in Nigeria’s Niger Delta were taken in by the tricks of a creative-minded security agent who, left with no answer to the fire power of the militiamen, decided to send them a message they could not ignore. He simply sent an e-mail purportedly from Obama, in which he asked that the militants stop the war in the area.
Surprisingly, the militants agreed and announced to the world that Obama had been requested to observe a ceasefire by a person they could not defy!
World oil prices were just starting to fall when the real Obama denied that he was the one who asked for a ceasefire. The young men of Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta returned to their trenches immediately.
Obama also enjoys huge support in Ghana, where Godwin Yaw Agboka, a columnist, tried to explain his appeal thus: “Obama appears to have a magic wand that appeals to the youth, independents, and liberals. For the first tim, in many decades, the expectations among voters, are reaching boiling point — call it a crescendo. Voters seem to want things to change in Washington. Obama represents the change they want. Forget about the fact that he is black. Obama has transcended race. He talks about hope, and believes that ‘there is nothing false about hope’. He knows how to say the right things at the right time”.
With Obama now the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate, one can expect the African Initiative for Obama group to swing into action – selling posters, caps, and other merchandise, all to support him.
The group has affiliates across West Africa, and plans to spread throughout the continent.
On Tuesday, its chairman and continental coordinator, Elvis Agukwe, told Daily Nation in Abuja that in about a week, they will approach church leaders and Imams to ask their congregations to begin special prayers for God to guide Americans in their choice of president.
Beyond the buzz, however, Obama has clearly touched something profound among many Africans. As Patricia Jebbah Wesley, a Liberian poet, puts it, “It is a good thing that I am alive to see all of this, and it is a good thing that you are reading this ,and you too, are alive to record this for your children”.
Africa Insight is an initiative of the Nation Media Group’s Africa Media Network Project