Africans drunk on Obama

Even if Senator Barack Obama had not been in the 2008 race, Africans would have displayed far greater support for the Democratic presidential candidate as the party is perceived to be minority friendly.

John Kennedy and Lyndon B Johnson, whose administrations supported civil rights in the face of widespread opposition, were Democrats; and Jimmy Carter, who, in the late 1970s, appointed the first African-American ambassador to the United Nations, Andrew Young, is also a Democrat. Bill Clinton, sometimes fondly called the first black president, is a Democrat.

If the Democratic Party has, over the decades, charmed both Africans and African-Americans, its nomination of Obama as the presidential flag-bearer over people such as former first lady Hillary Clinton has produced an electrifying effect in Africa. Even before the 47-year-old Illinois senator gained the number of delegates in the primary required to clinch the nomination, Obamamania had hit the continent.

In Nigeria T-shirts, teacups and cars with the inscription “Change we believe in” and the Obama logo have been ubiquitous. The local media mentions Republican candidate John McCain only when it is unavoidable.

So powerful has the Obama effect been that some Nigerian entrepreneurs raised, under the canopy of “Africa for Obama”, about a million dollars at a high-profile, if controversial dinner. The Obama campaign quickly dissociated itself from the fundraiser, prompting Nigeria’s anti-corruption agency to swoop on the organisers, led by the chief executive of the Nigerian Stock Exchange, Ndi Okereke-Onyiuke, an American-trained finance professor, who explained that the proceeds were meant to mobilise “Africans in the United States to vote for Obama because he is our brother”. It would have been a breach of American law if the money had been raised for the candidate or his campaign organisation directly.

Barring any dramatic development, Obama is likely to win big in the November 4 race, as erstwhile president Clinton predicted before the American economic meltdown, which has boosted the Democratic presidential candidate’s chances. A number of senior Republicans have publicly pledged to vote for Obama. Even old white folk who have been the bastion of McCain’s support are moving dramatically in the Obama direction, according to new polls. The question is now: who is not for Obama?

Africans may well be delirious at the prospect of victory for Obama, whose father was Kenyan and his mother from Kansas. This is understandable. Until the 1960s blacks were not allowed to vote in many southern states. Yet the same country looks set to elect an African-American to its most powerful office. The emotion can be overwhelming.

Africans need to reflect deeply on the significance of the Obama phenomenon. Could an Obama have emerged in Africa, considering our obsession with divisive primordial politics? Perhaps. Jerry Rawlings, whose father was Scottish and mother Ghanaian, was for many years Ghana’s president. This was probably because much of Ghana is traditionally matrilineal.

Much of Africa takes identity politics to absurd levels. Ex-Zambian president Frederick Chiluba withdrew the citizenship of his predecessor, Kenneth Kaunda, who, in 1964 led the country to independence. The reason was that Kaunda’s parents migrated from Malawi. The fact that the erstwhile president was born in Zambia and that he owed allegiance only to this nation failed to impress Chiluba, who was trying to get rid of his political nemesis.

In Côte d’Ivoire a similar scenario was to play out. President Laurent Gbagbo was sufficiently rattled by the looming image of his rival, Hassan Quattara, as the presidential election approached. To declare Quattara, who was the Ivorian premier under Félix Houphouët-Boigny, a foreigner because of the claim that his parents migrated from neighbouring Burkina Faso, even though he admits the former prime minister was born in Côte d’Ivoire. To validate his action, Gbagbo propounded the divisive ideology called “ivorite”. The result: a war between the southern and northern sections of a country, which for decades had enjoyed a reputation of West Africa’s oasis of prosperity and stability.

Both Chiluba and Gbagbo followed the footsteps of Nigeria’s erstwhile president Shehu Shagari, who in 1980 deported the majority leader in the Borno State legislature, controlled by an opposition party, to Chad saying that’s where his parents had come.

Much as Africans are inebriated by the idea of an Obama triumph, the greater challenge is to think profoundly about the lesson of this fascinating episode in American history. We need a new direction in politics far more than the Americans do.

C Don Adinuba is a Nigerian writer, journalist and public affairs consultant



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