As Barack Obama, the first African-American president, was preparing to send more troops to wage war in Afghanistan, word came last week that he had won the Nobel Peace Prize.
Obama — in office for barely nine months — seemed to admit, himself, that the prize was awarded to him more for aspirational rhetoric than for concrete accomplishments.
He has encouraged Africa to pursue democratic governance in Ghana; sought a nuclear-free world at the United Nations; promoted peaceful coexistence between the West and the Arab world in Egypt; pushed for peace between Israelis and Palestinians; and sought to ensure that the United States is a force for good in the world.
But despite a clear change of style from the swaggering belligerence of his predecessor, George W Bush, there has been continued scepticism about a change in the substance of Pax Americana: alleged terrorists continue to be targeted for assassination in Somalia and innocent civilians are still being killed by American air strikes in Afghanistan.
Before assuming the presidency Obama expressed a desire not to be constrained by the UN Security Council in cases in which Washington felt that its vital interests were at stake. The jury is, therefore, still out on whether Obama can live up to the ideals of the Nobel Peace Prize.
To understand the significance of this award, it must be placed in the context of the 10 individuals of African descent who won the prize before Obama, whose own father was Kenyan. Two African-Americans have won the Nobel Peace Prize before Obama.
Ralph Bunche, an African-American ‘scholar-diplomatâ€ with a doctorate from Harvard, was the first black person to win the prize in 1950. A founding director of the UN’s Trusteeship Council, which pushed for decolonisation in Africa, his skilful mediation in the Middle East won him the Nobel prize.
Bunche served the UN for another two decades, contributing to peacemaking efforts in Suez and the Congo. He marched with Martin Luther King Jnr during the US civil rights struggle of the 1950s.
King himself — a disciple of Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violence methods — was the youngest winner of the prize at 35 in 1964. The Baptist preacher was the most eloquent ‘prophet of the civil rights movementâ€, with his mythical status secured by his martyrdom four years later.
Four South Africans have won the award.The president of the African National Congress (ANC), a traditional chief and former lay preacher, Albert Luthuli — ‘the Black Mosesâ€ and author of Let My People Go — was the first African peace laureate in 1960.
Coming shortly after the Sharpeville massacre, the prize was an attempt to highlight the brutalities of apartheid. In 1984 another ‘troublesome priestâ€, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, won the prize.
Like Luthuli, Tutu used the Nobel platform in Norway to protest against the repression of the racist government in Pretoria.
Nelson Mandela, another ANC chieftain and ‘avuncular saintâ€, emerged from 27 years in jail preaching reconciliation with his former enemies. Mandela became one of the 20th century’s greatest moral leaders, using his charisma to transform a former pariah state into a respectable member of international society.
Apartheid’s last leader, FW de Klerk, was a ‘pragmatic peacemakerâ€ who controversially shared the Nobel prize with Mandela in 1993. De Klerk had worked hard to keep black students out of white universities as late as the 1980s and he was a stalwart of the apartheid albinocracy, though he deserves some credit for his role in South Africa’s democratic transition.
Two non-South African black Africans have won the prize.
Ghana’s Kofi Annan served as UN secretary general between 1997 and 2006 and was crowned Nobel laureate in 2001. During his 10-year tenure, Annan courageously, but perhaps naively, acted as a ‘secular popeâ€ in championing the cause of ‘humanitarian interventionâ€.
Kenyan environmental campaigner and ‘Earth motherâ€, Wangari Maathai, became the first African woman to be awarded the prize in 2004. (Only 12 of the 116 winners have been women.)
Maathai was the first woman in East Africa to obtain a doctorate and from 1977 led the Green Belt Movement to plant 30-million trees across Africa. She also fought consistently for women’s and human rights.
The final two African Nobel peace laureates are distinguished Egyptians. The ‘peaceful pharaohâ€, president Anwar Sadat, shared the prize with his Israeli counterpart, Menachem Begin, in 1978.
Sadat’s mother was the daughter of a black African slave and he remained true to his peasant values. His historic trip to Jerusalem in 1977 led to his assassination four years later, but in the true spirit of a villager, he had seen it as important to break bread with the enemy and talk.
Sadat paradoxically had gone to war with Israel in 1973 to strengthen his hand in making peace. Egypt’s second laureate in 2005 was Mohamed ElBaradei, the ‘rocket manâ€, who has headed the International Atomic Energy Agency since 1997.
A career diplomat and UN official with a doctorate from New York University, ElBaradei has consistently called for the peaceful use of atomic energy and a nuclear-free world, worrying incessantly about nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorist groups. He famously stood up to bullying by Washington over Iraq’s nonexistent nuclear weapons.
Barack Obama thus follows in the footsteps of these 10 illustrious laureates of African descent. His own achievements will be measured by how he builds on the legacy of those who came before him: from the civil rights struggle of Bunche and King to the anti-apartheid struggle of Luthuli, Tutu and Mandela; from the peacemaking of Sadat and Annan to Maathai’s environmental activism and ElBaradei’s nuclear disarmament.
None of Obama’s 10 Nobel African ancestors was in a powerful enough position to secure world peace. The young Afro-Saxon president of the most powerful nation on Earth is the first peace laureate of African descent who has a chance to leave an indelible mark on the world.
Mahatma Gandhi — who scandalously never won the Nobel Peace Prize — noted in 1936 that it was ‘maybe through the Negroes that the unadulterated message of non-violence will be delivered to the worldâ€. With Obama’s win, perhaps this prophesy can now be fulfilled.
Dr Adekeye Adebajo is executive director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution in Cape Town