The exclamatory commentary that has accompanied Barack Obama’s ascendancy to the nomination of the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate has excited, beneath it, the question of what the nomination itself, and a possible Obama presidency, might mean for the Pan-Africanist world as well as the Third World. While much of the commentary has been laudatory, there have also been cautionary tones, not to mention ambivalent ones. Beyond the excitement, caution and ambivalence of what a possible Obama presidency might entail for Pan-Africa and the Third World, what Obama himself has said in his writing, and has not said, might prove to be revelatory in attempting to explore the discussion that has exercised many minds around the world. We take this exploration by examining some of the issues that have been raised by editorialists and columnists, bloggers and other commentators in Africa and beyond. We also delve into what Obama himself has said in his two best-belling books, as we ponder how the significance of a possible Obama presidency may be realized more in the symbolic transformation of perceptions of race, racism and racial identity in the US and in the world, than in what the office of the US presidency itself is capable or incapable of achieving.
First, a word about my use of the terms “Pan-Africa” and “Pan-Africanism.” The Pan-Africa I am referring to here is the one that builds on the ideological consciousness of the global historical experiences and identities of people of African descent, and others who share that ideology for political and solidarity purposes. It is a Pan-Africanist consciousness that draws from DuBois’s hope, back in 1897, that if Africans were to be a factor in the history of the world, it would have to be through a Pan-African movement. Thus when Ghana became independent from Britain in 1957, Du Bois, unable to attend the epochal occasion due to his passport being impounded by the US government, handed over the mantle of the Pan-Africanist movement to Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah, through a letter that he wrote and had delivered to Nkrumah.
The 1966 military coup that overthrew Nkrumah as Ghana’s president dealt a big blow to a Pan-Africanist movement that had achieved a great deal for people of African descent, especially in Africa. The shared African identity and global consciousness spawned by Pan-Africanist ideology played a key role in mobilizing support amongst African and Third World regions in overthrowing colonialism. In the United States, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King both looked up to the Pan-African world for solidarity in overcoming American racism. With Nkrumah gone, the ideals of Pan-Africanism began atrophying, to the extent that in the 21st century today there is no discernible movement that concerns itself with the problems that afflict Africa and people of African descent around the world. But there is no question that such a movement is as necessary today as it was in the 1950s and 60s.
In his autobiography Dreams From My Father, Barack Obama has demonstrated his awareness of both a Pan-Africanist and Third World consciousness, but for the nationalist demands of American politics today, he has not made that awareness a part of his campaign platform. But those who know Obama’s autobiographical instincts in guiding his best judgments know that his upbringing and struggle to identify himself are a core part of who he is. And it is his autobiographical narrative that has appealed to people around the globe. Thus while heeding the call to be cautious in speculating what a possible Obama presidency might do for the Pan-African world, it is worth discussing the extent to which Obama’s narrative in itself has the potential to influence new visions and energies in the study of the Pan-African world and its future prospects. Those energies have been on display in many places around the world, not least in Kenya, where Obama’s father came from.
A June 5th editorial in The Daily Nation of Kenya, where Obama’s father, a Harvard Ph.D., hailed from, offered three reasons as to why Africans were celebrating Obama’s victory. The first reason had to do with Obama being “the first African American ever to win nomination to vie for the presidency of the world’s sole super-power.” Second, Obama was considered “a son of Africa” who has excelled in the world. And thirdly, Obama was “a son of Kenya,” since Obama traced “his roots” back to his fatherland, Kenya, in “the present-day Siaya District.” The three reasons culminated into one huge hope: Africans were hopeful that “with this win, ‘their son’ will implement Africa-friendly policies that could uplift the continent from poverty.”
In the June 8th edition of The Sunday Times of Rwanda, columnist Frank Kagabo also reflected Obama’s blood connection to Africa, observing that Obama had “relatives living in third world poverty,” a fact which would help African people feel “good and know that nothing is impossible no matter where you come from.” In the Malawian parliament, The Daily Times quoted opposition Malawi Congress Party member of parliament Boniface Kadzamira as congratulating Senator Obama, paraphrasing the parliamentarian as saying Malawi was “likely to benefit if he wins the presidential election this August” [sic]. Hon. Kadzamira was also quoted offering a snippet of how Obama’s foreign policy might look like “He says he is likely to move away from the policies of sanctions, which has hurt countries like Zimbabwe, to negotiation. He says he will have tough aid conditions and will move away from the weapons of mass destruction to mass reconstruction”.
The Harvard University-based blog aggregating project, Global Voices Online, housed in the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, has been culling blog commentary on the American elections from outside the United States, on a website called Voices Without Votes. Amongst the blogs the website is aggregating is The World Wants Obama Coalition, from where a link to the Caribbean World News announced a news item titled “Caribbean United Behind Obama”. Another linked blog, Globamania, sported the self-description, “Because the world believes in real change, too.” A round up of Kenyan bloggers by Global Voices author Rebecca Wanjiku was titled “Kenyan bloggers on Kenya’s most famous son, Barack Obama”.
But even amidst the hopes, adulations and expectations for what a “son of Africa” in the American White House could do for the continent, there have also been voices cautioning the hyped praise, and posing some searching questions. The Daily Nation’s editorial mentioned above asked: “But what is there for Africa in the American elections?” It went further still, asking: would Obama manage to “overcome the strong lobby groups that control American foreign policy and that have very little time for Africa?” More unflattering commentary came from Rasna Warah, writing in the June 9th edition of The Daily Nation, who wielded a sharp knife over the blood ties everyone was happy to evoke. Warah’s title was upfront and blunt: “We cannot lay claims on Obama; he’s not one of us”. Warah went on to state: “What everyone seems to be forgetting is that Barack Obama is an American, not a Kenyan. His roots may lie in Kenya, but he was born and raised in the United States, and his loyalty lies with that nation, not with ours.”
As evidence for her argument, Warah cited Obama’s own words spoken when he visited Kenya as a United States Senator, in August of 2006. She quoted Obama as saying: “As a US Senator, my country and other nations have an obligation and self-interest in being full partners with Kenya and Africa. And I will do my part to shape an intelligent foreign policy that promotes peace and prosperity.” As for Obama’s autobiography Dreams From my Father, which Obama wrote after returning from Kenya and going to Harvard Law School, Warah suggested that “curiosity about his roots” was the real reason Obama visited his fatherland for the first time ever, in the summer of 1988. It was “not deep love for this country,” said Warah.
By far the most authoritative statement of caution if not negation came from Dr. Makau Mutua, Dean and University Distinguished Professor of Law at State University of New York at Buffalo, and chair of the Kenyan Human Rights Commission. Writing in the Daily Nation of June 5th, Dr. Mutua started out by quipping that the reaction to Obama’s clinching of the Democratic nomination was as if Obama was “poised to become” the president of Kenya, or indeed Africa. The reasons, Dr. Mutua said, were three-fold: “national, racial, and ethnic pride that a black man can become ‘king’ of the empire.” Dr. Mutua then set out to demolish the expectations edifice by pointing out “the nature of the US as a state, and the character of the American presidency” as the reasons why he was urging caution to the hype of what Obama would do for the continent. Dr. Mutua contrasted between the way Africans and Americans see the office of the president as being responsible for the mounting expectations on Obama. “Africans think of presidents as omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent”, wrote Dr. Mutua, saying that in Africa that perception gave the president enormous powers which ultimately determined what citizens could gain or lose. It was what created what Dr. Mutua called “tribal barons.” Not so with American politics, in which “the American presidency is a highly circumscribed office that is subject to larger national interests on which there is consensus about the purpose of government.”
What would prevent a President Obama from being helpful to Africa then were the two core functions of the American presidency: to “develop and implement a foreign policy to enhance US interests and pursue a domestic policy that will bring economic prosperity to the nation.” It was in the service of those two functions that America’s role in the world had been historically shaped, and continued to be, limiting the scope of what an individual president could do, even as he or she brought his or her personality and individuality to what is considered the most powerful leadership position in the world. Here Dr. Mutua went deeper than anybody has been daring to, to expose America as an empire whose wealth and might have been built on a foundation that has dialectically entailed the exploitation and destruction of Africa. “Why am I pessimistic about the prospects of an Obama presidency for Africa?” asked Dr. Mutua. The answer, he offered, lay in Africa’s “structurally racist and exploitative relationship with Africa. In slavery – the brutal capture, transportation, sale and exploitation of Africans to build America – and the support by the United States of Cold War despots in Africa, lies the destructive relationship between black people and America.”
As an analytical insight, Dr. Mutua’s explanation went to the heart of a historical truth that has largely been avoided by most commentators, including Obama’s own positioning of himself vis-a-viz his identity. “It is partly because of these traumas,” explained Dr. Mutua, “that Africa is so underdeveloped and marginalised in global politics. That is why to America Africa has either been an afterthought or an object of pity and charity. It would require an ideological shift by the US to change its relationship with Africa to base it on equality, fair trade and investment, and a voice for Africans in global institutions.” As such, no individual American president can achieve the kind of paradigm shift that would turn around America’s image of Africa: “These are not steps that a president can take alone because they affect fundamental American interests, and would call for a realignment of US foreign policy so that it is not simply Eurocentric.”
Dr. Mutua’s realistic analysis of what the American presidency looks like and how its foreign and domestic policy mandates shape the scope and limits of what the American presidency can achieve points to an important distinction that has to be made between the president as an individual and the president as an institution. As an individual, we only have to hark back to Obama’s autobiography, Dreams From My Father. As I pointed out in my recent blog article on Obama, the personal importance of Africa to Barack Obama is not only evident in the book, it is profound to Obama’s own identity. The way Obama treats Kenya in Dreams From My Father leaves us in no doubt about this. In the book, Obama takes 450 pages to offer an intimate look into his life, from early days in Hawaii, Indonesia, Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago, to an epochal homecoming in Kenya. The amount of detail Obama dedicates to his life in the United States and Indonesia, where he lived all his life hitherto, contrasts sharply with the one third of the book that he devotes to Kenya, where he only spent three months. His days at Harvard Law School are given a mere two sentences (p. 437).
Contrary to Rasna Warah’s suggestion that Obama went to Kenya more out of curiosity than love of the country, the answer to Obama’s deep search for identity is finally consummated and revealed in Kenya, right from the moment he steps foot on the soil. It is worth reproducing, again, the paragraph that puts Obama’s quest for identity to rest, when somebody recognizes his name in an instant:
“That had never happened before, I realized; not in Hawaii, not in Indonesia, not in L.A., or New York or Chicago. For the first time in my life, I felt the comfort, the firmness of identity that a name might provide, how it could carry an entire history in other people’s memories, so that they might nod and say knowingly, ‘Oh, you are so and so’s son.’ No one here in Kenya would ask how to spell my name, or mangle it with an unfamiliar tongue. My name belonged and so I belonged, drawn into a web of relationships, alliances and grudges that I did not yet understand” (p. 305).
However the reasons for caution in imagining what an Obama presidency may do for Africa and the Third World are equally sobering. By the time we get to the US senate and to his next book, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream (2006), Africa has pretty much disappeared from Obama’s narrative, replaced by distant references that characterize much of mainstream Western attitudes about Africa. Missing even from the Index, Africa is mentioned only perfunctorily, no longer as the place Obama spent a lifetime yearning for, but rather as the known poster child for the world’s worst maladies and disorder. “There are times when considering the plight of Africa—the millions racked by AIDS, the constant droughts and famines, the dictatorships, the pervasive corruption, the brutality of twelve-year-old guerillas who know nothing but war wielding machetes or AK-47s—I find myself plunged into cynicism and despair” (p. 319). But Obama is also aware of the progress Africa has made, citing Uganda’s success with the AIDS pandemic, and the end of civil war in countries like Mozambique. He observes that “there are positive trends in Africa often hidden in the news of despair, while at the same time clinging to an Afropessimism that warns: “We should not expect to help Africa if Africa ultimately proves unwilling to help itself” (ibid.).
Obama is also able to go beyond the average politician in his candidness about the ravages brought on Indonesia and other parts of the world by the ideological juggernaut of US foreign policy. In a chapter titled “The World Beyond Our Borders,” Obama dwells on how Indonesians find it puzzling that “most Americans can’t locate Indonesia on a map,” given the role that US foreign policy has played in the fate of Indonesia “for the past 60 years” (p. 272). Providing a brief historical account of this role, Obama describes how the CIA provided “covert support to various insurgencies inside Indonesia, and cultivated close links with Indonesia’s military officers, many of whom had been trained in the United States” (p. 273). The military then went ahead and “began a massive purge of communists and their sympathizers,” leading somewhere between 500,000 and one million deaths, “with 750,000 others imprisoned or forced into exile” (ibid.).
Obama’s candor continues throughout the chapter, noting that “our record is mixed—not just in Indonesia but across the world” (p. 280). He calls American foreign policy “a jumble of warring impulses,” at times farsighted and serving the mutual interests of both the United States and other nations, and at other times making “for a more dangerous world” (ibid.). His take on Iran ought to be enlightening in light of the current saber-rattling and familiar drum beat toward another a possible military strike: “Occasionally, U.S. covert operations would engineer the removal of democratically elected leaders in countries like—with seismic repercussions that haunt us to this day” (p. 286). Yet Obama is no dogmatic ideologue, finding himself “in the curious position of defending aspects of Reagan’s worldview” in debates with friends on the left. He charges that progressives were eager to indict US complicity in the brutalities that took place in Chile, yet were less so in criticizing oppression in the communist bloc. Nor was he persuaded that US corporations and global trade “were single-handedly responsible for poverty around the world; nobody forced corrupt leaders in Third World countries to steal from their people” (p. 289).
Needless to say, such candor is as rare amongst US politicians as is knowledge of what US foreign policy has been up to around the world, in the general populace, according to several writers and thinkers, including John Perkins, Gore Vidal, Noam Chomsky, Carl Mirra, Stephen Hiatt, amongst others. Many of these thinkers have also pointed out how while some Third World leaders are indeed corrupt, Western multinational corporations, backed by a deliberate, strategic foreign policy, create the very infrastructure that facilitates the corruption, and are actually corrupt themselves. According to Perkins, Hiatt, Patrick Bond, John Christiansen, Amit Basole, Leonce Ndikumana, James Boyce, among others, this is done through debt ensnaring, off-shore tax havens, trade mispricing, and dubious advice from the IMF and the World Bank, whose complicity with foreign policy and multinational corporate interests has led to trillions of dollars being emptied out of Third World countries and poured into Western economies. This is the corruption and the looting of the Third World that has best been captured by John Perkins’ term “corporatocracy” in his 2004 book Confessions of an Economic Hitman. Stephen Hiatt’s 2007 edited collection of essays, A Game As Old As Empire shows how pervasive the nexus of economic hitmen has become, and how closely aligned the system is between foreign policy and corporate interests.
In the final analysis, the significance of an Obama presidency for Pan-Africa and the Third World will lie less in what Barack Obama may or may not be able to do for people of African descent than in the symbolic message that his ascendancy to the most powerful office in the world will do in changing black people’s perceptions of who they are in the world, and how others view them. That has been the underlying, implicit cause of the renewed hope in what has been said by the Kenyans, the Malawians, the South Africans, the Nigerians, Caribbean commentators, and in fact every one else around the world who has joined in the celebration. While the office of the US presidency may limit Obama’s actual impact on Pan-Africa and the Third World, as Dr. Mutua warns, the symbolic importance of the achievement is what has the potential to go much further in offering a paradigm shift in the self-perception of a people whose destiny, according to Frantz Fanon, represents the possibility to refashion a new vision for the world, one beyond the limits set by European rationality and the consequences, both good and bad, that the Third World has reaped there from.
For that to happen, Obama’s own notion of what race and racism still mean in today’s America and how some minorities are overcoming it could shine some light on the path this transformation might take. Obama devotes a chapter in The Audacity of Hope to the topic of race, in which he offers both a stinging and sensitive portrayal of the bane of America’s ethnic identity, as well as the prospects of what can be achieved in breaking down racial barriers. Obama’s philosophy of race indict residual and institutional racism, but also celebrate white people and black people alike who are able to overcome the vice and chart a new path for society. Those lessons ought to apply not only to America, but to the rest of the world as well, in the apt description of the global face of Obama’s extended family as a miniature portrait of the world:
“As the child of a black man and a white woman, someone who was born in the racial melting pot of Hawaii, with a sister who’s half Indonesian but who’s usually mistaken for Mexican or Puerto Rican, and a brother-in-law and a niece of Chinese descent, with some blood relatives who resemble Margaret Thatcher and others who could pass for Bernie Mac, so that family get-togethers over Christmas take on the appearance of a UN General Assembly meeting, I’ve never had the option of restricting my loyalties on the basis of race, or measuring my worth on the basis of tribe” (p. 231).
Labels: africa, Barack Obama, Dreams from my Father, Makau Mutua, pan-africanism, Rasna Wara, The Audacity of Hope, Third World