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African Writing Archives


Barack Obama


 Caution in the Season of Obama

5th November, 2008 -

If Barack Obama died right after his stirring electoral victory (and may he long outlive his grandma) he would already have marked history indelibly and infected millions with his own brand of inspirational leadership. This is the peculiar genius of his achievement.




The fact was that his very election as the 44th President of the United States of America had already raised a more propitious banner over the future of his country than anything he may well do over the four years of his first tenure. By securing the lease of the White House so decisively, he punctuated a four-hundred-year-old history of colour and wrote one of the most inspirational chapters of the American story - and that in a language that reverberated across the world.

And yet, the auguries for further history-making are good. It is the conventional wisdom that presidents are made as much by circumstances as by the calibre of the man himself - it takes a war to make a war president after all. In that sense, on the economic front - for a start - Barack has inherited a global recession and a country bankrupted by a hungry and belligerent war machine; it is tantamount to an economic World War. On the political front, he arrives in a dangerous world, inherits disaffected allies, emboldened enemies and mildewed feuds; plus a tarnished American brand face-to-face with the biggest energy and environmental decisions that have ever faced an incumbent. All in all, he has all the raw material for a monumental presidency - for better or for worse.

Despite the canniness with which he has directed the sustained, prodigious effort of his campaign into the White House, it is by no means certain that the incubus of international capital and profligate debt will succumb to his peculiar dynamic of judgement and euphoric oratory. There are finite, real-world boundaries to the powers of persuasion. The theme of his stirring pre-election talk in Berlin for instance was that it was time to bring down walls: walls that separated the races and the haves from the have-nots... but in Israel there had to be a different approach to the new wall cutting up Palestine. The problem will be scripting a persuasive speech to Berliners, Israelis and Palestinians when they are gathered in one room. This is the challenge before an American President that would impact the world stage.

As his political opponents have discovered to their chagrin, the Obama package explodes more than mere oratorical cant, more than that matchless personal charisma that comes along once in a lifetime. A superior military power will gain overwhelming victories, just as surely as superior persuasive powers will win votes, but there is far more to victory than the military; far more to history than the electoral. In the end, the historical heritage of the man will depend on how much substantial justice he leaves behind after his skirmishes (and they will come). It will depend on his courage to demand from his electors sacrifices that dim his popularity, sacrifices that benefit a world rather than a nation, sacrifices whose full benefits will accrue to Americans forty, rather than four, years hence.

This is the irony of the President-Elect's position. He has won an election by minding the daily fluctuations of the thermometer of the opinion poll, a thermometer that monitors everything from the flag on the pin in his lapel to the church he attends on the Sunday. He faces a different contest now and his challenge (despite the hamstringing 2nd Term Bogey) is to move his pollsters from front office to basement. His challenge is to address history.

In short order, Obama, having won the ultimate politician's crown, now faces the statesman's test. In the past, small men have occupied, and diminished the stature both of his presidency and country. Few have arrived there with his youth and energy, or with his vision and mandate. Yet, does he have the mettle to risk his good press, his opinion poll ratings or his second term prospects? It would be a tragedy for him to flag now. Now, he has to believe his own message. In all the excitement over Obama, we must not ignore the real heroes of the past election: white America, and the Americas of the other teeming minorities that voted him in. In the euphoria of the event it is seductive to imagine that the outcome of the Obama juggernaut was inevitable. It was no such thing. Yet, it was always going to be an exceptional candidate - and message - that broke the colour bar. That amounts to a historic mandate for exceptional change.

From time to time, the mental health of the species requires that indefinable thrill that lifts men from depression and cynicism to inspirational action. This thrill is a journey we can make, while standing in one place. It is a journey we can accomplished vicariously by the mere fact of an election, a journey that has been made not just by people in possession of American passports, but by millions around the world who followed this election like no other election in American history. This is the inspirational journey that was complete on the 5th of November, 2008. On the 20th of January, 2009, as Obama is inaugurated, another one will begin, a more realistic, painful journey, as a newly minted president calls up from his people, payment for decades of debt, drift and more. Yet, that reality will not dilute the inspirational fillip charged to the hearts of the millions that have been roused in the wake of the ascendance of the man, Obama.

There are sections of the president-elect’s campaign speeches that must have made difficult listening for sections of the international community: Palestinians (listening to promises of an Israeli Jerusalem) and Pakistanis (listening to the assurance of further Taliban-seeking bombs) would by turns have felt as put out as the corporate behemoths that are now bracing themselves for Obama’s promised tax regimes. Yet, in the main, a touring President Obama can expect to be comprehensively mobbed by adoring crowds across the world.

On the African continent, Kenya leads the way, declaring a euphoric public holiday to celebrate the ascension to the American presidency of an ancestral Kenyan. In this testament to joy, they have outdone the country of the candidate’s profession. It is well to build the fund of goodwill, but Obama will be unable to fully right America’s balance sheet with Africa without incurring the resentment of his fellow citizens.

It is well for Kenya - and Africa - to celebrate today, but it is better to understand that history does not end today. African-Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans in the USA will understand that Obama’s election does not right the structural injustices in the political or economic society. Likewise the world political and economic order. Irrespective of the complexion of the 44th President of America, or the texture of his hair, what is relevant for Africa is that, come January 20th, a level head will come into tenancy at the Oval Office. Whatever his cosmetic appearance, he remains an American president; gifted with listening ears perhaps, but an American President notwithstanding. To begin to address the historical problems that confront the world, we need a crop of leaders and a host of versed voices, to rise from the vexed countries of the world and engage with a new face of America. Only then can the conversation begin. When that conversation does begin, one of the important issues on the table will be how to replace America's military search for global security with cheaper, more intelligent - and potentially successful - strategies.

In the meantime, we congratulate the awesome Barack Obama.

Chuma Nwokolo
African Writing


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