Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Obama & Africa

Barack Obama was put over the top today, in terms of electoral votes, and is now the anointed Democratic candidate in the race for the US Presidency. He is the first African-American presidential candidate in history, having defeated Hilary Clinton who was aiming to become the first female candidate. Obama holds dual US-Kenyan citizenship, which some feel could make him the ideal candidate for advancing an African agenda. Reality is never quote so simple though, we are talking about who gets to live in the White House after all.

We do know this; Obama was born to an American mother and a Kenyan father while they were both students at the University of Hawaii. He has spoken out against corruption on the continent (although his first cousin, Raila Odinga of Kenya, hasn't been doing him any favours). He is not a Muslim as portayed by the rightwing and seems to have a secular view of spiritual life. Although his foreign policy experience is very thin, having only served 4 years in the Senate, he has demonstrated a workmanlike grasp of issues. That he is a charismatic and gifted orator has also been well documented, bringing some flattering comparisons to Martin Luther King. His best seller, "The Audacity of Hope", gave more insight into his interracial experiences than policy thinking for a new America.

Perhaps Obama's greatest gift is that he has not yet been tainted by the political establishment. By far the youngest candidate for generations, he effortlessly connects with elusive young voters; both in the manner that he campaigns and on the issues he addresses. Unfortunately for him America does not just consist of young, urbanized minorities and therein lies the rub. He will have to convince an entire middle class that change is good, even if it's going to hurt. If they get behind him with their votes then maybe, just maybe, America can get it's domestic act together and start rehabilitating it's tarnished image around the globe. And that's what it really comes down to; is the world's most self-obsessed society ready for Obama?

Its unlikely that family connections with Africa will sway policy, but there is a significant moral dividend in placing the continent higher on the agenda. And although race should not matter, when you are an African-American candidate you are obliged to heed black history. The so-called "roots" issue is deeply ingrained in African-American culture. For Africa that's a long way from getting a leg up in terms of policy issues, however, Obama may just be the the kind of politician that can transcend the entrenched debate and take it to a new level. The presidential race will likely be dominated by domestic issues and the Iraq war, but the Republican machine doesn't fight fair and Obama will be examined like never before...and that will include his position on Africa.

The real question, of course, is what would Africa want from Obama should he be victorious in November? This doesn't appear to be a man that will give corrupt politicians a free pass, particularly if they're African. Frankly, it may well turn out to be a bit of a shock for the continent's league of dodgy leaders. So, progressive change agent meets the old guard; my money's on the young guy with the idealism. Common sense also dictates that Obama isn't going to hold with old style African politics, especially when he's clearly focused on overturning the same thing in his own country. That can only mean the writing's on the wall for every tin pot dictator and warlord still scarring the face of the mother continent.

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