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What Can Africa Expect from an Obama Presidency?

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What can Africa expect from an Obama presidency? From my point of view, it won’t be very much. I can think of three possible benefits; all of them intangible.

First of all, an Obama Administration will be, in my opinion, far less hectoring, nagging and morally preachy than the current US practice. Africa, and the rest of the world, will not be subjected to the incessant chatter of George Bush, Dick Cheney and Condoleeza Rice as to America’s alleged moral superiority.

Secondly, I think an Obama presidency may give an indefinable boost to the psychological confidence level of millions of impoverished African peasants and workers, abused as they are by decades of malgovernance by what can only be described as predatory political class of kleptocrats.

Barack Obama’s incredible ascent to the point where he’s within an arm’s length of becoming President of the United States is a monument to his remarkable intelligence, his extraordinary ability, his incredible discipline, organizational skills, tenacity, a great deal of luck and a single-minded pursuit of the goal he set for himself. He has accomplished all this against extraordinary odds that would have caused lesser men not to have embarked on such a journey in the first place. He said it correctly with the title of his second book: The Audacity of Hope. As the New York Times commented several weeks back, Obama is that rare politician who writes his own books…plus, he knows how to write. This man is, indeed, audacious and what he has accomplished is a mark of that audacity.

In this sense, I think Obama will be an inspiration to millions of people – not only Africans, but millions of other downtrodden people everywhere – as to what is possible if one has confidence in one’s own capacity and abilities and simply refuses to concede.

Thirdly, I think Africa will be more talked about and thought about in an Obama Administration. I predict that one of Obama’s first overseas ventures will be an obligatory trip to his father’s homeland – Kenya. I wouldn’t be surprised if he touched down one of these days in Nigeria, as well. However, I doubt seriously whether his election will produce any more substantive results for the African continent.

As I write this week’s column there is exactly one week until the election. As of this morning’s (Tuesday, October 26) composite polls, Obama is substantially ahead in enough states to deliver him 272 electoral votes; two more than the 270 he needs. If he also wins those states seen to be “leaning” Democratic, his total would be around 306, a reasonably substantial margin. If even some of the states rated “tossup” – that is to say even in the polls – were to come into the Obama camp his total could be approaching a landslide.

I must emphasize, however, that anything can still happen. The polls all favor Obama by substantial margins; nearly ten points nationally and significant leads in so-called “swing states” as well. However, as much of a cliché as it is, the only poll that really counts is the one on November 4. The substantive unknown question is how many white Americans are prepared to vote for a black man as their president. We should know the answer to that question next Wednesday.

Virtually all my students at the American University of Nigeria (AUN) in Yola strongly support Obama. Most Nigerians with whom I’ve spoken share this opinion. When I ask Nigerians, including my students, why they support him, it’s clear that the fact of his background – his African father – is a substantial factor.

However, many (most?!) also think that with Obama as president, vast amounts of American-generated wealth will suddenly begin flowing into Africa. The American largesse, combined with foreign direct investment (FDI), will miraculously eliminate poverty and most other African social and economic problems. There appear to be substantial numbers of Africans who believe this will be the case. This is a delusion! It’s not going to happen!

Barck Obama is an American politician who is likely to be elected President of the United States next week. From the point of view of America, her primary political, economic and strategic interests do not lie in Africa, and the mere fact of a black American president is not going to change that reality. Most US foreign aid goes to Israel. The next largest beneficiary is Egypt. That won’t change simply because Barack Obama is president. Furthermore, despite Americans boasting to the contrary, the United States is among the stingier of the developed countries.

Furthermore, neither American capital nor the capital of any other country is going to start suddenly moving toward Africa in any substantial amounts – other than certain extractive industries; petroleum, for example – until the governance problem that plagues most African states is substantially improved.

Capital wants to be able to repatriate its profits as it wishes. It also requires an infrastructure: roads, air service, telephones, electricity, a functioning educational system that produces skilled workers, physical security, a state bureaucracy that is primarily free of corruption, a legal system that enforces contracts based on the law and the specific contract and not on personal political, ethnic or regional connections. Very few of these things can be guaranteed, for example, by Nigeria.

So, what will an Obama presidency mean for Africa? As I said above, not terribly much. The combination of American interests lying geographically elsewhere for the most part, and a predatory political class that sees control of the state in Africa primarily as a mechanism for personal accumulation, will determine that. The fact that Barack Obama is a black man will not change that stark reality.

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About Bill Hansen

  • Bill –

    The benefit that Obama would bring to Africa is quite real, though it can’t be measured. The day he takes office (should we be so fortunate), the vast majority of Africans (and particularly African-Americans) will walk a little bit straighter, feel a little more self-respect, see their goals as achievable and no long beyond reach.

    And it’s not just them. Those in Asia will know, “Hey – he lived here, he really knows what we’re like”. The majority of Islam will be encouraged by someone who carries a name that is partially Islamic.

    BUT there’s one part of Islam that will be quite suspicious of Barack Hussein Obama at all – IRAN (and much of Iraq). Why? Because the name ‘Hussein’ is hated by those of the Shi’a faith, for that was the name of the one who led the Sunni who slaughtered the first 72 Shi’a martyrs…and yes, such things DO matter to them.

    Yes, these are intangibles – but they’re real, and most of the world will see a President Obama as a verification of the American Dream, that in America, anyone – anyone – can go just as far as their dreams and their efforts will take them.

    People follow bosses because they have to. People follow leaders because they want to.

    A President McCain cannot lead the world – if others obey him, it’s because they think they have to. He can only be the boss, but not a world leader.

    A President Obama, on the other hand, CAN lead the world, because the others would WANT to follow his leadership.