Africa: Obama And Africa
18 January 2009
TWO days from now, on Tuesday January 20, Barack Hussein Obama will be inaugurated as the 44th president of the United States. This will enact a landmark event. The emergence of a black man as the president of the United States of America has been vigorously scrutinized since the November elections for all its historical meanings and significance.
One of the issues which Obama's emergence will hopefully settle is that historical affliction which W.E.B. Du Bois suggested as "the strange meaning of being black" in America. It is the affliction or the burden of being and memory which haunted the leaders of the black nationalist movement in the 20th century from Du Bois to Garvey, from Martin Luther King Jr. to Malcolm X, down to Jesse Jackson whose open tears on the night of Barack Obama's electoral victories spoke with greater eloquence of the rivers of tears that have shaped the black experience in America and in the world.
Barack Obama belongs to my generation. Just five years older than I, he was born in circumstances that sharply highlight the journeys and dimension of the global African experience of the late 20th and possibly early 21st century. I was born to war - Biafra - postcolonial Africa's most cruel, and possibly most devastating civil war funded and nudged from the west and played out in the African postcolonial theatre. He, Barack, was born in exile - at a different part of the crossroads - to an immigrant Luo father from Kenya seeking the Golden Fleece in America, and a white American mother. It is the intertwined story of rupture and dispersal; of my generation born at home and in exile, shaped by the immediate conditions and effects of postcolonialism, or what the Nigerian scholar, Biodun Jeyifo has called "arrested decolonization."
The remarkable story is that, Obama, this child of the dual heritage, the quintessential hybrid, has become the president of the most powerful nation on earth. But what about us, children of his own generation, born in Africa? Many are dead, succumbing to disease, poverty and warfare, as indeed many of the black children born in his own generation in America, many who also have died, wasted to drugs, disease, the warfare of street gangs and police brutality, and the homelessness and poverty of urban America.
The story is the same. Like Ginsberg, I too have seen some of the best in my generation in Africa driven to exile, and many are just nestling between sleep and waking in Africa whose promise of a new dawn - the rhetoric of the anti-colonial movement - seems now too squelched by historical conditions and dialectical contradictions. Obama also saw the waste of some of his own generation while working as a community organizer in the Chicago Southside of the 1980s riven by crack cocaine and gun violence.
As the 44th president of the United States we must, of course, understand that his fundamental commitment is primarily to the United States which he must serve with good conscience and to the best of his ability. Nothing less is expected of him, because America has nurtured him and given him gifts. Nevertheless, we must direct the new American president's attention to the more profound meaning of his emergence as the president of the United States. It must be seen in the light of America's own historical relationship with Africa in all its ramifying truths, from the era of slavery to the era of neo-colonialism.
There has to be a new relationship forged between the United States of America and the continent of Africa and its diaspora - that copula that connects the rest of the black world with Obama's presidency, and it must be the relationship that heals its historical wounds. The black world is constantly reminded of the role of elite American interests in the destruction of Haiti - the first black republic in the Americas. Africans fully understand America's role in the neocolonial situation in Africa, its interventions through economic and cultural policies, the use of the means of dark diplomacy, and various Carthaginian treaties to undermine the full emergence of Africa from the clutches of imperialism.
Barack Obama should honor the memory of the struggles of Africans who fought for the dignity of their human persons through the anticolonial struggles by reviewing the treaties of Yalta that shaped post-war global relations, in which Africa's interests and the original promise of the Atlantic Treaty were subverted, especially after the formulations that shaped the United Nations during that convention in San Francisco in 1945.
Africa's genius must be freed in order to create the balance of humanity necessary for the transformation of the continent from a perpetual basket case, from the cauldron of religious fundamentalism, destructive forms of tribalism, dependence, disease, warfare, into productive and prosperous societies. For this to happen, America's foreign policy on Africa must see Africa and Africans far more as partners rather than as dependents and chattel. Africa does not need charity, it needs equity.
The new partnership between Africa and America must be the partnership of equals. It must seek to heal the wounds of history, of which the United States has been of great part, in the African affliction. It must reconsider the plans for AFRICOM which most Africans consider to be subversive and a plan to militarize the continent - part of a heightened 21st century global resource war of which Africa is once again, the vital battleground, almost in fulfillment of Dubois prescient predictions about the colorline and about the vicious battle to control Africa's mineral wealth.
Africa retains that strangeness, that fundamental "otherness" - almost too consciously designed and shaped by the Discovery channel and its mentality and image of Africa - as primitive, poor, backward, and dangerous. It is the Africa of Safaris and third world servility; of a place where time stopped; Africa whose stories of triumphs and progress are constantly hidden from the gaze of the world, and reproduced in the racist unconscious of even Obama's biographer, David Mendell, whose book From Promise to Power continuously, gratuitously insults Africa and blackhood.
It is that racist unconscious that has mostly shaped American elite relationship and dealings with Africa and the fate or circumstance of its people. It is that racist unconscious which has created the situation in Zimbabwe and strengthened the hands of Mugabe into tyranny. Indeed one of Obama's first important tasks will be to re-engage Robert Mugabe and not to isolate him, and to help ease him out of office with dignity rather than with threat, and thus solve the Zimbabwean impasse with finer sensitivity.
At the roots of the tragedy of Obama's own father, was also the situation of neocolonialism, which frustrated the genius of this brilliant Harvard trained economist and drove him to drinks and tragedy. I say this because the new American president does not seem to have a clearly articulated African policy. Africa it seems, remains the mere footnote, the distant poor continent of the American imaginary even in the Obama work plan.
But I hope the new American president to be sworn-in two days from hence has read Walter Rodney's How Europe Under Developed Africa. The rape continues even today from Stanley's Congo to contemporary Congo. Africa continues to be bled by those who have helped to assassinate its visionary leadership, and as people like Chinweizu have vigorously argued, poisoned it with disease and secret chemical and biological experiments; overthrown its progressive governments while installing tyrants and crooks, funded and armed private armies and mercenaries to keep it in permanent instability as they exploit and steal its riches: timber, rubber, petroleum, copper, and even its human resources.
A dance and ululation broke out on many streets in Africa to celebrate Obama's victory because Africans have always looked across the Atlantic knowing that they have kin at the other side of the great swell. Obama himself embarked upon the journey in his book, Dreams of My father to re-enter the myth of his ancestral home. It was his ancestral spirits that guided him home and to his great destiny. He must not forget. Whatever he does, he must not forget, that Africa needs healing. It is now in his hands.