The Obama Phenomenon By Kayode FayemiPerhaps more than any other time in recent history, the worldwide interest in America‟snext presidential election is beyond belief. A global survey released two weeks agoconfirms this intense interest, with the majority of the countries surveyed rooting for JohnKerry (not surprisingly), while Nigeria - in a minority of three states (together withPhilippines and Poland) - want Mr Bush to continue in office. Whether this is true or notis not the subject of this piece, even though I must say the conclusion of the survey onNigeria was a bit of a surprise. But I digress. Living in the US for most of this year, Imust confess to a certain interest, maybe even an obsession about the American electionstoo. I spent a great deal of my limited time following the party campaigns. Inevitably,proximity became a key factor in my monitoring and it was the rise and rise of BarackObama, the Democratic Party Convention star and presumptive junior Senator forIllinois, home to my host school, Northwestern University, that really caught myattention most. For me, there is a sense in which the Obama story, so far at least, presentsa silver lining in an electoral process that has been riven by imperious hubris and largelycaptured by moneybags.As I moved into my university apartment in Evanston‟s bitingly cold January weather,my eyes caught a small, blue billboard and window poster adorning my neighbour‟shome, with the caption “Obama for Senate.” That same weekend, I stumbled on a TVcampaign advert by the so-called Obama at a friend‟s place – with the candidate harpingon being the first African-American President of the Harvard Law Review. Although hesaid other things in the campaign ad, I found the bit about the Harvard Law Review toopretentious and unnecessary. I recall entering into a long-drawn argument about theshallowness of American politics, with the friend I was visiting. A discerning observer oflocal dynamics and Professor of Politics at Depaul University in Chicago, my friend triedto explain the machine nature of Chicago politics and why Obama needed to toutwhatever can give him an advantage in a competition that was overwhelmingly headingin his opponents‟ direction at that stage. Still, I couldn‟t see where Harvard fitted intothis. To convince me, my friend gave me a quick profile of Obama beyond his Harvardassociation, which clearly suggests that he is no fake, simply eager to use his race andprivilege to curry favour. Already a well known community organizer in Chicago Southside, Professor of Constitutional Law at University of Chicago and three times Statesenator in Illinois, Obama was a dark horse in a seven person Democratic primary racefor the Senate seat being vacated by the Republican Senator, Peter Fitzgerald; his
campaign fund was nothing to write home about, he was known to have unequivocallyopposed the „War on Terror‟, carried a funny name that sounded more like „Osama‟ andwas not the anointed candidate of the Democratic Party apparatchiks in Illinois – theDaleys and the Jacksons and their likes. In short, rather than keeping up with the joneses,he was actually bucking the trend, rooting himself in the community, not with themoneybags. In a sense, the Harvard label was not his real story, even if it was part of it.Even after discovering Obama‟s antecedents in Chicago community organizing, listeningto his stump speeches, reading his soul stirring autobiography, “Dreams of My Father”and getting introduced to him at an event on Northwestern‟s Evanston campus, I had atleast one other reason for not immediately warming up to him. I mean, we have beenhere before. I can‟t help recalling the story of another African-American sister whooccupied the seat before the retiring Fitzgerald. To refresh memories, Carole MosleyBraun was the Senator whose involvement with the Abacha dictatorship sealed her fate,leading to eventual loss of her seat in 1996. At a time that human rights activists aroundthe world and the Congressional Black Caucus had urged a boycott of the Abacharegime, Moseley Braun had opposed sanctions against Abacha, soon after benefitingfrom an all expense paid trip to Nigeria, with her ex-boyfriend, Campaign Manager andAbacha lobbyist, Kgosie Matthews. It was this particular incident, which first drew myattention to Illinois local politics, and I visited Chicago as many Nigerian democracyactivists joined others to campaign for Moseley Braun‟s removal. So, the excitementabout Obama did not quite catch on, much as I had begun to admire the guy. Besides,most political pundits at that early stage were not optimistic about his chances in thehighly competitive race.But that was January 2004. The great joy of American political campaigns is thatcandidates for high office are exposed to extra-ordinary scrutiny, even when they have allthe money. By March, the fortunes of Barack Obama had begun to look up. TheDemocrat who was the front-runner had been exposed as a wife-beater who was not fitfor high office, and his personal millions couldn‟t come to his rescue. Although the racewas still filled with highly skilled, special interest backed and well funded candidates,Obama attracted support from both white and black neighbourhood, from south sideinner-city projects as well as occupants of $1million dollar properties in northern suburbslike Evanston. He had focused on issues that affect ordinary people in Illinois – health,housing, education, social welfare; held clear views on the Iraqi invasion, and remainedvery rooted in the community. In no time, Obama had won the endorsement of themainstream local newspaper, Chicago Tribune and went on to win majority of the votesin the Democratic Party primaries. This was in March 2004. At this point, I had relievedmyself of any reticence about Obama‟s candidacy. I immediately registered as an Obama
Brigade member – as his supporters are known, took on some responsibilities and startedknocking on Evanston doors on Obama‟s behalf, spreading the word as much as I can.You may wonder why this should matter to an African who has no vote in America anddoesn‟t even live there. I‟ll explain why it matters to me. First, what happens inAmerica, for good or ill, affects all of us now – and the global survey referred to at thebeginning of this article demonstrates this. For me, I imagine a White House where theFirst Lady is a plain speaking, Mozambican by birth and a Senate with a half Kenyan,with more than romantic notions and cursory knowledge of Africa, but a complex andnuanced understanding of the continent, with clarity about race and inheritance – and apassionate commitment to community development. I am not saying this will transformrace politics and ensure better understanding of African issues amongst policy-makersover-night, but I believe it will make some difference. For too long, I have watchedunanchored African-Americans like Jesse Jackson and Carole Mosley Braun becomepawns in the political chessboard of dishonest African leaders, failing to connect to thereal story on the continent, in their instinctive support of anything African and in theirsearch for dubious authenticity of the Sese-Seko and Arap Moi types.Second, given the nature of race politics in America, it is not unlikely that the voice ofthe lone African-American senator will be worth its weight in gold on African issues,certainly in a Kerry Presidency. Now, this may sound like I am already treating theelection as a foregone conclusion, likely to be won by Kerry. Clearly, I agree that theAmerican jury is still out on that. It may also appear that I think foreign policy will be thesole factor in winning a cliffhanger election between Bush and Kerry. Well, whiledomestic issues of jobs and housing are still going to be central in the November election,I don‟t think it‟s going to be simply the economy, stupid! Instead, I do feel that thisyear‟s election will likely be settled on „homeland security‟ and international affairs, aswell. Regardless of who wins the November election, I have no doubt that Barack Obamaas the junior Senator for Illinois will be a factor in US‟s place in the African world. As hetold the Democratic Party convention in July in a poignant rebuke of George Bush,„When we send our young men and women into harms way, we have a solemn obligationnot to fudge the numbers or shade the truth about why theyre going…and to never, ever -- go to war without enough troops to win the war, secure the peace and earn the respect ofthe world." Reading his moving memoirs, in which he traced his roots back to Kenya tointerrogate the story of his absentee African father, Obama connects so well with therealities of his environment and displays an extraordinary ability to touch the hearts ofpeople from a variety of backgrounds. His message of building bridges in a polarizednation and world, without underestimating the challenges posed by this desire in a post9/11 World is one that ought to resonate across race and geography in America.
For me, there are also lessons here for the Nigerian political process. Too often, brightand driven politicians in Nigeria believe that money is the central, if not the only factor inpolitics, a factor they use in justifying why they don‟t need to waste their time onprincipled and purposeful politics. The Obama story proves that even in America, moneyis not everything, important as it is. Without clear ideas on how to transform society,money can only go so far. It is my hope that many excellent Nigerians will not bedeterred in running for political office in 2007 simply on account of not having therequired resources.Obama still has an election campaign ahead of him and I do not want to underestimatehow much of a challenge that poses, but barring any unforeseen development, hiselection as Illinois‟ junior senator is all but certain. His stiffest opponent, Jack Ryan ofthe Republican Party dropped out of the race in June, after yet another wife-scandal andfor weeks – the Republicans scrambled around unsuccessfully for a replacement, beforefinally settling on out-of-state, veteran black Republican Party has- been, Alan Keyes. Ihave no doubt that Keyes will go the way of the others before him, but I also hope thatthe „skinny kid with a funny name‟ makes a fundamental difference in the lives of hisconstituents, from the Altgeld Gardens in the projects of South side Chicago to those ofus who stand outside America‟s borders, waiting for reprieve from the clear and presentdangers of America‟s current uni-polar madness. Dr Fayemi is Director, Centre for Democracy & Development in Lagos,Nigeria. He was until August, a Visiting Scholar in African Studies at NorthwesternUniversity, Evanston, USA