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Who needs the other more, Obama or America?

Publication Date: 6/6/2008

As Kenya teetered on the mouth of the grave early this year in post-election violent madness, a friend with some of the most enlightened and balanced views about Kenya’s politics, and always prefers to discuss the country’s problems in class terms, surprised me when he said: “The problem with Kenya is that the Kikuyu have a very strong sense of  entitlement…and the only thing that is greater than it is the Luo’s sense of victimhood.”

US Democratic presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama speaks at a town hall meeting at the BíNai Tora Congregation in Boca Raton, Florida on May 22. If he becomes president, he could change the world in non-traditional ways. Photo/REUTERS

One of the reasons I was struck was that, apart from his reference to Kikuyu and Luo, I had heard exactly the same statement 16 years ago in the US. I remember the date vividly. It was September 14. I had taken a cab from Harvard Square to Brigham and Women’s Hospital in downtown Boston where our daughter had been born the previous day.

Cab driver

The cab driver, an African-American was explaining to me what he thought the problem with America was. The white man, he said, had a strong sense of entitlement, and was reluctant to make reasonable room in American politics and the economy for “non-white folks”. That said, he continued, the bigger problem was that “black folks” were swimming in victimhood. “They blame everyone else – the white folks, the Korean folks, the Chinese folks, the Hispanic folks – but themselves for their problems” he said in a lyrical tone.

It was not the kind of line I had expected from an African-American cab driver. I was more accustomed to a more revolutionary take on race issues. Though I was a man of modest means, he had warmed my heart sufficiently that I gave him a $5 tip – the biggest I had given for a very long time.

Though Black America will probably continue debating “how black” Barack Obama is, it and the country in general will have to contemplate the deeper meaning of his winning the contest to be the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate – and more so if  he goes on to become president in November.  Africa too, though less so than Black America, will have to confront  some difficult questions.

How does this relate to the point about  “Kikuyu sense of entitlement” and “Luo victimhood?” The point my friend was making about “Kikuyu sense of entitlement” and “Luo sense of victimhood” was that the Kikuyu felt they had a God-given right to rule and enjoy the fruits of the land so much so that, President Mwai Kibaki and his inner circle were never going to accept to share power with the ODM. Likewise, that the Luo had become so entrenched in their victimhood and were so paralysed by it, that no leader who is a Luo (Raila Odinga) would ever accept a power-sharing deal with a Kikuyu, because he would be getting half a loaf and would feel it was just another injury.

All that is behind us now. Under the Grand Coalition government, Kibaki is president, and Raila is prime minister. Whatever reservations one might have about the Kibaki-Raila co-habitation, the two are lying in the same political bed, and Kenya must surely explain to itself the source of the pragmatism that made the deal possible, beyond platitudes about the magic of  Kofi Annan.

Tribal vote

Likewise, as with the Boston cab driver, if  white America is so set to keep the black man or woman down, how do you explain Mr Obama considering that there are not enough African-Americans in the US who could have given him a tribal vote to get him where he is.

That might be easier to answer than a more uncomfortable question. There are, no doubt, too few African-Americans in corporate America, academia, and science. African-Americans are visible in music (the hip hop, rap and R&B variety not the classic stuff); in the sports which, cynics and racists say demand more brawn than brain (American football, basketball, baseball, athletics), and less so golf until Tiger Woods took that one off the list; the movies (Will Smith, Denzel Washington) and entertainment TV (Oprah Winfrey, Tyra Banks).

For that reason, the relative poor social success of  African-Americans was partly put down to limited – or too many bad – role models. The areas where African- Americans excelled were seen as barren islands hived off for them because they were not of much value. If Obama moves on to win the presidency, this script will probably have to be thrown away.

And coloured America, in general, will need to find fresh explanations for why it  lags behind white America in many areas. Just as the explanations of slavery and racism might begin to wear a little thin (although they will remain valid for decades to come), while Africa swoons at the prospect of an Obama presidency, surely we too will have to throw away the crutches of colonialism and western racism that we lean on to explain everything from our corrupt leaders, the poor quality of our schools, right down to our famines.

All this only helps explain that there is a possibility that Obama will not just be “another token nigger at the table”.

America might be the undisputed world power, but it is also a country in pain. In the last few years most international polls have shown that within a few years it has moved from being the world’s most admired country, to become the most hated and despised.


The blow-them-up unilateralism , especially of  President George Bush Jr., America’s long-running and appalling double standards in the Middle East, the disrepute that Bill Clinton – with all his charm and charisma –  brought to the presidency and the country with his sordid sexual scandals; the brash and hysterical way in which Washington has pursued its “war on international terrorism” throwing away all the sympathy it had got back after 9/11, the shameful invasion of  Iraq and the way it is has handled the period following the fall of Saddam Hussein, has brought upon it a level of hatred and contempt that no modern democracy has ever faced.

While it spends trillions of dollars executing the Iraqi campaign, the health levels in some parts of the world’s richest country are as bad as in the poorest of the Third World. Watching Michael Moore’s documentary Sicko, can leave the uninitiated with a sense that it’s over for America. But, as many scholars have noted, America still has a lot of power in reserve to dominate the world. Only that power is not “carnivorous power” based on military might, but “herbivorous power” based on its technology leadership, the debt the world owes it for many of the important innovations of the past few decades, its contribution to the arts, and learning in the world.

Some years ago at a seminar in the US, a leading scholar noted that the number of  best development economists working in universities on the seemingly endless Massachussetts Avenue (where Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology to name a few lie), was more than in the whole of the Third World.

To unleash its “soft power”, America will have to be governed on a new logic. Beside its slave past, America is the only country in the world which (through a visa lottery) gives 50,000 foreigners a chance to become Americans. While nearly all industrialised countries are threatened by an aging and declining population because of low (even negative rates) birth rates, America thrives.

But it has never really been keen to bring its diversity to bear on the way it positions itself in the world. For that reason, and precisely because he is black, Mr Obama might just be what America needs – and, ironically, white America might understand that better than black America.

Therefore if he becomes president, he could change the world in non-traditional ways. Take Africa. Mr Obama’s published foreign policy on Africa might well have been written by Bono or Bob Geldof.

While on Asia he wants to “Seek New Partnerships…forge a more effective framework…that goes beyond bilateral agreements, occasional summits…” on Africa it is more of the old. He promises more kindness, and threatens to flood poor Africa with more generosity. There is the expected condemnation of  Darfur, a lament about the suffering in DR Congo, a plea for African leaders to stop thieving and tormenting their people, and the like. Important stuff, but it breaks no new ground nor promises a different partnership than what Bush, and before him, Clinton, had to offer.

But if Obama were to become president, and brought to bear the “soft power” of America, that alone would change many things in the world. If the rhetoric around international terrorism were to drop a notch, there will a significant positive knock-on effect in many countries where all the draconian laws that are justified by the need to fight terrorism or get in Washington’s good books on the cheap, will reduce.

His rise would most likely set off a whole new debate (if not actions) in Africa and other poor countries about the power of an individual to overcome, and a powerful symbol of the limitless possibilities people and nations have. That has the ability to change nations more than more millions of dollars in aid.

Perhaps the one place where all this will not matter is in Kenya. It will be more than enough that Mr Obama, well, is son of Obama Snr of Kogelo in Nyanza, western Kenya.


About SG

Secretary general of Chama Cha Mwananchi. This blog www.chamachamwananchi.wordpress.com, is based in Sweden.


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