While campaigning for the United States presidency, Barack Hussein Obama self-described as a presidential candidate who happened to be black as opposed to a black presidential candidate. Obama was wary of the Bradley effect, the difference between voter opinion polls and electoral results, something that had cost a number of black candidates like Jesse Jackson, Tom Bradley himself, and Al Sharpton. Despite exciting voters, leading voter polls, and looking like they would bag white voters’ trust, these candidates would nevertheless lose elections.
Obama needed white voters to not only pledge support but also go out and vote for him. So branding himself as everything else first and merely black and African by accident worked for him. He won the election against John McCain; in the primaries, he had beaten Hillary Clinton for many reasons that include his economic policies, but not his race.
Some in the US black community regarded Obama as a ‘house negro’ for distancing himself from African-American concerns during the campaign. A ‘house negro’ is basically a black person who supports white supremacy and blames fellow black people for their predicament. When it began to look obvious that Obama was winning the race, the message of hope, the Yes we can vibe became irresistible. Africans on the continent and elsewhere grabbed their end of this hope rope. Comparisons to great black and pan African leaders of the past such as Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X started to flow in. Could this be the realization of the Lutheran dream? The end of racism, of structural inequality, of latter day forms of ‘slavery’ became an imaginable reality?
Pan-Africanism as a political movement, after all, had its roots in the diaspora. The various figures touted as its fathers, be it Marcus Garvey, W.E.B Dubois, or Henry Sylvester Williams became active in an African diaspora space. Kwame Nkrumah himself grabbed his own part of the rope during his time in the US and tightened the grip while he lived in England. The role of Nkrumah’s generation of African independence movements extended the foothold of the movement on the continent and guided it to a new level, as African countries gained independence.
Pan-Africanism as a state-driven ideology has since then struggled to cope with increasing structural challenges and failed decolonization projects. Yesterday’s challenges remain, although today some wear different clothes. The collaborative hand of Africans in making the world unsafe for fellow Africans has worsened. Politicians who preach Pan-Africanism during the day go to bed with imperialism at night, producing more mayhem for African lives. The ‘house negro’ is no longer an obvious tag to throw around.
It was easy to peg hope to Obama, an individual identifying with the continent even though in his campaign he did not claim any Pan African credentials. For a country like Kenya, where various ‘nationalisms’ continue to cause conflict and strife, pan-Africanism is tired political rhetoric, a fact which made Obama’s un-complicated hope message attractive.
In the US, killings of black people, both men and women, continue. Institutional racism continues. In 2016, the Oscars remained so white. America remains a white country. The world is not easy for black people in Europe either. Today’s racism remains, infact may be more insidious, more embedded to survive what are nominally equal structures.
Which brings us to the question: has Obama’s two-term presidency attempted to rise to these contemporary challenges? Has he in any way showed interest through word and action, in emerging as a contemporary pan African leader? It is a disappointing report card for the former law professor. To be fair to him, he never promised that he would be the 21st century pan-Africanist politician, so this line of enquiry may be unfair. His manifesto was not only couched in neo-liberal capitalist speak but also did not promise anything close to what pan-Africanist American politicians of yesterday preached. Obama isn’t Malcolm X condemning white supremacy. Obama isn’t W.E.B Du Bois talking about a return to Africa. Neither is he Marcus Garvey preaching black capitalism. Obama preached the gospel that has enabled the racism of today to continue, that is neo-liberal democracy and free market capitalism.
Obama promised to fix the economy. The economy here means the white dominated capitalist state that the United States of America is. Obama’s racial equality agenda was incoherent at best, non existent at worst. He can’t be judged as having failed the Pan African agenda (of global equality of Africans) because he never promised anyone that he was here to take the Africans to the Canaan that Marcus Garvey, DuBois, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr, Kwame Nkrumah and others prophesied, fought for, and peeped into. He did not promise that he was Pan-Africanism’s Joshua. He promised to lead America. He did not bother to question the White Supremacist content of this America. That would not have won him the election. He was in the race to win elections. He could only do this without shaking the racist base. And win he did.
Once in power, America continued to wear its racist armory. Unprepared to confront these challenges, Obama offered tears to the black community in mourning. He offered lectures to black men about parenting. In those moments, one could have thought that the US President’s role in the country was akin to that of a pastor. Obama was this powerless president in the face of real racism challenges. To be fair, his office says he offered a budget rise for civil rights to help deal with racial injustice. But we saw him do much more for agendas he really cared about. Obamacare can be explained as important for black people (and not so privileged white people too) and therefore can be seen as a racial justice programme. But Obamacare is ineffectual when confronted with the guns aimed against black boys by US police under Obama’s presidency.
Africa even got a worse rap from this imperial power. Despite his African roots, Obama did more than maintain the imperialist relationships between the US and Africa. It was in his time that AFRICOM got more bases on the continent. It was in Obama’s time that the US continued to entrench African puppet dictators who enable American imperialism. From Uganda’s Museveni to Burkina Faso’s Compaore. What Obama had for Africa were speeches. Africa’s future is in having strong institutions and not strong men, he preached. Yet behind closed doors, the same America he led was funding militarization programmes that they know entrench dictators who serve American interests.
It was in Obama’s time that America supported and facilitated the overthrow of a leader of a ‘sovereign’ state, despite all his failures. It can be explained that Hillary Clinton is the person on whose skirts you will find the spots of Muammar Gaddafi’s blood, but Obama was President. It can’t be that he was powerless to do anything. He had the power to turn around America’s economy, to push through Obamacare, so how come he somehow had no power when it came to black and African issues? How come the president’s influence was non-existent on issues around racism, while apparent on other issues?
The real problem with Obama is that wearing a black and African face while representing and executing an imperialist agenda presents a formidable challenge to the contemporary pan African struggle. A witty, intelligent and aware black man who is in many ways very attractive to twenty first century world citizens presents a difficult opponent. While everyone is angry and in mourning, he comes and cries with black people. While puppet African leaders repress their people, he speaks the language of the people. But in office as President, he does nothing just like any other white American president about the institutional racism that renders black lives useless. In office as President of the lone superpower the world has, he ensures a firmer military grip over Africa.
He may not have promised a pan African agenda, he may not have put himself out there as the leader of the contemporary pan African cause, but did he have to do so much to strengthen US imperialism and white supremacy? Taking no executive action and claiming that the bureaucracy is too entrenched to change is no justification. Black people are Americans, too. And he is also their president. Passing the Libya baton to Clinton does not exonerate him either. The US breaching a no-fly zone is disrespect of international law, something George Bush did as well.