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United States and the fire this time

When President Obama exits the White House, any sentimental bond felt by the African continent with the American presidency will cease. African leaders should take the opportunity to re-shape relations, strengthen their positions and make more effective demands in trade and bilateral negotiations, argues Levi Kabwato.

I am one of those Africans who, on that November night in 2008, stayed awake in eager anticipation of one Barack Hussein Obama, a black junior senator from Illinois, being declared president-elect of the United States of America, one of the world’s most powerful countries.

It happened.

Obama himself would declare to millions of people across the world: “Change has come to America.” Indeed, it had. From that election night all the way to the inauguration, hope filled many, excitement gripped more and joy washed over plenty.

On that November night, Obama made another equally important declaration. He told more than 100 000 supporters who had gathered in Grand Park, Chicago, and millions more watching on television that he would never forget to whom that historic victory belonged. “It belongs to you,” he said, as the greater part of the audience, including icons such as Oprah Winfrey and Reverend Jesse Jackson, struggled to hold back tears, overcome with emotion.

Clinton, when asked about Gaddafi, laughs out loud and says, “We came, we saw, he died” encapsulates her attitude to Africa: It is a place where you can kill with impunity.

Even those further afield – like me – were moved by this occasion. Obama, a black junior senator from Illinois, born of a Kenyan father, had overcome the odds to become president of the USA and fulfil a mission started by such greats as Harriet Tubman, Dr Martin Luther King Jr, Rosa Parks, Angela Davis and Malcolm X.

The election of a new president

In November this year, the US will elect a new president. The choice has to be made between Obama’s fierce contestant in 2008 and the former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, and the billionaire businessman Donald Trump. Unlike Obama, neither of these candidates have any particular links with Africa. Consequently, Africa’s interest in the forthcoming election is reduced to understanding which of the two will yield better prospects for Africa.

The short answer is, of course, neither.

If Hillary Clinton was not fit to beat Obama back in 2008, what does she have now that she did not have back then? It is a question that has not been given sufficient thought and consideration because the man she is up against in Trump is reviled by mainstream thought and is routinely characterised as unfit for the US presidency.

Former Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi, pushed for African unity. Photo: Sabri Elmhedwi/EPA via nydailynews
Former Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi, pushed for African unity. Photo: Sabri Elmhedwi/EPA via nydailynews

Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State (the equivalent to a Minister of Foreign Affairs) was riddled with scandal and controversy. Her questionable deeds range from deleting e-mail communications that would have implicated her in wrongdoing, to the abuse of power in using state resources to facilitate deals for her private foundation and, quite famously, her role in the fall of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in Libya.

The Libya tragedy has to be understood as an affront to the vision of a united Africa, which Gaddafi carried. Hence, Clinton’s agitation for war in Libya, coupled with gross violations of international law, betrayed what the US claims to advocate for in its foreign policy. Indeed, the chilling video clip in which Clinton, when asked about Gaddafi, laughs out loud and says, “We came, we saw, he died” encapsulates her attitude to Africa: It is a place where you can kill with impunity.

If Clinton could do what she did in Libya as a mere foreign affairs minister, what greater damage in Africa could she cause as president? Today, Libya is a pile of rubble, pounded by bombs. It is a dysfunctional country of multiple governments, controlled in certain parts by the dreaded Islamic State (IS) terror group – a direct consequence of US intervention. At this stage, there are no guarantees that no other African country will suffer the same fate as Libya should Clinton become president.

Trump and the issue of Obama’s citizenship

With Trump, few Africans remember him for a defining moment in Obama’s presidency. Together with fellow Republican Sarah Palin, Trump led the charge in questioning Obama’s US citizenship credentials. By this time, Obama and his family were already in the White House, mandated by the majority of American citizens. Yet, the Palin-Trump charge resulted in Obama, who was born in Hawaii, having to produce a birth certificate live on international television.

US Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump. Photo: Chris Keane/Reuters
US Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump. Photo: Chris Keane/Reuters

Before this, other structural constraints imposed by white supremacy had haunted the Obamas. Just the other year, US First Lady Michelle Obama came under fire from critics for sporting sexy hiking shorts in the Grand Canyon. If you must know, dear reader, Mrs Obama had broken all the fashion rules of the First Office – and no one had ever looked so good while breaking the rules!

Of greater critical importance is the fact that Barack himself was forced to issue a statement defending his religious beliefs. Yes, really. At the time, a number of surveys found that a significant number of Americans believed Obama was Muslim – and you know what the US thinks of Muslims, don’t you? Believe it or not, the president had to be drawn out and forced to defend himself, unequivocally stating that he was a Christian. As if there was anything wrong with being Muslim in the first place…

Regarding Obama’s birth certificate incident, a New York Times editorial on the issue captured what was at play: “The birther question was never really about citizenship; it was simply a proxy for those who never accepted the president’s legitimacy, for a toxic mix of reasons involving ideology, deep political anger and, most insidious of all, race.”

If Hillary Clinton was not fit to beat Obama back in 2008, what does she have now that she did not have back then?

If the US has taught Africa anything during the Obama presidency, it is how racism is still pervasive and how cheap black lives are. Indeed, the exposure of racist practice in the US has become commonplace, whether directed at a sitting president or at boys and girls playing in the street. It goes without saying that this kind of racism will continue to inform the US foreign policy on Africa.

As it turns out, change did not come to America during Obama’s presidency after all.

Trump supporters fuelled by anger over Obama presidency

It is no surprise that Donald Trump has ended up a frontrunner in the US presidential election, with victory highly likely in November. The bulk of Trump supporters are white supremacists who are still angry at the Obama victory in 2008. They have continuously balked at the idea of being led by a Black man of African origin.

President Barack Obama speaks during an end-of-the year news conference in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House in Washington, Friday, Dec. 20, 2013. Photo: AP Photo/Susan Walsh
President Barack Obama speaks during an end-of-the year news conference in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House in Washington, Friday, Dec. 20, 2013. Photo: AP Photo/Susan Walsh

Hence, they are determined to grant power to someone who knows and understands them; their pain and fury. So, when Trump says he will ‘make America great again’, he is really saying to all these bitter Americans that he can correct the historical wrongs of 2008 and become a leader ‘ordinary’ (read ‘white and male’) Americans can identify with.

This has also become one of Clinton’s major problems. She is seen as someone who panders to corporate/Wall Street interests, exercises double standards on foreign policy and is secretive and unaccountable as a public figure. For all Trump’s bigotry and apparent lack of presidential credentials, the fact that the November election is not a foregone conclusion speaks volumes about the current state of the US.

In effect, therefore, the US has to choose who is the better devil (so to speak) between Clinton and Trump. And if you are observing all of this from a distance, you would be forgiven for concluding that the US, at least in this election, has been reduced to a choiceless democracy.

The opportunities for Africa

What does this all mean for Africa, come November? For starters, the US will be weak, as its reputation will continue to take a battering, no matter who wins. This strain on its reputation will expose major weaknesses in the country’s political and democratic culture, making it hard for the country to maintain its posture and respect as a superpower and global policeman. The eventual winner will therefore be required to focus more on domestic affairs – building trust and repairing relationships.

Internationally, the US is most likely going to do what it does best: exhibit its military might. No American president wants to look weak and vulnerable and one of the quickest ways to get around this for Clinton or Trump will be to shift attention to foreign policy. This will best be done via a clear message to the world, especially to countries like China and Russia, which have also captured the American imagination in this election.

In this regard, the US becomes easier to understand for outsiders such as Africans. With a black man out of the White House (sic) there is no sentimental benefit to be enjoyed from Washington. There are no heart-warming pictures of a Black man building bridges of peace. There is no one to identify with.

It is an opportunity, therefore, for Africans to re-shape relations, strengthen their own positions and make more effective demands in trade and bilateral negotiations.

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