And it came to pass that Senator McCain’s “That One!” made history. For himself. For his family. For America. For the Black race. For all of us. A great deal of ink has already flown on the significance of this epochal event and I do not intend to rehash the broad themes of our collective euphoria. So seismic is Barack Obama’s accession to the most powerful political office in the world – and in so phenomenal a manner – that a reputable Nigerian pundit, Rudolf Okonkwo, has already suggested we discard the temporal markers BC and AD for BO and AO – Before Obama and After Obama. I use the word euphoria to draw attention to the need for vigilance and remembrance. Remembrance of a time not too long ago when we, Africans, waxed euphoric and ecstatic over what was then the most significant event for African humanity: independence from colonialism. That euphoria gave way to disillusion and all the benumbing bastardies that subsequently became the hallmark of the African condition. Looking back now, that path of inexorable continental decline was foreseeable. Inchoate conceptualizations of independence rolled into chaotic definitions of democracy and its dividends. Expectations were not properly canalized.
The same disturbing inchoateness has begun to characterize discursive engagements of Obama’s in-coming presidency in terms of what exactly it is supposed to mean for the continent of Africa. There is so much chaotic internet lather over what’s in it for Africa. “We are now in charge!!!” That’s how a friend calling from Lagos – he has never ventured beyond the shores of Nigeria – gleefully screamed into the telephone, almost rending my eardrums. The naturalness with which he pronounced his “we” immediately activated my scholarly instincts. He was calling from a beer parlor, where folks had declared an all night Obama drinking spree. As he screamed, I could hear excited voices in the background, all seamless discursive appropriations of the American present: “winner ooo, winner, we don win”, “our son is in!” Possessive adjectives seemed to be on sale and every Nigerian was grabbing one from the shelves. The “we” that came over the phone from Lagos is indicative of the degree of Africa’s emotional investment in the Obama project. We have moved – at least temporarily – from expecting the “dividends of democracy” – always a mirage – to anticipating the dividends of Obama. Somehow, the dividends of Obama are being framed as more vectorial of immediate and concrete results for the continent than the dysfunctional and effete democracies in place.
These scenarios underscore the need for African thinkers to pause and begin to frame coherent agendas around the question of African agency in the Obama era. Such strategic thinking should be cognizant of what Africans should feel sufficiently enamored to expect from this scenario: a bi-racial black man becomes the leader of the free world and the second most important icon of black humanity, coming only after Nelson Mandela. He is however bound to defend the constitution of the United States of America, defend the doctrine of American exceptionalism, and elevate the strategic interests of the United States and Israel to the level of faith – that which you accept without questioning. Yet American exceptionalism and America’s strategic interests have always functioned – especially in the hands of neoconservative jihadists – as negations of the dignity and humanity of the non-American other as evidenced by the behavior of the American state in Latin America and Africa for much of the 20th and 21st centuries. These are the contradictions and realities that must frame our expectations and agendas.
In essence, those Africans who, dancing in the streets of Lagos, Nairobi, Kinshasa, Abidjan, Tshwane, have already farmed themselves into Obama’s “we” based on the phatic instrumentality of race and history should ask if Ireland has ever made it to the top of America’s agenda despite a long list of American Presidents of Irish descent, notably John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. It would be a mistake to allow the current euphoria to crystallize into expectations of Africa’s promotion to the ranks of The Chosen under President Obama. Such expectations would fly in the face of reality and President Obama’s margin of maneuver. More than all his predecessors combined, he is more susceptible to that singular move that could become a kiss of death. For obvious reasons. Any in-your-face flirtation with Africa – beyond the allowable ritual of a noise-making, five-nation African tour during an American President’s second term in office – is a potential kiss of death for Obama. Remember, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and their patriotic Christian followers are wounded lions. They are dangerous. We have only just learnt that Sarah Palin asked her handlers if South Africa was a region “of the country of Africa”. There are hundreds of thousands of furious mini-Palins in the pro-America areas of America who are ready to lynch a President Obama who demonstrates too much of a soft spot for his “Islamic country of Africa”.
Our expectations, hopes, and agendas should therefore devolve from the sort of body language that President Obama could marshal in ways that could have a graduated positive influence on the fortunes of African humanity in the course of, hopefully, his two terms. The catchword here is African humanity, not Africa. “Africa”, Chinua Achebe reminds us, “is people”. And that is the problem. The philosophical basis from which Africa is approached has never moved beyond geography and resources. Africans have never really been in the picture since the continent’s dastardly encounter with the alterity of Europe and her entrance into the “world system”. All the historical themes of this long period were never about Africa-as-people. Even slavery was not about Africa-as-people. The Africans involved were not people: they were commodity, goods transported for profit by capitalism. Colonialism was equally not about people. It was more about regimenting and policing people in order to prevent them from serving as obstacles to what was more important – resources.
Slavery may have ended. Colonialism may have ended. Self-inflicted injuries, in cahoots with neocolonialism, may have replaced both all over the continent. What has remained unaltered for more than five centuries is the philosophy that privileges geography and its riches over people in Africa. For the world system or the international community, Africa has always been much more important than Africans. If rubber and Ivory were more important to King Leopold than the Congolese, coltan is certainly more important to local militia groups, the postcolonial state in the Congo, and the international community than the Congolese. Ditto for Nigeria. Oil is far more important to Nigeria’s murderous Federal government and her Western masters than the Nigerian people could ever hope to be.
In no other continent do you currently find this philosophy at work. The French are more important than France. Germans are more important than Germany. Americans are infinitely more important than the United States of America. People. People. People. The geospace and the resources of these countries exist and have value only insofar as they are servicers of the wellbeing of the people. The world system does not conceive of Americans, the French, or the Japanese as counterproductive obstacles on the path of the resources of those places. Capitalism may be obsessed with profit and will dehumanize to obtain it anywhere, irrespective of race, it is sensible enough to understand how to behave in climes where people are more important than their physical space and resources. Despite its stubbornness, capitalism does get the message in places where emphasis is on the human. Where it pretends to be deaf, class action lawsuits and costly fines imposed by the state are there to remind it of the importance of people.
Beyond the current effusions of chaotic euphoria, can African thought form a consensus on the need to work towards the truncation of this philosophy during the Obama window of opportunity? Can the Obama presidency usher in an era that would truncate an iron cast philosophy that has always imagined Africa without the problematic impediments and obstacles called Africans? Imagine Sierra Leone, Congo, and South Africa without the peoples of those places. Ah, diamonds! Gold unlimited! Imagine Nigeria and Angola without Nigerians and Angolans! Ah, unlimited crude! Enough crude to put us in the position to tell Hugo Chavez, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and those Saudi Sheikhs to kiss our behinds! This philosophy explains why Africa’s contemptible rulers see themselves mainly as paid security guards of the international system authored by Bretton Woods. They see themselves as existing only to contain their people and clear them away from the path of capital, while making immense and corrupt personal gains. Nigeria’s President Yar’Adua and his Joint Task Force in the Niger Delta are excellent examples of this phenomenon.
A lot of things can happen if all workers in Africa’s community of conscience begin to labor in a way that would make President Obama understand the need to focus, for once in five hundred years, on Africans and not Africa. This would involve thinking of practical and interventionist ways of preventing him from shaping his Africa policy based on the soporific language of those champagne-drinking, cocktail-loving, diplomatese-infested African delegations to the UN. A presidential body language that privileges the peoples of Africa could have considerable consequences, given the immense power of Obama’s office. For starters, if Africa’s leadership comes to understand that the new tenant of the White House would snub any imbecile who privileges resources and loot over his people, they may begin to beat themselves into shape. Similarly, if Shell and other oil multinationals come to understand that the people of the Niger Delta are now more important to the Federal Government of Nigeria than oil, they will begin to raise the level of their extractive practices to at least minimally approach the routine standards they maintain in the Western world – where they believe they are dealing with human beings.
A White House snub is the ultimate nightmare of any African leader. Conversely, a white house pat on the back is the ultimate legitimation they need of their crimes against their people. It is noteworthy that while President Obasanjo’s soldiers razed the villages of Odi and Zaki Biam in October 2001, he gave a press conference – with President Bush grinning beside him – on the lawn of the White House to explain to the world why “those disgruntled elements” needed to be “cleared” by the Nigerian army! An African leader rationalizing crimes against humanity beside a smiling American President in the White House! Part of giving a decisive body language that profit could be made in Africa without degrading Africans would be to shun illegitimate African leaders in the ilk of President Yar’Adua and his predecessor. These are of course symbolic gestures that, if pursued systematically and in conjunction with other measures and initiatives by Africans in the course of Obama’s presidency, could begin relocate value from Africa to Africans in the international economy of meaning. The heavy lifting will have to be done by Africans, not outsiders. Is it utopian to expect an American President to provide the inflatus for a new international ethics of Africa? Well, before 11 pm on November 4 2008, it was utopian to expect a black President of the United States of America.