Obama: A new era for Africa?


Two years ago, Barack Obama was a barely-known U.S. senator, the son of an African foreign student and a native of Kansas. He is now the 44th president of the United States and has become an international iconic figure.

At a conference in Minneapolis last week, a panel of scholars met to discuss the relevance of Obama’s presidency on Africa. Hailed by many Africans as a “Son of the Soil” because of his father’s Kenyan origins, many in the African continent see Obama as the redemption that African leadership seeks. The panelists wondered if Obama’s leadership will inspire Africans to challenge their existing leadership? Would current leaders shift their attitudes towards global human rights policies? Would America change neo-colonialist policies towards Africa?

Adepeju Solarin, is a student of Nigerian descent at the Institute on Crime and Public Policy (University of Minnesota Law School). Like many young Americans, she believes that Obama’s campaign is telling of a new era in America, and the rest of the world.

“Obama is a global president,” she said. “He is uniquely positioned to reunite the rest of the world.”

Solarin describes phone calls she made during the presidential campaign to her parents in Lagos. “My father is a Clintonite, and did not know enough about Obama to support him.” Her father began to pay attention to Obama when he a local Nigerian paper would, every week during the last leg of the primaries of the 2008 campaign, headline with an Obama story. He was sold on Obama, not only because of his ideas on running America, but also because Solarin’s father saw a passion and energy in Nigerians that he had not seen in a long time.

This global movement that Obama has ignited is significant in making relevant global diversity. Sociologist Dr. Samuel Zalanga from Bethel University said that Obama will need to capitalize on this movement, as he did not get to the presidency on his own.

On the movement’s effect on Africa, Zalanga pointed out that history has mostly been told through the perspective of the dominant Western world, “To be progressive, to be successful, to be modern, to be civilised… almost always means to be Anglo-Saxon. … Obama’s presidency is significant because he does not fit this character.”

George Watson, the President of T3 Group , a Twin Cities-based organizational development consulting company recounted his youth when he grew up in a segregated America.

“America’s liberation is not just about America,” he said, “not just about Africa, but it is a global movement.

Zalanga is particularly concerned about trade-related intellectual property on HIV/AIDS anti-viral drugs. He expressed dismay at the exorbitant costs of these drugs because patents are restricted to a few pharmaceutical companies. For decades, activists have argued that monopolies in the medical field are limiting access to medicines for poor people all over the world. These pharmaceutical companies have argued that they need to recoup the money lost in the high cost of research and development.

“There is something psychologically cleansing, therapeutic about Obama’s victory,” Dr. Tamrad Tademe, St. Cloud State University, said, referring to his name, Barack Hussein Obama. “It is nice to see an African family that has not been pathologized.”

Tademe, a native of Ethiopia wondered if Obama will support peace and not take sides in international conflicts as previous administrations have done.

“The victory of the U.S. can be directly linked to the end of South African apartheid,” said Tademe. The end of apartheid did not solve all the problems in South Africa, Tademe argued, saying that economically black South Africans were still “in apartheid.”

For many African countries, it has mattered little who has been in the White House. For instance, it was during Clinton’s term that the Rwandan crisis was ignored. In contrast, President Bush has been lauded for increasing foreign aid to Africa. All the same, critics have argued that this aid has come with religious stipulations.

Zalanga argues that Africa does not need an increase in aid and cautioned against tying aids to religious groups. Instead, he says, “The U.S. and other western countries, need to restructure trade agreements and agricultural subsidies.”

While Obama has said he supports family planning initiatives in Africa, and the U.S., Bush only gave aid to abstinence programs in African countries. It has been speculated that Obama will change Bush’s birth control policy in Africa.

With an economic crisis in the U.S., a potential U.S.-led war in Afghanistan and the Israeli/Palestinian crisis it will be interesting to see the role the Obama administration takes on the conflicts in Darfur (Sudan), the Congo and Somalia.