'Welcome back, son. Now don't forget us'

When President Obama delivered his Inaugural Address six months ago, there was a line in it that many Africans felt was written specifically for them — a kind of shout out across the Atlantic that the new, young president had not forgotten the fatherland.

“To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent,” the new president said, “know that you are on the wrong side of history.”

This, of course, could apply to a large chunk of the world. But in Africa, where ‘big men’ still rule for decades, and corruption leaves the children sick and the schools bare, and government soldiers rape and kill with impunity, those words seemed to have extra resonance. Olara A Otunnu, a former Ugandan foreign minister, remembered how that single line from the inaugural speech was “cheered throughout Africa and people were texting it to each other over their phones.”

Last Friday, when President Obama stepped off Air Force One in Ghana for his first presidential visit to sub-Saharan Africa, it was clear he was stepping onto a continent of stratospheric expectations. He was mobbed at the airport by drummers and dancers and seemingly the entire Ghanaian government, as if his arrival were a long-awaited homecoming.

After all, he is only human, despite what the ubiquitous, saviour-like posters on the back of African buses might lead people to think. And he has a portfolio of problems to solve with more obvious American interests, like two wars, Iran’s nuclear ambitions and the economy.

Kenyan heritage
But talk about hitting the reset button, in a place where it could really matter. There is no denying that Obama, by the sheer dint of his Kenyan heritage, coupled with his progressive politics, his youth and his seemingly intuitive grasp of how people across the world interconnect, has an unprecedented opportunity to rewrite the America-Africa equation.

Still, how to get involved? And when?
PLO Lumumba, a leading anticorruption activist in Kenya, said that the masses were ready to line up behind Obama and that he should use his incredible bully pulpit to pressure corrupt governments to reform themselves. This wouldn’t have to cost a lot of money. The audience is there. All that needs to be crafted is the message.

American officials, like Representative Donald Payne, a New Jersey Democrat who heads the House subcommittee on Africa, insist that Africa policy will now be more nuanced. He predicts the Obama administration will “concentrate on things that would prevent terror, like higher education.”

Africans have always had divergent views on America. But with Obama in office, “that changed suddenly overnight. The US now has a very different meaning to Africans.”
Some of this, of course, is that Barack Obama is seen as kin. But there’s also the fact that he was an underdog in a fierce campaign and a black man elected in a white country, validation that America was indeed the land of opportunity. More than anything, his triumph served as a sharp contrast to a continent where name, class and ethnicity are still destiny, and, just in case destiny is ever interrupted, where many elections are still blatantly rigged.

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