Perspectives: A Review of 2009
by Femi Akomolafe
"People will not readily bear pain unless there is hope."
(Swans - December 14, 2009) How fast time flies! So, it is already almost a year ago now that the whole world was in a euphoric mood to usher in the 44th president of the world's pre-eminent power, the United States of America: Barack Hussein Obama.
Not since the election of the highly charismatic John F. Kennedy has the world been so enraptured by an American politico.
JFK brought dynamism, beauty, youthful energy, and new paradigms to the governance of his nation. He was well-educated, urbane, sophisticated with movie-star winning looks. And that he was stupendously rich didn't hurt at all. Even though the man suffered from the life-threatening Addison's disease, JFK's handlers (spin doctors in today's parlance) did their best to sell their candidate as the epitome of youthful fitness and vigour. They even went as far as accusing his opponent for the Democratic Party nomination, Lyndon Johnson, as not been healthy enough. JFK won the election.
In JFK, Americans elected a man who brought fresh ideas into traditional American politicking. His election represented the passing of the baton from old tired horses to a new generation of vital leaders with lots of youthful exuberance.
JFK was a leader that any sane society would love to have as its own. He inspired Americans like few other leaders before him. A very brilliant man, he had immense confidence in himself and in his abilities to lead his compatriots to conquer any and all obstacles to reach for the highest heights. When the Soviets blasted their Sputnik into space, thereby bruising America's ego in the race to space, JFK challenged his people to reach for nothing but the ehm, eh, moon.
American scientists and engineers were given a marching order by their president to land a man on the moon and bring him back within a decade. The inspired American engineers beat the deadline in a feat engrossingly captured by Norman Mailer in his Of a Fire on the Moon, which remains one of the best books I've ever read. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Accepting his party's nomination, JFK said, inter alia, "We stand today on the edge of a New Frontier... the choice our nation must make... [is]... between the public interest and private comfort -- between national greatness and national decline..."
JFK brought new dynamism into the American Presidency. He came with an agenda: to make his country better.
A nation's foreign policy is a reflection of its domestic policy. JFK's vigorous and very populist domestic agenda (he termed this the "New Frontier," which is meant to use the federal might to address the social and economic challenges his country faced) was matched by a robust foreign policy.
Of course, he doggedly pursued the imperial national interests of his country, but he didn't forget that America, however powerful, was not an isolated island in the spinning globe we all call home. As he pledged in his inaugural address: "To those peoples in the huts and villages across the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required -- not because the Communists may be doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right. If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich."
Poor people all over the world remember with fondness the faces of young Americans, members of the Peace Corps, bringing some solace into deprived lives. Although many members of the Peace Corps were thrown out of many countries on charges of espionage, the Peace Corps remains one of the most enduring and endearing legacies of US foreign policy.
The world was not naïve to believe that imperial America had changed its way with the election of JFK and his Peace Corps, but it showed that something good could indeed come out of a nation that has wronged so many neighbors and inflicted so much pain on the rest of the non-white world. If ever there was a time when non-Americans genuinely loved the leader of the imperialist world, it must have been during the JFK interregnum.
And even though Vietnam, the Bay of Pigs, and for us in Africa, the planning of sabotage against nascent African nations just emerging from colonial rule, represent the low points of the JFK administration, his domestic and foreign (and space!) policies accomplishments permanently engraved his name in the annals of the world's greatest leaders.
Sadly America, nay the world, lost a great leader when an assassin's bullets cut short the life of the youthful president who had given the world so much hope.
It is difficult to believe that the same country that gave the world a leader like John Kennedy also foisted on us a certified moron like Mr. George Bush Jr.
If the JFK presidency represents the finest period of Pan-Americana, Bush Jr.'s tenure represents the ugliest manifestation of America The Ugly.
The Bush Jr.'s regime was hardly with any redeeming feature. Although he traversed the African continent and made the same time-worn promises to help, it is difficult to have anything good to say about Mr. Bush Jr.
In President Bush Jr. we had a seemingly tongue-tied, intellectually-challenged man apparently high on some brain-enhancing drug. To call Bush an illiterate is inadequate; the man has problem speaking his own [English] language! And what about those jerky walks; those fogged expression like that of a drugged and demented moron. How about those finger waggings like a Biblical patriarch whose children have disobeyed Jehovah!
If his father, President Bush Sr., left us flummoxed, Bush Jr. certainly is nothing but an enigma wrapped inside a riddle! Above all, he cut the picture of a barbaric and obscurant bully from whose mouth nothing came forth except fatuous and vacuous incoherent nonsense -- especially war mongering. The man simply did not know how to make sense; he lacks not only wisdom but imagination as well. Bush's arrogant belligerence may have had something to do with his utter stupidity -- that however is the province of psychologists.
Under his leadership, the USA lost its moral compass and leadership. Even solid allies of the U.S. in Europe find it difficult to know what they were dealing with in Mr. Bush's foolhardy approach to foreign relations. Germans were scandalized when they saw his uncouth hugging of their Chancellor. It was difficult to find a nation that truly loves Uncle Sam.
September 11 represents a great tragedy for the U.S., and Americans were justifiably angry, but in Africa we say that a Chief should not make new laws when he's angry. An angry President Bush lashed out blindly at his enemies. The two wars he launched against Afghanistan and Iraq (he's a war president, right?) were not only mean-spirited, they cost America the undisputed world's moral leadership and they have, effectively, bankrupted Uncle Sam.
When the 2008 American elections whittled down to a straight fight between a somewhat dinosauric McCain and a youthful Barack Obama, the choice, at least for the rest of the world, was more than obvious. In Africa, from where Mr. Obama's father came, it was no contest at all. To us Africans he became an iconic figure, the likes of which was not seen since Nelson Mandela's heyday. In a continent in dire need of likable leaders, Obama's phenomenon spread like wild bush fire in the dry season.
To most Africans, Americans would be stupendously stupid to cast their votes for any other than their "brother." Savvy marketers from Cape to Cairo milked Obamamania to the highest profitability. A group in Nigeria, led by the president of the Nigerian Stock Exchange, set up a fund to help the Obama campaign until the illegality of their action was pointed out to them.
When "Brother" Obama emerged victorious, Africans took it very deeply to heart. It was a sort of personal spiritual victory for us. A catharsis: A spiritual release from all the indignities, the racism, and the brutalities we have suffered at the hand of the white man since the beginning of time. Obama's victory was the purification needed to wipe away all the sins committed against us and our continent over the centuries. The breweries of Africa overflew; the distilleries couldn't churn the liquor out fast enough. People got drunk with joy. They danced themselves silly with merriment.
In Kenya, the government sought to bask in the high national euphoria by declaring a public holiday. The Nigerian Ambassador to the United States lost his post when he clashed with his foreign minister who sought to gate-crash into the Obama Inauguration ball.
That was barely a year ago. How true that nostalgia is not what it used to be! If a day is a long time in politics, a year is infinitesimally so. From their stratospheric levels, Mr. Obama's approval ratings have tumbled. His clarion call of the "Change we can believe in" has turned out to be no more than mere electioneering mantra. He continues to speechify (he's very good at it) but the Prophet now has few true believers.
A year later very little has changed in American domestic and foreign policies since the election of Brother Obama. The Guantánamo prison remains open despite a pledge by Brother Obama to close it down. Trillions were found to bail out rich bankers without much intra-party bickering, but the billions to give health insurance coverage to poor Americans has engendered much blood-letting. The U.S. continues its fawning (to the Jewish lobby) Middle East policy. Its meddlesome policy in Pakistan is destroying that country. Mr. Obama's U.S. continues its duplicitous policies against Iran. His trip to Egypt was full of sound and fury but nothing substantial came out of it. America and its allies continue to kowtow to Arab leaders who continue to allow Western corporations unfettered rape of their resources. His trip to Africa (Ghana) was also full of empty bombast. We now know that he came only to consolidate American oil interests in West Africa.
But were we all naïve in believing that Mr. Barack Obama could really have fundamentally changed his country's domestic and foreign policies?
I do not think that we in Africa truly believe that Barack Obama, a black man, could represent the change he claimed to believe in; the oligarchs that rule his country would never permit that. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, America today does not face any great threat to its hegemony that would necessitate its changing its imperial ways. The Chinese are far too busy consolidating their global commercial gains to have any appetite for superpower rivalry.
We knew that Mr. Obama could not single-handedly change the one-sided US Middle East policy -- the aggressive Israel lobby will never permit that. It was obvious to us that he cannot stop the wars his country is fighting in Pakistan, Iraq, and Afghanistan because the Merchants of Death who made their money from these senseless (to you and I) wars will not allow it. We also knew that Mr. Obama cannot do a darn thing to change his country's rapacious rape of the earth's resources.
We didn't expect Mr. Obama to fill our tables with food or our pockets with money. We knew that his countrymen and women face more challenges than those of us in our rural Africa. We knew that while it is still possible in parts of Africa to remain totally out of the cash economy, in cash-based economies like the U.S. money is simply everything. Having money determines whether you live or die. We didn't except Mr. Obama not to break campaign promises; no politician born of woman has fulfilled all his campaign pledges.
Yet we believed in him and we hailed him simply because we are eternal optimists. African philosophy thrives on optimism. However hopeless the case might seem, we always believe that there is surely going to be a better tomorrow. We do not subscribe to any philosophy that sees humans (God's creature) as inherently or irredeemably bad or evil. We also believe in the human capacity to be the agent of goodness.
That may explain why we find it difficult to understand those that literally are calling for Mr. Obama's head and painting his wife like a monkey. He's yet to launch a war against another nation. He didn't create the financial mess that engulfed the world. He didn't initiate the wars his country is fighting. And to be honest, given the political system in which he operates, he's doing a good job.
We were not naïve in supporting Mr. Obama and sharing his vision for "Change we can believe in," if only because in the final analysis, we have nothing to cling to except our hope for a better tomorrow.
And what exactly is wrong in that?
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