A great man, not yet a great president
The 44th president of the US has a triple ancestral heritage. Barack Obama is descended from Africans, from Muslims and from mainstream Americans. In the quests for US presidency Obama emphasised his affinity with mainstream Americans, and underplayed both his African and his Muslim ancestry.
What should be the expectations of his presidency among Muslims and among people of African descent, both within the US and worldwide?
The bases of such expectations have to rely on three kinds of credentials of Obama.
One set of the credentials would base our expectations as existential, concerning Obama’s own identity and his personal character and attributes. Obama’s intelligence, his social and political skills and his personal style of leadership are, of course, part and parcel of the man.
Also existential is his African and Muslim ancestry. He is the first US president whose father was born a Muslim and whose grandfather was, by all accounts, devout in the faith. He is the first president to bear names that are neither European nor Jewish.
His first name was based on the Swahili name baraka (blessing), his second name, Hussein, is clearly Arabo-Muslim, and his family name, Obama, is indisputably Luo from Kenya.
It is to his credit that he never tried to suppress his middle name, which was politically the most risky in the US.
Obama is also the first US president whose childhood education was partly in a Muslim country; indeed, within the most populous Muslim society in the world – Indonesia.
Obama’s childhood was also in Hawaii, arguably the most multi-cultural part of the US.
Obama’s school in Indonesia was secular and not a traditional madrasa. But his fellow students were overwhelmingly Muslim, as were, indeed, the majority of his instructors.
He was exposed to Islam in the human composition of the school, even if not necessarily in the syllabus and the curriculum. Barack Obama probably learnt more about Islam from his Indonesian stepfather (his mother’s second husband) than from his biological Kenyan father.
Next to these existential criteria for basing our expectations of the Obama presidency are the credentials of performance itself.
Within the first 100 days of his presidency, Obama made no spectacular move to either Africa or black America, apart from First Lady Michelle’s visits to black schools and to places which help to feed the poor and the homeless of Washington, DC.
Obama did also express concern about the Darfur crisis in the Sudan and tried to have an input in the quest to solve the problem.
But although his Afro-orientated gestures in his first hundred days were modest, Obama’s moves towards the Muslim world were more substantial.
His first major television interview for foreign audiences was with Arabiya television network, addressed to the Arab world.
He also addressed the people of Iran on their national day, extending the US’s hand of goodwill, if Iran would “unclench its own fist” towards the US.
Obama was the first US president since 1979 to call Iran by its official post-revolution name, the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The Obama administration also expressed its readiness to engage in direct negotiations with Iran concerning its nuclear programme and aspirations. The US had not abandoned its official suspicion that Iran’s nuclear motives were ultimately military, but the Obama administration was ready to join the Europeans in direct negotiations with Iran on those issues.
For the Arab-Israeli conflict, Obama appointed as his envoy the former majority leader in the US Senate, George Mitchell, an experienced mediator and negotiator who had successfully mediated the Good Friday agreement for Northern Ireland in 1998.
Unlike former US president Bill Clinton, who disproportionately entrusted the Arab-Israeli dispute to American Jews to handle, Senator George Mitchell has Lebanese as well as Irish ancestry.
Obama also appointed Richard Holbrook, another very experienced and distinguished mediator, as his special envoy for both Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Obama also invited the presidents of both Afghanistan and Pakistan to join him at the White House early in May 2009 for a more fundamental evaluation of their joint policies towards the Taliban insurgents in both countries and towards the struggle against Muslim extremists at large.
Although the government of Israel which came to power early in 2009 was at best lukewarm about a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian problem, the Obama administration has emphasised to both the Israelis and the Arabs that a two-state solution is still the policy of the US.
Vice-president Joseph Biden has also emphasised the two-state approach to Jewish audiences within the US.
Obama’s policy towards Africa has been less noteworthy than his moves towards the Muslim world. The president may feel inhibited precisely because his father was not only an African, but also a citizen of an African country. Obama may be cautious not to betray either racial nepotism or a manifest bias towards Africa.
When faced with a dilemma between helping Kenya and helping Bangladesh, Obama may feel compelled to help Bangladesh as a poorer and more deserving supplicant for US aid.
A question has been raised whether Africa on its own would have been better off if Hillary Clinton had been elected US president instead of Obama. Although Bill Clinton as president had made a major blunder about the events which led to the Rwanda genocide of 1994, his administration had demonstrated considerable friendship towards Africa. His tour in 1998 was the most extensive visit by an incumbent US president to the African continent in history.
While under Obama the US navy was authorised to open fire on three Somali “pirates” who were holding a US captain hostage, Bill Clinton withheld the use of deadly force on the Somali street in Mogadishu even after eight Americans were killed and at least one dead American body was dragged provocatively with jeers in the streets of the Somali capital. Instead of ordering retaliation, Clinton ordered the prompt withdrawal of all US troops from Somalia.
With regard to Hillary Clinton herself, she was such an admirer of African traditions of bringing up children that she published a book carrying the African title of It Takes a Village: And Other Lessons Children Teach Us.
Obama’s Africa policy may become more active in a positive sense in the months and years ahead. But on the evidence so far, it does seem credible that the African continent itself would have been better off if Hillary Clinton had become president of the US.
On the other hand, if we examine the black world as a whole instead of just the African continent, Obama’s election to the presidency has set a remarkable precedent in upward political mobility.
The US is only the first white majority country to have elected a man of colour to its highest office in the land. This US precedent may lead to the election of a black prime minister in the UK, a black president of France, and even a black chancellor of Germany before the end of this century.
A Somali prime minister of Italy in another 50 years is no longer deemed inconceivable. After all, the US has had a Luo president sooner than has Kenya, which has a population of several million Luo.
It is also not often realised that Obama is not only the most powerful black man in world politics today, but the most powerful man of colour in the history of civilisation. Obama is more powerful than the pharaoh who forced Moses out of Egypt, more powerful than the Ethiopian emperor who defeated the Italians in 1896, more powerful than Shaka Zulu, whose legend has captured the imagination of both European and African writers, inspiring novels, biographies and historical studies in several tongues.
When we say Obama is more powerful than Shaka Zulu, Ramses II of Egypt and Menelik II of Ethiopia, we do not mean that Obama is greater than any of them. We do not know yet how great Obama is likely to be.
What we do know is that he is the commander-in-chief of US forces, which are greater than all the African armies in history added together. Currently it is estimated that the US has 1 000 (yes, 1 000) military bases overseas.
Officially, the Pentagon counts 865 bases sites, but this notoriously unreliable number omits all US bases in Iraq (likely more than 100) and Afghanistan (80 and counting), among many other well-known and secretive bases. Others are scattered around the globe in places like Aruba and Australia, Bulgaria and Bahrain, Colombia and Greece, Djibouti, Egypt, Kuwait, Qatar, Romania, Singapore and, of course, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba – just to name a few. This is quite apart from long-standing bases in Germany and Korea.
In sheer power, there is therefore no doubt that Obama is in a class by himself among black leaders in the history of civilisation. But what about Obama’s impact upon African-Americans?
In 2008 African-Americans voted for Obama in percentages of more than 90 percent – after some hesitation in the early stages of his primary campaign for the presidency.
But in the course of his first 100 days there was some black disenchantment because Obama was perceived as being in denial about the importance of such African-American concerns as affirmative action and reparations for past injustices.
At African-American public meetings to grade Obama’s performance during those 100 days, some African-Americans graded him as low as C-minus. Others gave him an incomplete.
But in fairness to Obama, some of his most important policies were bound to benefit millions of African-Americans, although the policies were not specifically focused on them. His aspiration to make health care as affordable and universal as possible was bound to benefit hundreds of thousands of uninsured African-Americans.
His plan to try to make college education more affordable was also bound to benefit generations of young blacks, if Obama succeeded.
Indeed, many of these policies were likely to yield greater benefits to African-Americans than even affirmative action, which in the past had often benefited white women more than black men.
With regard to health policies affecting the African continent, Obama has a tough act to follow when compared with George W Bush.
Bush persuaded Congress to allocate billions of dollars to combat HIV-Aids in Africa and the Caribbean countries.
Bush’s strategy against HIV-Aids abroad was arguably his most enlightened policy, though his accompanying condition of sexual abstinence was naive, and was honoured more in the breach than the observance.
Young Obama is already a great African-American, but not yet a great president.
Indeed, Obama is a remarkable man for having broken the glass ceiling and became the first black head of state of any white majority country. Now that he has been re-elected, he has a chance of becoming a great president.
- Mazrui is an African scholar based in the US. This is an edited version of his presentation at the University of Pretoria, sponsored by the university and the Human Research Council.