Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Lessons we can't learn from Obama

THE miraculous quality of the election of Senator Barack Obama as the first black President of the United States is sufficient testament to the fact that he is destiny's child. In ascending to the summit of political power in the world's most powerful state, Obama has soared above prejudice, discrimination and a nagging history of impossibility. Blacks in America were once treated as chattel - property to be owned and sold off by whites. In the past, during census exercises, a black person in the U.S. was never counted as a whole number; instead a black was regarded as three-fifths of a person, that is 60 per cent of a human being. Blacks were subjected to all kinds of dehumanizing and dangerous medical experiments, including placebo treatment for syphilis, which Ernest Hendon endured and survived till he died in his 90s nearly six years ago.

Senator Obama's ground-breaking election as the 44th President of the US is not just an atonement for slavery and its after-effect; it is a nullification of the hypocrisy that has often bracketed America's preachment of democracy and equality as a standard of behaviour for others to uphold while it created lace-curtains of inequality and autocratic oppression of the black minority population. With America's global reputation at its lowest, owing to outgoing President George W. Bush's war-mongering and dismal performance, the elections of November 4 have created a value far more than any amount of dollar can purchase for image laundering.

As I watched, on television, the glorious scenes following Obama's phenomenal transformation, my mind was immediately wired back to similar ecstatic moments I witnessed as a correspondent 14 years ago, when apartheid collapsed in South Africa. Both events welled up in me mixed emotions of unrestrained joy and inexorable grief. Joy, because of the spectacular effect of the shift in attitude and power that created a dramatic overhaul of the political landscape. When apartheid fell, it marked the enthronement of majority rule. With Obama's election, it is the elevation of the minority to the pinnacle of political administration. Obama is at the apex of the American dream. The regret lies in the fact that because I am neither South African nor American, I can only look inwards to see what magic we can enact in our turf to bedazzle the world and earn its respect. Unfortunately, Nigeria, my country, is a tragic left-behind.

It has been interesting watching and listening to Nigerians celebrate the rise of the Blackman in the U.S. The euphoria is analogous to our attitude whenever we succeed in sporting championships. We boast and brag, and exhort ourselves to use the current achievements as a touchstone for higher accomplishments in the future. Then, we all go to sleep, believing that fantastic results are achievable by idle hands. Thus, by the next tournament, we are often worse off, and we relapse into melancholy. It is clear, therefore, that unless we alter our attitudes in a revolutionary manner, we shall remain the world's laughing stock, instead of magnetizing its adoration.

It is healthy to be cynical that there are lessons we can't learn from Obama's success. Consider some ifs. What if Hillary Clinton had declared that the primaries were a do-or-die affair? Would Obama have emerged? Even after losing the very close primaries, Hillary hit the road, urging the 18 million Democrats who voted for her to unite behind Obama. But, what if the white supremacists had recoiled and by PDP-style consensus that is perennially subversive of the members' will - announced that Hillary was the consensus candidate? What if the Democratic Party had declared that there was no vacancy for a black presidential flagbearer? Or, more importantly, what if President George W. Bush's incumbent administration had announced that there was no vacancy in the White House? And that the Republican Party would, like our own PDP has boasted, rule for another 60 years?

Consider also the electoral college system. It is one week today since Obama was declared winner and everything is on a fast track for his inauguration on January 20 next year. McCain revealed his true self with his concession speech, probably the best he ever gave in the course of the electioneering. In the circumstance of the preparation for Obama's inaugural, it can be said that the matter of this year's US presidential election is closed. Not so? If it were in Nigeria, you can be certain that the announcement of the results a week ago would have since opened a new expressway to legal, constitutional and political confusion. This is because of how the electoral college system works. Voters in each state vote to pick electors who ultimately are the ones to choose the President in an electoral college. Each state has a number of electors assigned to it, by population and representation in Congress. California has the highest number of 55 electors. In all, there are 538 electors, a simple majority of whom is sufficient to win the election. That is why the magical figure of 270 is the post, and the first to go past it wins the race. In only two instances (1801 with Thomas Jefferson and in 1825 with John Q. Adams), no candidate could muster up to 270 electoral college voters, and the House of Representatives was then constitutionally mandated to choose the President.

Under the American system, the candidate who wins the majority votes in a state takes all the electors - so it is winner-take-all in terms of electoral college votes. Crucially, by choosing the electors, the voters are actually instructing the electors on how to vote in the electoral college. But there is no constitutional requirement that electors must vote for the candidate who scored the highest number of votes in the states, although some state laws make it mandatory for an elector not to cros