Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Obama's historic victory

NO election in American history has attracted the attention of the international community and generated so much interest as the recently concluded presidential one between Barack Obama of the Democratic Party and John McCain of the rival Republican Party. The not-so-distinguished presidency of George W. Bush meant the rest of the world was yearning for a new leadership in a nation whose policies and politics inextricably affect the rest of us. The candidacy, for the first time, of a charismatic black candidate in the person of Barack Obama introduced great excitement into an election which became known as that of history in the making. The majority of the outside world wanted history to be made, as enthusiasm for the youthful Barack Obama far outweighed interest in his older rival.

The American nation had, in the past, witnessed historic elections whose outcome had salutary consequences for its black people. The dramatic, pre-television age election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 tops the list. Abraham Lincoln founded the Republican Party in 1854 and sought the presidency of the United States under the platform of preventing slavery from spreading from the South. His philosophy did not resonate with the South where slavery thrived and a Civil War soon broke out about a month after his inauguration when South Carolina attempted to secede from the Union.

For the inquisitive reader interested in the irony of history, it should be remembered here that the Democratic Party which has now made it possible for Barack Obama to become America's first black president was the pro-slavery party. African-Americans, as they now prefer to be called, supported the Republican Party following their emancipation from slavery by the later-to-be assassinated Abraham Lincoln. The black Americans, however, shifted en masse to the Democratic Party following the Great Depression of the 1930s. That shift from Abraham Lincoln's Republican Party of Emancipation to Franklin Roosevelt's Democratic Party of economic prosperity is until today regarded as the greatest realignment in American political history.

However, anyone looking for a comparison of the excitement of those of us on the African continent about the election of Barack Obama would have to go back to that of John F. Kennedy in 1960. Kennedy's election generated great euphoria among members of the Catholic Church worldwide and the Irish community in particular because he was the first Irish Catholic President. This writer recollects that in 1963 when news came that Kennedy had been shot in Dallas, students of the Catholic secondary school he attended were quickly summoned to the chapel to pray for the President's recovery. When Kennedy's death was announced, the Irish priests could hardly contain their grief. John F. Kennedy initiated the civil rights reforms which eventually became law under the administration of his successor, Lyndon Johnson.

The United States of America is the most powerful nation on earth; to be president of that great nation is no mean achievement for anyone. The Barack Obama story is perhaps of greater significance than the Kennedy story not least because of the history of slavery and dehuman- isation of blacks in America. There was once a time when a black person was counted as a fraction of a human being for the purpose of taxation and representation. There was also once a time when a black person could not vote because his or her grandfather did not vote. There is this interesting story of a Democratic candidate for election who said he did not welcome a black person's vote cause it would diminish his victory! Of course Barack Obama is not a descendant of slaves but slavery indeed tarnished every black human being. The Obama story calls for celebration by all mankind because in it we all feel redeemed somehow.

The fact that Obama's victory is merited provides additional cause for celebration of a rare super star. He conducted himself well to the admiration of all of us. His campaigns were exceptionally brilliant, as were also his organisation and mobilisation of support. He outsmarted his rival, Senator John McCain, in each of the three televised debates. Of course his case was substantially helped by the economic meltdown which invariably made consideration of the wallet more important than racial sentiment in an election which was more of a referendum on the unpopular George W. Bush than anything else.

Barack Obama was peaked at the relatively young age of 47, because no matter how his presidency turns out, the electoral victory of November 2008 is the defining moment for him and black community. However, we must continue to pray for him because his election does not mean that racism is dead with all its viciousness. He will earn respect for the black race if, unlike his incompetent cousins on the African continent, he actually goes on to become one of America's great presidents. His election as it is, has psychological significance for all of us.

At some stage the euphoria about a black man becoming president of the United States will die down and the reality of Africa's parlous circumstances will sink in. With a determination to inject balance and objectivity into our discussion of the American contest, this writer once said that mother Africa is still the theatre where the progress of the black race can be measured. Bad governance, corruption and mismanagement have become our shared attribute. Preventable diseases contribute to death with the same viciousness as inter-ethnic conflicts. We have a large population of men and women who have certificates but do not know their rights. The rest of the world continues to view the black race with contempt because Africa has refused to sort itself out.

The story of Barack Obama is significant, not just because of Obama himself. It is the story of known and unknown African Americans who stepped on stubborn toes for the sake of freedom. The story of slaves who revolted against their masters; the story of the Rosa Parks who refused to obey laws that degraded their humanity, and the story of the Martin Luther Kings and Malcolm Xs who put their own lives on the line for the sake of future generations.

It is also the story of great and immortal presidents like Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy who sided with fairness and paid the ultimate price through the assassin's bullets. If Africa is to be one of the great continents of the future, commitment and sacrifice must come from the present generation. This article is dedicated to Chief Gani Fawehinmi who has been teaching us in Nigeria that the future is greater than the present - that we must not sacrifice the future on the altar of today's greed.