Barack Obama and Africa

Barack Obama’s victory in the US presidential election has been followed closely all over the world, but perhaps nowhere as closely as in Africa. Many Africans and African leaders have hopes that the paternal roots in Kenya of the President-elect will signal new relations between the US and Africa.

Among the African leaders who congratulated Barack Obama on his victory, South Africa’s President Kgalema Motlanthe probably echoed the sentiment of many when he said that “the election ... carries with it hope for millions of your countrymen and women as much as it is for millions of people of ... African descent both in the continent of Africa as well as those in the diaspora".

Other commentators warned of too much optimism and said US policy towards Africa was likely not to undergo bold changes after Obama has taken his oath of office in January 2009. Professor Thomas Schaller of the University of Baltimore, quoted by The Times of South Africa, said that "from a diplomatic stand point the relationship may be immediately thawed...as he was the preferred candidate. People (in South Africa) wanted Obama to win”. Schaller also warned that foreign aid could shrink, as a result of the financial crisis.

At the Nordic Africa Institute researchers and staff gathered on Wednesday afternoon to reflect on the consequences for Africa and the world of the historic election. Cyril Obi, programme coordinator and researcher at the institute pointed out that “the power of Obama lies in the symbolism” of the election.

“What Africans will be thinking now is that ‘if this guy could come from this background and beat McCain, then – yes I can’. This shows how important individuals can be as symbols.”

Obi also emphasized that Obama’s primary loyalty is to the US and that it’s necessary to be realistic about the consequences. “The election of Obama primarily means change for America in the world.”

Amanda Hammar, researcher at the NAI with Zimbabwean and European background, noted that Barack Obama “practices in a different paradigm, trying to find different solutions”.

Mai Palmberg, the NAI expert on African culture, noted that Obama certainly isn’t the first leading black politician in the US, although he is the first president with an African background. The result of the election, she said, could mean “less racial politics in the US.”

“People in the black ghettos of America wanted to vote for Obama not because he is black, but because he is a good candidate,” she said.

Christian Palme

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