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Africa's lesson from Obama win
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By He Wenping

After the conclusion of the Beijing Olympic Games in late August, I arrived at the Nordic African Institute in Uppsala, Sweden for a three-month stay as a guest researcher. While there I felt the impact of the US presidential election on Africa and northern Europe.

Before Election Day the prevailing view of people there can be summed up in the disappointment with the Bush administration and the wish for Barack Obama to win whenever they were asked of their opinion about American politics and primary election.

On Nov 4, Tolu, a fellow researcher from Nigeria with whom I shared the office, stayed up all night (because of the time difference it was night time when Americans cast their votes and waited for the result) watching the BBC coverage of the US presidential election. He kept tabs of the ballot counts in each US state as they were announced one after another with no less attention than he would put on the presidential election of his own country.

The excitement, aroused by the news that Obama had been elected the 44th president of the United States, in Africa and especially in his father's birth country Kenya to a certain extent probably surpassed that in the US. People went on the streets cheering and dancing; newspapers and websites were overflowing with articles singing his praises, while African heads of state lost no time to congratulate him; and the Kenyan government took one step further by declaring Nov 4 a public holiday.

Some African commentators compared the tremendous political passion and hope in Africa triggered by Obama's election as the next US president to the impact on the continent of the moment Nelson Mandela, former president of South Africa, walked out of prison on Feb 11, 1990.

The difference between the two historic events is that Mandela's release signified decades of support for the South African people's fight for racial equality by other African nations was approaching the decisive victory, South Africa's apartheid would soon be buried and the country, the most powerful in Africa, would soon end its hostility toward other African nations and assume the role of spearheading the continent's advance toward rejuvenation and self-empowerment.

As for Barack Obama, seen by Africans as one of their own, his victory in the US presidential election showed the whole world an ordinary African-American with no political background to lean on had finally reached the country's power summit; Africans once again felt so proud of their skin color, and a light of hope had been lit for Africa to forge a true partnership with America the superpower as well as to end poverty with development.

Indeed there is no doubt that "pride" and "hope" are key words the two historic events share. Having experienced centuries of colonial rule and the humiliation of slave trade and the difficulties and setbacks along the path of development in the past 50 years or so, all Africans are now determined to achieve "the rise of Africa" and "building strength in unity", which is also part of the African Union's guiding principle.

Therefore it shouldn't come as a surprise that Africa takes Obama's election campaign rallying cry of "change" and his personal experience as an African-American brought up in a single-parent family who has made it step by step all the way to the White House to heart, because that is the way Africans want to follow, too.

That Africa is taking off in the 21st century is no less believable than Obama's statement after winning the US presidency: "Everything is possible." Little wonder some Africans see Obama's victory as "the triumph of all those nations in the world that were once oppressed and marginalized".

South African President Kgalema Motlanthe also said that Obama's win has brought hope to American people's desire for change but also to all Africans living in Africa and elsewhere in the world.

No doubt Africa has been disappointed by the Bush administration's African policy in the past eight years and is hoping wholeheartedly for the next US government, led by "Africa's son" Obama, to turn a new leaf in US-African ties.

As Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga said clearly, his country hopes the US government will adopt a more pro-Africa policy and increase US investment in and trade with Africa and Kenya will do its best to cooperate with the US in fighting terrorism in the Horn of Africa.

Even earlier, African Union Commission Chairman Jean Ping expressed at a meeting in the US the hope that the next US government will (1) expand and strengthen its contact with Africa; (2) increase high-level communication and dialog between the US and Africa; (3) reinforce the ties between various institutions and government departments of the two sides; (4) continue to play the lead role in gathering international support for Africa's development; and (5) provide concrete and explicit support for Africa's current initiatives and projects.

Some Africans have called on via their blogs all African leaders to set off immediately for Washington and start lobbying, to convince Obama he needs to make Africa a priority on his foreign affairs agenda before he is officially sworn in as the new US president in January.

It is even more admirable that, while praising, cheering and hoping, the African media has also pointed out that Obama, despite his African lineage, is America's president, whose top priority naturally will be US interests. What Africa should do is not "beg" for US "help" but seize the historic opportunity to forge true partnership with the United States.

Obama is not God. And ultimately it is up to Africans themselves to solve Africa's problems. It would be a colossal mistake if Africa saw the US as its "savior", a fact already written down in history.

Some African scholars have shown considerable insight in their analyses of the US election and its significance to Africa from such angles as racial harmony, going beyond tribal politics and ways to guide and inspire the younger generation's political passion. They believe Africa can learn a lot from the latest US election for the sake of advancing and improving its own democratic development.

On the other hand, the favorable feelings of Africans toward and expectations for the US, kindled by Obama's election as the next US president, serve as a fresh opportunity for the US to increase its influence in Africa.

However, one person's gain is another's loss, as hope is more often than not accompanied by disappointment and opportunities by risks. The US and African leaders should seize the historical opportunity to turn hope into a driving force behind Africa's development. Obama's election victory will be seen as an undisputed milestone in early 21st century that has brought "fearless hope" and "change" to both the US and Africa if the two sides succeed in this respect.

The author is a researcher with Institute of West Asian and African Studies of Chinese Academy of Social Sciences

(China Daily November 19, 2008)

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