Friday, November 28, 2008

Will Obama be assassinated? (I)

By Farooq A. Kperogi

In the heady after-glow of Obama’s epochal victory, the world seems unmindful of a real, ever-present danger that haunts him: the danger of assassination. And this is no idle alarmist hysteria.

Although Obama won more votes than any presidential candidate in America’s entire history, suggesting that a majority of Americans judged him on the basis of the content of his character rather than on the color of his skin (to paraphrase Martin Luther King), there is still a lunatic fringe out there that is so disconcerted by his victory that it will stop at nothing to assassinate him.

To be sure, threats to Obama’s life—or anticipatory concerns over his safety—predated his November 4 victory. In fact, shortly after his election into the U.S. Senate, his wife, Michelle Obama, had been discomfited by the Secret Service protection he was given.

She said the fact that there was a need to protect him that elaborately indicated that her husband’s life was somehow in danger. Well, perhaps, at the time, it was just a prevenient move to forestall any potential threats to his life since he was only the third African American ever to be elected to the U.S. Senate.

However, concerns about his safety grew from hushed whispers in the privacy of homes to loud, anguished verbalization of concerns in the public domain when it became clear that he was no lightweight who wanted to be a mere addition to the long list of “also-rans.” In fact, given that even “also-ran” African-American presidential candidates were not immune from death threats, the worries about his safety became even more justified.

The African American civil rights activist Jesse Jackson, for instance, received racially-tinged death threats during his presidential run in 1988, prompting the government to provide him with Secret Service protection. And former Secretary of State Colin Powell ruled out his White House bid because his wife, Alma Powell, expressed fear that he would be murdered.

With this backdrop, early in the Democratic presidential primaries, there were many Americans—white and black alike—who were reluctant to support Obama because they loved him too much to NOT want him to win; they thought he would be assassinated if he emerged victorious, and the only way they thought they could save his life was to deny him their support.

"For many black supporters, there is a lot of anxiety that he will be killed,” said Princeton University political science professor Melissa Harris-Lacewell. “It is on people's minds. You can't make a prediction like this - like he has a 50 per cent chance of getting shot. But the greater his visibility and the greater his access to people, there is a danger."

But it was Hillary Clinton, whom Obama now seems set to pick as his Secretary of State, who first famously darkly implied that Obama would be assassinated. In response to persistent calls that she withdraw from the Democratic primary race and concede to Obama in view of his insurmountable lead, she practically said she shouldn’t be counted out just yet because Obama could be assassinated before the Democratic Convention.

"My husband did not wrap up the nomination in 1992 until he won the California primary somewhere in the middle of June, right?” she told the editorial board of the Argus Leader on May 23 this year in defense of her obstinate decision to stay in the race. “We all remember Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June in California. I don't understand it."

Robert “Bobby” Kennedy, the younger brother of the late President John F. Kennedy, was the leading candidate in the Democratic primary election in 1968 until he was assassinated in California shortly after midnight of June 5, dying on June 6. He had just won the all-important California primary and was almost certain to lock the nomination before he was shot by a hired Palestinian assassin.

Clinton’s comment was an unguarded slip that not only revealed her subconscious preoccupations but that helped bring the fears—and anticipation—of an Obama assassination to the forefront of national discourse early in the campaign.

In fact, mentions of the fate that befell President John F. Kennedy and his brother, Senator Bobby Kennedy, intensified after Obama was joined on the campaign trail by Caroline Kennedy (John F. Kennedy’s first and only surviving child) and Senator Edward “Ted” Kennedy (JFK’s only surviving younger brother).

“I’m pretty familiar with the history,” Obama once said in response to a question about the fear that he might be assassinated like the Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. “Obviously, it was an incredible national trauma, but neither Bobby Kennedy nor Martin Luther King had Secret Service protection.”

On occasions, he simply ignored worries about his safety. “It’s not something that I’m spending time thinking about day to day,” Obama said. “I made a decision to get into this race. I think anybody who decides to run for president recognizes that there are some risks involved, just like there are risks in anything.”

But Obama couldn’t shrug off the concerns for too long. Soon, he was forced to address the issue more frontally because it threatened his very political future. His supporters won’t stop worrying.

“I’ve got the best protection in the world,” Obama assured his supporters who openly raised concerns about his safety at a campaign rally. “So stop worrying.”

But people, including high-profile figures, who love (and hate) him didn’t stop worrying—or anticipating the worst for him. For instance, former governor of Minnesota and early Obama supporter Jesse Ventura warned during a TV show that Obama could be in danger, not because of his race but because of what he represents.

"I believe very strongly that if an independent candidate like myself - a rogue - were to get into the President's race legitimately, if the polls looked like he had a chance to win, I believe that candidate would either be physically assassinated or would be assassinated credibility-wise or in some manner by our government because I do not believe they would ever allow a true independent or a citizen to become President of the United States," said Ventura.

"I say this in all seriousness—watch out Barack Obama," he added.

British Nobel Prize winner Doris Lessing and supporter of Hillary Clinton provoked mass outrage on February 10 this year when she said, with almost omniscient airs, that Obama would be assassinated if he becomes the U.S. president. "He would probably not last long, a black man in the position of president,” Lessing told a Swedish newspaper. “They would kill him."

The sense that Obama was in danger of being murdered during the primary season put the Secret Service bodyguards attached to Obama on an unusually high alert.

A reporter for the London Daily Telegraph witnessed and reported a creepy incident on January 8, 2008, on the eve of the Iowa caucuses, that highlighted the heightened concerns over Obama’s safety. A white man was screaming "Obama! Obama!!" as he ran toward him. Obama’s Secret Service bodyguards stopped dead.

“But as the agents prepared to draw their weapons,” the reporter wrote, “it became clear that the man was simply an enthusiastic Obama supporter who wanted to shake the candidate's hand.” He added: “Obama, who had seemed surprised at the shouting of his surname, recovered quickly and shook the man's hand.”

After the handshake an Obama aide told the supporter: "Hey, you can't do that, man. Be careful. You freaked those guys out."

This incident dramatizes the intensity of the worries over Obama’s safety and security. Similar incidents have been reported in other states.

And, although Obama’s Secret Service protection is almost unparalleled in its comprehensiveness and vigilance, some conspiracy theorists once alleged that Obama had been set up for an assassination attempt during a February 20 rally in Dallas, Texas, after it emerged that the Secret Service gave the order to stop screening for weapons a full hour before the event began.

It was at that same spot that the late John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

To be continued

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Thinking of home from abroad (IV)

By Farooq A. Kperogi

One of the biggest germinal tragedies of Nigeria, as Chinua Achebe pointed out in his The Trouble with Nigeria, is that we never had the fortune to have a corps of far-sighted national leaders. We have not had our Mahatma Gandhi or Kwame Nkrumah—(a) transcendent national leader (s) that would symbolically embody our nationalist aspirations.

Even the seminal thoughts of our so-called nationalists, Achebe pointed out, were hallmarked by what he called a pious materialistic woolliness and self-centered pedestrianism.

The so-called nationalists derived the social basis of their legitimacy by sharpening the striking edges of ethnicity and religious bigotry. And that, sadly, is the tradition that continues to define our politics to this day. Unfortunately, we worship the memories of these “nationalists” and risk the wrath of millions of people if we dare as much as question their life and politics.

Many Northerners think of Ahmadu Bello as an infallible saint, an unerring guardian of our values. Many Yorubas think of Obafemi Awolowo as God's representative on earth who was beyond reproach. And many Igbos think of Nnamdi Azikwe as a God-send, although to a lesser degree than Northerners and Yorubas idolize their regional heroes.

But it was the originative divisive politics of these three politicians—and their minions— that has robbed us of a chance to cultivate a sense of nationhood. Their heirs continue with this tradition. And they're passing this virus to people of our generation.

The other day, I watched a podcast interview Wole Soyinka granted to Louis Henry Gates, an African American professor at Harvard University who also edits a Washington Post-owned online magazine of African American culture called An American friend of mine called my attention to it.

When asked why Nigeria is still stuck in prolonged backwardness in spite of its vast human and material resources, all Soyinka could say was that it was all because of the North. He then went on to regurgitate this tired, all-too-familiar narrative about how the British inflated the population figure of the North and manipulated elections to favor Northerners at independence, and how the North has been a drag on the nation ever since then. And so on.

I was sick to my stomach by the utter, gratuitous insularity of his response. I thought such an open display of undiluted bile against fellow Nigerians in a foreign country was unnecessary. The interviewer appeared to be taken aback, too.

But this is the attitude of many Nigerians I have come across here. Anytime Nigerians in the diaspora get together —whether in online discussion groups or physically—most of our discussions sooner or later degenerate into the hurling of ethnic and regional slurs.

In spite of living in the West, especially in America, where primordial barriers are progressively dissolving, as evidenced in the election of Obama as president of a nation that is over 70 percent white, most of us still can’t rise above the urge of seeing the world through our narrow primordial prisms.

So, one of our main troubles in Nigeria is our perpetual inability to forge a collective sense of Nigerianness. We still owe loyalties to our primeval ethnic identities at the expense of an overarching national identity.

Of course, it was British colonialists who purposively structured our inter-ethnic relations in that way. They developed discursive strategies to encourage us to inhabit reconstructed indigenous cultures and discourses aimed at furthering cultural and ethnic difference.

They thereby forced idealized ideological content onto ethnic groups to sustain and even reconstruct “identities,” identities that were to be subservient to colonial rule but antagonistic to and unhealthily competitive with other Nigerian ethnicities.

It seems to me that over the years, three kinds of ethnic projects have emerged in Nigeria. There is what I call ecumenical ethnicity. This kind of ethnic project is, to a large extent, all-embracing, provided people internalize certain core cultural assumptions and practices of the original ethnic group.

Then there is what I call expansionist ethnicity, which is also all-embracing but in a limited, horizontal way because it only seeks to incorporate what it perceives as its cultural, linguistic and ethnic cousins.

Finally, you have what I call exclusionary ethnicity, which fastidiously draws distinction lines between it and others, and makes conditions for entry into its fold almost impossible.

The Hausa ethnic identity is ecumenical because anybody can be Hausa provided he speaks the Hausa language with native proficiency, dresses like the Hausa, believes in and practices Islam, etc. An influential 1975 academic essay by Frank Salamone entitled “Becoming Hausa: ethnic identity change and its implications for the study of ethnic pluralism and stratification” captures this phenomenon very well.

The Yoruba ethnic identity is expansionist in that it seeks to attract and embrace all who share even the remotest cultural, linguistic and ethnic similarities with it. There have been attempts, for instance, to bring Igalas of Kogi and Itshekiris of Delta to the Yoruba fold.

The Igbo ethnic identity is, also, to a large extent, expansionist, although in a less successful fashion than Yoruba. Attempts to encourage the Ikwerre of Rivers State and the Igboid groups in Delta State to buy into the idea of an overarching Igbo identity have not been very successful, perhaps because of the politically perilous situation of the Igbos in contemporary Nigeria consequent upon the lingering effects of the Civil War.

Most other ethnicities in Nigeria—at least relative to the “big three”— are exclusionary. You are either in or you are out.

Well, if we must make any progress in Nigeria, it is not simply enough that we develop technologically; our leaders must also actively encourage and internalize a culture that promotes a national consciousness. And one of the best ways to do that is to give people a sense that their ethnicity, religion, etc do not constitute barriers to their aspirations.

Like Malcolm X once pointed out, if you condemn a person on account of his race, ethnicity or such other invariable attributes about which they have no control, you have condemned that person even before he was born. He called it the worst crime that can ever be committed. And I couldn’t agree more.

This does not, in any way, suggest that we should give up our ethnicities. The truth is that people generally tend to initiate and sustain relational intercourse with their kind. And this is basically a consequence of a primal ease with the known, the familiar. You may call it a kind of involuntary, but sometimes benign, xenophobia.

But as primordial boundaries dissolve with the relentless onslaught of globalization (not globalization in the sense of the merciless march of international finance capital) and other advances in human relations, these primal bondings are becoming irrelevant. That's why there are a million and one leaps of relational encounters across primordial boundaries, and people are realizing that the fears that drive them apart are groundless.

Primordial societies are usually closed societies, and openness tends to be associated with progress.

Of course, I know that it is reductionist, even simplistic, to expect that some day, all human beings will cease to relate on the basis of primordial factors, but I'm positive that the more people relate, the more they will appreciate the superficiality and fluidity of the factors that separate them.


Saturday, November 15, 2008

Thinking of home from abroad (III)

By Farooq A. Kperogi

This country is now ours, and it is we who can make or mar it. We no longer exist at the pleasure of the British—at least not in the same way it was some 50 years ago.

In any case, if we insist on consent as a precondition for nationhood, most of our “ethnic nationalities” should not even exist in the first place. For instance, there wouldn’t be an ethnic group called the Yoruba.

Obafemi Awolowo, MKO Abiola, Abraham Adesanya, Ernest Shonekan, Gani Fawehinmi, Wole Soyinka, Femi Falana, etc would not be Yorubas. Why? Because they all come from parts of Western Nigeria that was not “Yoruba” until British colonialists incorporated (read “forced”) them into that identity.

The word "Yoruba" has no meaning in the Yoruba language. It was originally the Hausa word to refer to people in present-day Oyo, Osun, parts of Lagos and parts of Kwara. It didn't include Ondo, Ogun, and Ekiti—and certainly didn’t include the Okun people of Kogi who are now erroneously called “Yorubas in Kogi.”

Etannibi Alemika, a well-regarded professor of sociology at the University of Jos, who hails from the Okun part of Kogi, once pointed out, to the amazement of his audience, that the Okun people were non-Yoruba people whom Yoruba people are “aggressively trying to assimilate.” He said most Okun people who live in rural areas, in fact, neither understand nor speak the Yoruba language.

I had a first-hand experiential encounter with this reality when I attended a wedding in a small town in Ekiti State in the early 2000s. My Yoruba friends from Lagos were shocked to discover that in rural Ekiti State most people neither spoke nor understood Yoruba.

When we asked a couple of elderly people for directions to the venue of the wedding, they couldn’t answer us because they didn’t understand Yoruba. They responded in Ekiti language, which is incomprehensible to “mainstream” Yoruba people.

In rural Ondo and Ogun, and even parts of rural Lagos, you will find lots of places where Yoruba is as incomprehensible to people as it is in, for instance, Sokoto State. Maybe I am exaggerating a little bit here, but the truth is that the people of Ondo, Ekiti, Ogun and western Kogi were never a part of the Oyo Empire, to whose people the name “Yoruba” was initially associated with.

That’s why both Awolowo and Adesanya (people who went on to become “leaders of the Yoruba race”) are on record as having said that they were first Ijebus before they were Yoruba, and then later Nigerian.

Interestingly, the people who were called “Yoruba” by the Hausas did not even identify themselves by that name until the twilight of the 19th century. They identified themselves, instead, by such names as "Oyo," "Ijesa," "Obolo," "Igbomina," "Ibadan," etc. This is what historians discovered when they examined the records of the slaves brought from western Nigeria to America in the 16th century. There was not a single slave who identified himself as “Yoruba.”

Well, it was our British colonial conquerors that foisted a “Yoruba” identity on all the people who inhabit the western portion of Nigeria—without the consent of the people. In other words, large swaths of people were "forced" into a Yoruba identity, in the same way that the Nigerian identity was “forced” on all of us.

I’m not by this ignoring the undeniable linguistic and cultural similarities, however initially distant, between the people that are called Yoruba today, but it took colonialism, horrible as it is, for this to be discovered and mobilized for political purposes.

What I have said of the Yoruba people is also true of many other ethnic groups in Nigeria. For instance, the word “Hausa” is not even a Hausa word; it is the ancient Songhai word for “southerner.” (The Songhai people, whom we today call the Zarma or Zaberma of Niger Republic, are Hausaland’s immediate northern neighbors).

Bala Usman also demonstrated convincingly that the pre-colonial caliphate in the North was not nearly as cohesive as most accounts of the period crack it up to be. It was a loose collection of people that only developed a politically consequential collective sense of singularity in the face of the threats of colonialism.

The case of the Igbo is the most dramatic. It is the quintessential colonial creation, but I won’t go into that today. So, one of the ironies of the emerging ethnic nationalism in Nigeria today is that it was inspired by British colonialism, which advocates of a “sovereign national conference” blame for the “forced” union that is Nigeria.

The point of these examples, though, is not to suggest that ethnic groups didn’t exist before colonialism—or that organized ethnic self-identification and self-expression didn’t precede colonialism. To make that argument would be crassly ahistorical and even self-hating.

However, my point is that contemporary expressions of exhibitionist ethnic nationalism all across Nigeria—expressions that sometimes elevate and exaggerate collective fictions (such as the notion of the “Yoruba race”) and that sometimes deny the reality of cultural and linguistic sameness (such as the distinction without a difference between the Efik and the Ibibio whose languages are more mutually intelligible than Egba and “Yoruba” are)—are the consequence of our colonial encounter with Britain.

In order words, exclusionary, maximalist and expansionist notions of our ethnicity are a byproduct of the same process and structure that produced Nigeria. In a sense, therefore, our current ethnic identities are also a holdover from colonialism. Should we now reject these identities because they were "forced" on us by colonialism?

Do we, perhaps, need to first renegotiate the basis of our colonially-inspired ethnicities before we renegotiate the basis of our nationhood? Where do we start and where do we end? And how do we want to do that, anyway? By bringing together a motley gaggle of perfidious, self-interested, and insular rascals with maximalist positions to shout at each in a so-called conference of ethnic nationalities?

For me, that’s a disingenuous and intellectually lazy way to confront the delicate art of nation-building and statecraft.

I agree that Nigerians should discuss ways to move the nation forward, but it is, to my mind, reactionary to begin talking, in the 21st century, about how we became a nation. What use is that knowledge to us? It's all too commonplace to deserve being dignified with a conference.

It's not our “forced” union that's responsible for the ethnic tensions in Nigeria. Of course, it's too much to expect different ethnic groups to exist in one country and not have tensions. Tension is a basic feature of all relationships.

There is no country on earth that does not have its share of racial or ethnic tensions. But the fact that Ife and Modakeke, who are all Yoruba, murdered each other for years is evidence that our “forced union” is not the problem here. The fact that Sunnis and Shiites, who are all Hausa, mindlessly killed each other in Sokoto only recently should be proof that homogeneity in and of itself cannot guarantee a tension-free relationship.

Now, I don’t want to be misunderstood as suggesting that there is something sacrosanct or inviolable about the Nigerian state. Nigeria is not some pre-ordained, divinely inspired union that must not be tampered with.

But the reasons often proffered by irredentists for contesting the basis of the union are not convincing. I personally think we have more reasons to sustain the union than we have to discontinue it.

To be concluded next week

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The strange meanings of “liberal” and “conservative” in America

This was first published in Weekly Trust Newspaper on December 17, 2005.

By Farooq A. Kperogi
Even though I have always eschewed, even disdained, glib and facile labels such as “liberal,” “progressive,” “conservative,” etc I had nonetheless always thought of myself as conforming to what would seem to be the consensual notions of a liberal.

However, after nearly a year of being in the United States, I’m no longer sure I’m a liberal. So am I now a conservative?

Well, first who is a liberal? It was Voltaire, the French philosopher, who once said, “If you must converse with me, first define your terms”—or something to that effect.

Although there is admittedly a lot of definitional vagueness in the conception of what constitutes a liberal, my own understanding of the term, which I don’t pretend to be anything other than drawn from the resources of popular imagination, is that it refers to someone who is not limited to or by established, conventional, orthodox, or authoritarian attitudes, views, or dogmas; who is free from bigotry.

It is also used to denote one who is amenable to proposals for reform, new ideas for progress, and is tolerant of the ideas and behavior of others. Generally speaking, it means one who is broad-minded and is not held in check by the tyranny of received wisdom.

In Nigeria’s political vocabulary, the most fashionable word for such a person is “progressive.” Now, most people in Nigeria who wear the tag of “progressivism” are some of the most backward characters I have ever come across.

Take, for instance, these Afenifere clowns who are a study in narrow-mindedness, gerontocractic arrogance, ethnic insularity—and worse—but who have blackmailed the Nigerian media (supposing the media are not themselves complicit with this intellectual fraud) into identifying them as “progressives,” and those who disagree with them as “conservatives.”

In the United States too, it’s traditional to draw a distinction between liberals and conservatives in every national debate. But unlike Nigeria where everybody avoids the label “conservative” like a plague, here people who think they are conservative not only accept the label but flaunt it.

And they have newspapers, TV stations and radio stations that popularize their ideology.

A conservative is generally understood to be a person who is resistant to change, who conforms to the standards and conventions of the upper-middle class, who has what Marxists would call “a bourgeois mentality.”

In America, however, it’s not that simple. Here, people who identify themselves as conservatives fall into two groups: The first group, often called the Christian Right, is made up of racist, inward-looking, xenophobic, Christian religious fundamentalists who resist, or struggle to reverse, the cultural turbulence of America.

The second group is composed of mean-spirited, ruthless and vulturistic capitalists who can suck the blood of a dead person if they are convinced that his blood has profit value.

The liberal crowd here is the natural attraction for all racial and religious minorities. But as most immigrants from non-Western cultural backgrounds find, there is a strange meaning to being liberal in America.

The main issues that appear to define the liberal agenda in America are abortion and gay rights and gun control.

To be considered a liberal, you must support the right of women to abort their pregnancies if they so choose (which is no longer called abortion right, but “pro-choice”) and for homosexuals to be allowed to get married.

The third is support for the abolition of the death penalty. But this is not as much a “hot-button” issue, as Americans say it, as abortion and gay rights.

I personally have no problem with the first one if the circumstances for abortion are justified by medical expediency or, in the case of married people, if the decision to abort is the consequence of the mutual consent of the husband and wife.

However, I have issue with homosexuality and abolition of the death penalty.

But, first, what do American conservatives think of abortion? As far as American conservatives are concerned, any abortion, however so defined, is murder.

But it is supremely ironic that the people who hold these opinions are the same people who not only support but mastermind the mass murder of innocent people in Iraq and elsewhere in the name of evangelizing the gospel of democracy and freedom.

Similarly, a popular conservative radio talk-show host (most radio talk shows in America are owned by conservatives) advocated that the most efficacious way to reduce crime in America is to abort all black babies!

And this man was not some unknown quantity on the lunatic fringe. His name is William Bennett, a former minister of education under Ronald Reagan and drugs czar under the first George Bush.

The self-described Christian moral crusader said in an unguarded moment during his talk show: “If you wanted to reduce crime, you could, if that were your sole purpose; you could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down.” So, for this conservative, abortion is reprehensible only where black people are not concerned.

Another conservative Christian broadcaster and proprietor of the Regent University by the name of Pat Robertson this year called for the assassination of the president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez. His reason: The president is turning his oil-rich South American country into “a launching pad for communist infiltration and Muslim extremism all over the continent.” Some conservative!

American liberals were, of course, very loud in denouncing the comments by Bennett and Robertson as despicably racist, insensitive and utterly condemnable. But while I despise these conservatives for their xenophobia, racism and their embrace of the cruelties of capitalism, I find myself strangely agreeing with their views on homosexuality and the death penalty.

In the United States, as in most Western countries, homosexuality is being increasingly glamorized and celebrated especially by so-called liberals. Conservatives despise homosexuals, and will rather die than see gay marriage given official imprimatur by government.

As for the liberals, anybody who as much as tries to express the faintest reservation about homosexuality is labeled “homophobic’—which is becoming as dreadful as being called racist or some other name of disapproval.

But I can’t help thinking that homosexuality is either a sick, aberrant sexual perversion or unbridled carnal narcissism. When I say this, my liberal friends call me “conservative,” and “intolerant.”

They claim that homosexuals can’t help being what they are; that they are inexorably wired bio-chemically to be attracted to people of their sex and that we should accept their sick fancies as just another legitimate “sexual orientation.”

Another argument is that homosexuals don’t hurt anybody. Why should it be anybody’s bother what they choose to do with their private lives? Fair enough.

But when I put it to my liberal friends that research after research has shown that men have a “natural” predisposition to have multiple sex partners, and therefore should equally be given the same privilege to marry more than one wife, they shrink to their “liberal” hell holes.

American citizens who are Muslims are not allowed by law to have more than one wife (they can, of course, be serial monogamists and philanderers), but homosexuals are on their way to getting the right to get married. It’s part of the American liberal agenda.

What of the death penalty? For me, it’s a simple issue of proportionality of justice. If you murder, you also deserve to die. The argument that the death penalty has not deterred the commission of murders begs the question about justice.

Believe or not, this is how the terms “liberal” and “conservative” are understood in this country, trivial as they seem, and people win and lose elections on the basis of these issues.

Relations between Africans and Black Americans

This was originally published in the Weekly Trust newspaper on December 2, 2005.

By Farooq A. Kperogi

You would expect that it is natural that African immigrants in the United States and Black Americans should have a robust relational intercourse. However, the relationship between African immigrants here and Black Americans is often hallmarked by mutual suspicion and distrust.

“We may have a common ancestry, and even a common skin color, but we view each other as different,” said Andre Reynaud, a black American freshman from Lafayette, Louisiana, majoring in secondary education.

He said American blacks traditionally tend to have a dim view of all immigrants, and that African immigrants here are tarred with the same brush as other immigrants.

“Their accent is different; the way they live is strange,” he said. “What you don’t know, you either learn or ignore. And I think we generally ignore here.”

But Uwaila Osaren, a final year journalism student who was born in Nigeria but raised in the United States, said the strained relations between African and black American students at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette is not representative of the general pattern of relationships between African immigrants in the United States and black Americans.

“I grew up in Houston, Texas, and it’s not the same,” she said. “I think it has something to do with the African-American culture in Louisiana. “They’re not exposed to many different cultures. Here, it’s either black or white.”

Osaren opined that the reluctance of black Americans to relate with African students is not because they don’t like Africans.

“They don’t even mingle with the whites they grew up with,” she said. “Why would they mingle with Africans they never knew? It’s two separates, and they can’t mingle.”

She said she has been caught in the web of a huge relational ambivalence since she came to study at the University of Louisiana, Lafayette, four years ago.

“I didn’t fit with Africans because they consider me too American, and I didn’t fit with Americans because they consider me too African,” she said. “I’m the true meaning of African American.”

For Richard Bargblor, a Liberian native majoring in nursing, the relational tension between African students and black Americans is the consequence of a historical grudge that black Americans have been conditioned to hold against Africans for the alleged complicity of their ancestors in selling the ancestors of black Americans into slavery.

“A lot of them have told me that our forefathers sold their ancestors to the white men,” he said. “Maybe, that’s why they’re holding back from us.” He insisted, however, that guilt is not inheritable. “Besides, our ancestors didn’t willfully sell their ancestors,” he added. “It was done under duress.”

Bargblor also said he finds black Americans’ use of swear words in their everyday conversations repulsive. “They use the ‘f’ word so easily,” he said. “We don’t use that in Africa. It’s an offensive word.”

Kyle Ward, a black American sophomore from Mississippi majoring in political science, suggested that it is difficult for African immigrants in the United States to mix smoothly with black Americans because over 400 years of spatial separation between the two groups also created an enormous gulf of cultural separation.

“They [Africans] are not used what we do,” he said. “They don’t understand why we do what we do. They have a totally different view of the world. That’s why they don’t hang out with us.”

He contended that most African students who come to the United States devote little time for leisure, entertainment and sports—areas he said black Americans consider central to their cultural uniqueness. He said this fact limits avenues for interaction between the two groups.

“They’re more focused on their studies because they appreciate the opportunities here,” he said. “We take these opportunities for granted. They’re foreign students. Period.”

For Ben Adobor, a native of Ghana and graduate student in engineering, a major stumbling block in the relationship between black Americans and African students is the almost mutual unintelligibility of their English accents.

“It’s ironic that I understand white Americans more easily than I understand my African-American brothers and sisters,” Adobor said. “But I realize that they have as much difficulty understanding my accent as I have understanding theirs. They’re easier to understand when you relate to them on an individual basis, but when you find yourself alone in their midst, they could as well be speaking Greek. You’re lost, and wonder whether they’re speaking English.”

This sentiment about language barrier is mutual.

Rosetta Pickney, a black American student from Lake Charles, Louisiana, majoring in health information management, also expressed frustration with African accents. “We don’t understand their accents, so we avoid them,” she said.

But Adobor said the language barrier is secondary to the distortion of the African image in the mainstream Western media as a contributing factor to the strained relations between African immigrants in the United States and black Americans.

“All that they see about Africa in their media are images of starving, barely clothed children, AIDS victims, and so on,” he said. “I wonder where the media get these images from. I think African-Americans are ashamed to identify with us because of this.”

Pamela Hamilton, a black American graduate student in communication from Shreveport, agreed. “We have negative views of Africa that we received from slavery, passed through generations and now transmitted through the media,” she said.

However, she pointed out that this negative perception is reciprocal. “Some African students that I have met also have negative views of African Americans,” she said. “Few Africans understand what slavery has done to us.”

Hamilton said although there are obvious cultural and even experiential barriers between Africans and black Americans, those barriers are not sufficient to break the social, historical and ancestral bonds that bind Africans and black Americans.

“There are people who have been able to overcome these barriers,” she said.

But Kimberly Malveaux, a black American nursing major from Lafayette, Louisiana, said she thinks there are no barriers to overcome.

“My personal experience is that I relate with African men better than I relate with African-American men,” she said. “There may be Africans who also relate better with African-Americans than with Africans. I don’t see any tension here.”

Meanwhile, Arinze Okolo, president of the University of Louisiana’s African Students’ Association and junior mechanical engineering student from Nigeria, said it is difficult to give a blanket and definitive description of the attitude of black Americans toward African students.

He said there are as many black Americans who are reluctant to relate with African students, as there are who are enthusiastic about mixing with them.

“I think those of them who take the trouble to go beyond media stereotypes and read up on Africa or ask questions about Africa tend to be friendly,” he said. “Many of them attend our social functions, and we attend theirs too.”

Bradley Pollock, Ph.D., professor of African and African- American history at the University of Louisiana’s department of history and geography, attributed the reluctance of black Americans to relate with African students to their lack of exposure to different cultures.

“On this campus, most of the African-Americans are from small towns,” he said. “They’re just frightened of what they don’t know. They may even be frightened of other African Americans they are not used to. It’s not a Louisiana problem; it’s a small-town problem.”

Pollock added that even though there is some basis for the hostility of some black Americans toward Africans because of the notion that Africans sold their brothers and sisters into slavery, “it is not an accurate historical assumption.”

“For instance, countries in East Africa, such as Uganda, were not involved in the slave trade,” he said. “In any case, if you’re nursing animosity against Africans because of that, what do you do with the white slave owners? It’s been centuries ago. It’s time for healing.”

For Patricia Holmes, Ph.D., an associate professor of communication, insufficient communication between black American and African students is the cause of the mutual distrust between them.

“When they communicate, they’ll realize that they have more reasons to come together than they have to stay apart,” said Holmes, who is black. “Our shared ancestry and our shared history of slavery and colonialism are big enough reasons for us to come together.”

She said the excuse of differences in accents as a reason for the low level of interaction between African students and black Americans is “rather weak.”

“People from New York also have a different accent, so you won’t talk to them because of that?” she asked rhetorically. “Africans don’t all have the same accent. Do they stop talking to each other because of that?”

My sojourn in a country within a country

I have decided to archive all my columns in Weekly Trust. The following is my first column, which appeared on November 25, 2005 under the name "Notes from Louisiana."

By Farooq A. Kperogi

As a tribute to the meteoric but richly deserved elevation of my good friend and former classmate, AbdulAzeez Abdulahi, to the position of acting editor of the Daily Trust, I have decided to start a new weekly column. But more than that, the Trust Newspapers have a special place in my life in more ways than one.

It was in Trust Newspapers that I’ve had my most productive professional experience after graduating from the university. The excellent tradition of journalism that I was exposed to at the Trust has continued to inform and nourish my professional judgments.

And the best part: it was also at the Trust that I met my wife! So the debts I owe to Trust are actually heavier than the owners of the paper probably realize, and it is inconceivable that I can ever sever my umbilical cords with the papers.

I have been in the United States since the beginning of this year pursuing graduate studies (that’s how Americans call postgraduate studies) in journalism and communication, and I want to deploy this column to chronicle my sojourn in this strange land and share with readers my experiential encounters as they occur.

This past one year has been an incredibly exciting experience for me. Although this is not the first time I’m visiting the United States, it’s the first time I’ve been away from Nigeria for this long.

While I deeply miss being with my wife and feel intensely guilty about leaving my lovely little girl when she was only a couple of months old, the robust intellectual and cultural exposure I get here daily compensate for the sense of emotional loss I feel for being temporarily away from my family.

Like the title of my column suggests, I live in the state of Louisiana—an oil-rich state in the Deep South of the United States that shares so many similarities with Nigeria.

Given what I now know, I couldn’t have hoped for a better state to live in the United States. Louisiana is a warm state—in both the literal and figurative sense of the word. It has very mild winters and hot and sticky summers. That makes the state closer to what I was used to in Nigeria than the northern parts the U.S. where winters can get so chilly that they can literally freeze one’s blood.

The people here are also unbelievably friendly, convivial and obliging. Everybody seems to smile here, even to total strangers. But charming smiles from an equally charming girl to people from different cultural experiences can sometimes send unintended cues.

(One of my Ghanaian friends here told me that when he first got here two years ago, he thought he was so good-looking that girls couldn’t resist him—until he realized that everybody smiled to everybody). The warmth and courteousness of the people here is so very inconsistent with the stereotype of America I had been led to nurse before coming here.

Another beauty of the state is the rich racial alchemy of its people. In spite—or because—of the vicious racial segregationist history of the state, there is robust intermarriage between blacks and whites in both the biological and cultural significations of the term.

If the Creoles (light-skinned descendants of European, mostly French, and ex African slaves, but who are nonetheless considered “Black” in U.S. racial categorizations) are the biological consequence of this alchemy, Voodoo—a strange but fascinating mixture of African traditional religions and Catholicism—is its definitive cultural artifact. Even the food, music and art of Louisiana have more than a casual convergence of African and European influences.

However, the people who enjoy numerical dominion in the state, especially in the southwestern part of the state where I live, are called the Cajuns (pronounced k-ei-j-u-n-s)—an English corruption of the French word Acadien, which is itself derived from Acadia (pronounced a-k-ei-d-i-a), the ancestral home of the Cajuns in Nova Scotia, a region in the French-speaking part of Canada.

The Cajuns were originally French settlers in Canada who were expelled from there between 1755 and 1763 for refusing to pledge allegiance to the British Crown. Most of them came to settle in what is today Louisiana.

The really intriguing thing about these people is their fastidious doggedness in preserving their cultural idiosyncrasies in America’s enormous multicultural cauldron, or melting pot, if you will.

A great proportion of the people still speak a variety of French, called Cajun French, which is actually a mishmash of Canadian and Parisian or metropolitan French.

Although there has lately been a noticeably progressive decline in the number of people who speak Cajun French, there have been concerted efforts to make the language appealing to the younger generation. To this end, Cajun areas of Louisiana often form partnership with Acadians in Canada who send French teachers to reteach the language in schools.

Similarly, the University of Louisiana, where I teach and pursue graduate studies, has an internationally renowned undergraduate and graduate program in Francophone Studies. The medium of instruction in the program is French.

When the Cajuns speak English, they speak it with a distinct accent that sets them apart from other Americans. Their words are relatively slurred together, and they can be extremely fast—and incomprehensible to a first-timer.

I have always had to tell my students to enunciate more clearly and speak more slowly than they are won to when I want to understand them. But after almost one year of learning and teaching here, I’ve almost become a Cajun myself.

Louisiana is a country within a country in many respects. It is not only that most of the people here are unlike most Americans by being mostly bilingual in Cajun French and English, they also have parallel systems of administration, and use nomenclatures that are markedly different from the rest of America.

For instance, while every state in the United States calls its local governments “counties,” Louisianans call theirs “parishes.” It is a celebration of the people’s Catholic identity. (Most of America, apart from Boston, is predominantly Protestant).

But while Louisiana and its are people are great, the state’s proneness to hurricanes can be disconcerting. This year was particularly bad for the state. It was hit by two devastating hurricanes, which were given such deceptively innocuous names like Katrina and Rita.

Even though the city where I live was not affected by any of the hurricanes because it is situated inland, the auxiliary effects of the hurricanes have been very disorienting for us. I had never seen more violent winds in my entire life before. I can only imagine what people who were in the eye of the storm went through.

A few days after the hurricane, I had occasion to travel to the state of Florida, which required me to go through parts of Louisiana that were directly hit by the hurricane, and to such other affected states as Alabama and Mississippi. The consequence of the fury of the winds was immense. Huge trees were uprooted and dumped on the road and whole towns were literally wiped off the map.

Long lines for fuel—reminiscent of what I was used to in Nigeria—surfaced. The people had never experienced that in their lives and thought that was the worst thing that could happen to a nation.

Predictably, every body on the fuel queue had a short fuse—literally. In Mississippi where we stopped to refill our car, somebody’s fuse blew. A guy attempted to jump the long line, but an angry and frustrated man jumped forward, grabbed the man and shut him on his head.

His skull was blown to smithereens. He died instantly. And everybody scampered away in terror. There were several such reports all over Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi in the immediate aftermath of the hurricanes.
When I think of the fact that Nigerians go through more severe fuel scarcity with perfect equanimity—or almost perfect equanimity—I can’t help concluding that we’re indeed a rare breed of humanity.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Obama's election: a postmortem

By Farooq A. Kperogi

Last week’s epoch-making election of Barack Obama as America’s 44th president will be remembered not just for the novelty of ushering in the country’s first nonwhite president but for the dramatic shifts it has engendered in American presidential politics.

First, because of the unusually high enthusiasm this year’s campaigns generated, this election recorded one of the highest turnouts in decades. According to Michael MacDonald of George Mason University, at least 133.3 million people voted in the presidential election this year, which represents about 62.8 percent of all registered voters.

This feat is matched only by the 1964 presidential election and outrivaled slightly only by the 1960 election in which John F. Kennedy narrowly beat Richard Nixon. It easily outstripped 2004's 122.3 million turnout, which had been the highest grand total of voters.

The turnout rate in 1996 was about 49 percent (that is, less than half of registered voters actually voted).

North Carolina, where Obama won in a major upset, had the greatest increase in turnout, according to election data. Other states where turnout increased dramatically were Indiana (where Obama also had a historic win), Georgia and Alabama.

A landslide or just a massive victory?

Obama’s win of 364 electoral votes dwarfs President Bush’s two previous mandates but falls short of others. So is it a landslide?

While there is no agreement among politicians and political scientists on what constitutes a landslide, Obama’s victory seems to fit the bill.

Kathleen Thompson Hill and Gerald N. Hill, in their book, The Facts on File Dictionary of American Politics, say a landslide can be defined as "exceeding expectations and being somewhat overwhelming."

President Bush won with just 271 electoral votes in 2000 and 286 in 2004. It takes 270 votes to win the presidency.

Lyndon Johnson had one of the biggest landslides in America’s modern history. He got 486 electoral votes against his opponent’s 52, earning him the moniker "Landslide Lyndon."

Obama’s coalition of strange bedfellows
Barack Obama’s decisively overwhelming electoral victory against John McCain was the consequence of an unstructured coalition of many strange political and cultural bedfellows: African Americans, Hispanics (immigrants from Spanish-speaking South American countries), young people across all racial groups, white women, and university-educated white men.

In ordinary times, these demographic categories are not the best of friends. For instance, there is an enduring tension between African Americans and Hispanics.

There are two main reasons for this. First, the wave of legal and illegal immigration of Hispanics into America has robbed many black people here of low-income jobs that used to be exclusively reserved for them. Second, Hispanics have displaced African Americans as the biggest minority group, and this fact has spawned intense rivalry between them, manifesting in sometimes violent aggressions between the two groups.

This tension was reflected in the refusal of Hispanics to support Obama during the Democratic primaries. They supported Hillary Clinton by huge margins. A Hillary Clinton pollster, Sergio Bendixen, for instance, told The New Yorker in January this year that “the Hispanic voter — and I want to say this very carefully — has not shown a lot of willingness or affinity to support black candidates.”

It turned, however, that he was wrong. Data from last week’s election showed that Obama won almost 70 percent of Hispanic vote against McCain’s 31 percent. That’s the highest any presidential candidate, whether Republican or Democrat, has ever won.

Similarly, 56 percent of women went for Obama. Only 43 percent went for McCain. Obama and McCain split the male vote almost equally. Forty-nine percent went for Obama while 48 percent went for McCain. This is a feat for Obama as no Democrat has managed to win the male vote in decades.

White voters collectively favored McCain 55 percent to 43 percent, but Obama made this up by getting 95 percent of the black vote and nearly 70 percent of the Hispanic vote.

Death of “Bradley Effect”
Perhaps the biggest surprise in last week's election was that there was not the slightest evidence that the much feared “Bradley effect” (the phenomenon by which white voters who oppose a black candidate mislead pollsters about whom they will vote for) was in play.

Although Obama did not win the majority of white male voters, a higher percentage of white men voted for him than they did any Democrat since Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton included.

Evidence that there was no “Bradley effect” is demonstrated by the near mathematical precision of the prognosis of several major pre-election opinion polls. None wildly overstated Obama’s share of the vote or understated McCain’s.

Shortly before Election Day, an NBC News-Wall Street Journal opinion poll showed that 51 percent of voters preferred Obama and that only 43 preferred McCain. The Gallup Poll showed a 53 percent lead for Obama against McCain’s 42 percent, while CBS News had Obama up 51 percent to McCain’s 42 percent.

An Associated Press-Yahoo News poll in late October had Obama ahead 51 percent to 43 percent. An AP-GfK poll in mid-October showed a virtual tie, 44 percent for Obama to 43 percent for McCain.

Web sites that combine major polls to estimate support also performed well. Among some popular sites, had Obama ahead 52 percent to 44 percent, saw Obama up 52 percent to 45 percent, and gave Obama a 52 percent to 46 percent advantage.

In the actual election, Obama won 53 percent of the popular vote against McCain’s 46 percent. That figure is close to most of the polls that preceded the election.

This confers on Obama the distinction of having won a larger share of the popular vote than any Democrat since President Lyndon Johnson crushed Barry Goldwater, the Arizona Senator that McCain has succeeded, 44 years ago. Even Bill Clinton won just 47 percent of the popular vote.

The youth vote took Obama to the edge

One of the most defining moments of this year’s presidential election is the unprecedented ways in which hitherto apathetic young people got passionately involved in the presidential elections.

According to data from the election, 66 percent of voters under the age of 30 voted for Obama. Only 32 percent voted for McCain. Obama’s share of the youth vote, which cuts across race, religion, educational attainment, is the most impressive youth mandate for a president in modern American history, according to analysts.

It outrivaled John F. Kenndy’s 1960 share of the youth vote by about 4 times. This feat becomes even more historic when it is realized that JFK’s share of the youth was considered so impressive that, in his inaugural address, he acknowledged the feat he had made by declaring that “the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans.”

Until this election, no Democratic presidential nominee had won more than 45 percent of young whites in at least three decades. Obama won 54 percent of young white voters, who accounted for 11 percent of this year’s electorate. Young black and Hispanic voters accounted for 3 percent each.

“Never in post-war American politics,” declares, “have youth voted so differently than older generations as they did in 2008.”

Interestingly, most of these young voters are also newly registered voters. According to a report by Tuft’s Tisch College Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), 60 percent of all new voters this year were under the age of 30, cumulatively accounting for 18 percent of the electorate this year. Nearly 70 percent of these new voters went for Obama.

Political analysts had predicted that the youth enthusiasm for Obama would dissipate before Election Day. “Are they going to show up?” Cokie Roberts of ABC News asked in February. “Probably not. They never have before. By the time November comes, they’ll be tired.”

He was wrong. According to CIRCLE, 53 percent of eligible youth voters turned out to vote, the highest percentage since 1992.

"Young voters have dispelled the notion of an apathetic generation and proved the pundits, reporters and political parties wrong by voting in record numbers today," said Heather Smith, executive director of Rock the Vote.

Obama also won among young white women without a degree by 54 to 45 percent, the first time a Democrat had more than 50 percent support from this group in decades.

But Obama’s highest level of support from young white voters came from college-educated women, who backed him by 61 percent. Only 38 percent of them voted for McCain.

While Obama won only 24 percent of white evangelicals (an ultra-conservative sect of Christianity that believes in personal conversion and the inerrancy of the Bible), a slight improvement from Kerry's 21 percent, 32 percent of young white evangelicals supported him, double the 16 percent who backed Kerry.

Obama redraws America’s electoral map
Although Obama lost miserably in the still racist Deep South (making him the first Democrat in decades to win a presidential election without having a southerner on the ticket), he made hitherto unthought-of inroads into traditionally Republican states.

(The Deep South refers to southeastern states of the United States such as North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana that were notorious for producing cotton and permitting slavery)

He won North Carolina, Indiana and Virginia, three reliably Republican states. No Democratic candidate has won North Carolina since Jimmy Carter in 1976; Indiana and Virginia (where the erstwhile capital of the seceding Confederate states is located) last voted for a Democrat in 1964.

In addition, he won Ohio, which Bush won in 2002 and 2004. But the remarkable thing about Obama’s win in Ohio is that it is the first time since 1964 that a Democratic presidential candidate has won there with over 50 percent of the popular vote.

Even Clinton won the state with less than 50 percent of the popular vote, perhaps because third-party candidates in the 1992 and 1996 elections burrowed through his votes.

Obama also broke the Republican Party's decade-and-a-half-long hold on the American West by handily winning Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada due, in large part, to the massive support he got from Hispanics. Colorado has voted for a Democratic presidential candidate only three times since 1948.

So Obama has not just redrawn the electoral map of America; he has printed an entirely new one.

Other electoral upsets
Some pundits had predicted that Obama would lose the numerically insignificant but symbolically powerful Jewish vote. It was thought that Joe Liebermann’s endorsement and campaigning for McCain would sway Jewish voters to the Republican side.

(Liebermann, the former running mate to Al Gore in 2000, is the most visible Jewish American politician).

It was also thought that last-minute smears about Obama’s friendship with Rashid Khalidi, a prominent Palestinian scholar who has taken the late Edward Said’s place at Columbia University, would scare Jewish voters.

Well, Jewish voters favored Obama 78 percent to 21 percent. That’s 4 points higher than John Kerry in 2004. The only demographic group that exceeded that support in percentage terms is African Americans, who voted for Obama 95 percent to 5 percent.

The changing demographics of the new American voter

What also became clear in the last election is that white Americans are progressively losing their majority status. A projection of the U.S. Census Bureau released August 14 this year said white majority in the U.S. will be outnumbered by Americans of other races by 2042, eight years sooner than previously projected.

This shift in demographics has already manifested in the last election, jeopardizing Karl Rove’s famous promise of a “permanent Republican majority” in the country.

(Karl Rove is the powerful former deputy chief of staff to President Bush whom Bush publicly acknowledged as the “architect” of his 2004 victory).

According to exit polling data, whites made up 74 percent of the 2008 electorate. In 2000, the percentage of the electorate that was white was 81. The downward slide in the percentile strength of white voters is attributed to the surge in black and Hispanic voters.

Breakdown by party voting also shows that Republican (read white) turnout rates are down quite a bit, while Democratic turnout rates are up. In Republican states, data shows, turnout dropped drastically in large part because the voters had given up hope that McCain would win.

Another disturbing sign for Republicans is that, according to exit polls last week, more and more self-described conservatives no longer consider themselves Republicans.

In addition, 51 percent of Americans now say they favor government doing more, not less. The centerpiece of Republican ideology has been less government.

Americans also overwhelmingly reject the Iraq war. That indicates a country moving center-left, and that’s the coalition that voted for Obama.

Further, and even more worrisome for the Republican Party, Obama was dominant among self-described “moderate” voters, a 60 percent swath of Americans who neither self-identify as “conservative” nor as “liberal.”

Has Obama devised a winning strategy for Democrats?
In his concession speech, McCain said, “I don’t know what more we could have done to try to win this election.” The conventional wisdom is that Obama won the election because of the precipitous slump in the U.S. economy.

Even McCain campaign staffers are pushing this narrative. “We were crushed by circumstance,” communications director Jill Hazelbaker said after McCain’s speech. “The economic crisis was a pivotal point in this race.”

But it is entirely conceivable that Obama would still have won this election convincingly even if the U.S. economy hadn’t cratered. McCain and his campaign lagged far behind Obama in every key index—money, organization, discipline, deployment of technology.

The cutting-edge technological prowess Obama deployed in his campaign was unprecedented in American political history, and was responsible for bringing in so many new voters.

For instance, as late as Tuesday afternoon on Election Day, the Obama campaign was able to deploy technology to identify and bring to the polls a last wave of supporters who hadn’t yet voted.

Through the Internet, Obama also raised more money than any politician in the entire political history of the United States.

However, it would seem that Obama’s biggest asset is his broad political appeal and positive message. While McCain and his running mate expended energies in ugly partisan attacks, a strategy that worked in the past, they only succeeded in exciting their xenophobic base and alienating moderates and liberals.

Obama, on the other hand, while swiftly and effectively repulsing the false attacks against him, sought to transcend partisanship and to court the affection of his rivals.

That explains why, for the first time in modern American history, he was able to persuade Republicans to cross over to the Democratic Party in large numbers. The reverse had often been the case.

The Obama campaign’s early decision to play on a more ambitious map than other Democratic nominees and their decision not to get negative were the source of his mandate.

Monday, November 3, 2008

How the American presidential election will be won and lost

By Farooq A. Kperogi

As Election Day approaches, it’s no longer clear what to believe—or what to expect. Will this election be a historic blowout for Obama? Will McCain creep stealthily from the rear and snatch victory from Obama? Or will Obama and McCain split the election in a way that leaves each just short of victory?

The polls, once reliable measures to prognosticate the outcome of American presidential elections, have been hopelessly unhelpful in the waning moments of this campaign season. While some polls show that the race is tightening, others show that the election would be a shoo-in of historic proportions for Obama.

Other polls show that, in the last few days, McCain has actually sped past Obama by a bare but nonetheless symbolically significant margin. Still others indicate that an unusually high number of registered voters said they are still persuadable, that is, they can change their allegiance to any candidate before Election Day.

These unusually divergent poll outcomes have conspired to heighten the sense of anxiety and unease about tomorrow’s elections. Predictably, several recent studies have highlighted extremely high levels of election anxiety among, especially Obama’s female, supporters.

An Associated Press-Yahoo! News poll out on Saturday, for instance, discovered that “more John McCain supporters feel glum about the presidential campaign while more of Obama's are charged up over it.”

The polls are poles apart

It is customary for election watchers here to closely monitor the polls in the twilight of presidential campaigns for hints of who might win the race.

Traditionally, the leading candidate’s lead often slumps fairly noticeably in the last days in part because of what pundits here call “buyer’s remorse” and in part because being in an underdog position tends to invite the pathos of certain voters.

Gallup polls, America’s most closely watched daily tracking poll (which has accurately predicted all presidential elections except one), said on Saturday that it has found the “largest lead for Obama among likely voters to date.” According to its survey of “traditional likely voters,” “expanded likely voters” and “all registered voters,” Obama leads McCain by 52 percent to 41 percent.

Other nationally regarded polls that give Obama this kind of gigantic lead over McCain are: Diageo/Hotline (which shows that voters prefer Obama over McCain 51 percent to 44 percent) ABC/Washington Post (which shows that voter preference for Obama is 53 percent against McCain’s 44 percent) and CBS/New York Times (which has Obama at 54 percent and McCain at 41 percent).

Now, if these polls are accurate, it is reasonable to predict that Obama is set for a gargantuan romp against McCain. It’s just that other equally respectable pollsters have different numbers.

For instance, TIPP, which prides itself on being “the Nation's Most Accurate Pollster,” has Obama ahead of McCain in its November 1 polls by only a modest margin. Its survey shows that 47.9 percent of voters said they would vote for Obama while 43.4 said they would vote for McCain, and that about 9 percent are still undecided. Rasmussen, an equally reliable polling firm, shows the same margins.

However, Zogby International, another reputable pollster, indicates in its latest update that McCain is not only progressively eating into Obama’s lead but has, in fact, overtaken him, although by a statistically insignificant margin.

"The three-day average holds steady, but McCain outpolled Obama today, 48% to 47%,” said John Zogby, the founder and CEO of Zogby International, who is an Arab American. “He is beginning to cut into Obama's lead among independents, is now leading among blue collar voters, has strengthened his lead among investors and among men, and is walloping Obama among NASCAR voters.”

Will this year be a throwback to 1948 when the best polling firms in America failed to accurately predict the presidential election? Reputable polling firms, including Gallup, had indicated a landslide victory for the Republican presidential candidate Thomas Dewey, and newspaper headlines after Election Day screamed that he had won the election. But it turned out that Harry S. Truman, the Democratic candidate, in fact, won the election.

Concerns over voter fraud grow

It is not only the divergence of the polls that is giving people cause for caution in predicting the outcome of the election; there are also widespread concerns that Tuesday’s election could be undermined by widespread voter fraud.

On July 24, 2003, the New York Times had called attention to the unreliability of electronic voting machines and their amenability to manipulation. It reported that “The software that runs many high-tech voting machines contains serious flaws that would allow voters to cast extra votes and permit poll workers to alter ballots without being detected.”

Many political analysts believe President George Bush benefited from electronic vote tampering in the states of Florida and Ohio in 2000 and 2004 respectively. This is the subject of a brand new book titled Loser Takes All: Election Fraud and The Subversion of Democracy, 2000 – 2008, which is edited by Mark Crispin Miller, a professor at New York University.

The book’s contributors provide evidence that Republicans have manipulated electronic voting machines to rig themselves into power, especially since 2000, and predict that “the Republicans will attempt to steal the presidential election in 2008.”

Their fears are being born out by reports from several states to the effect that people who have bothered to watch how their votes are recorded on the electronic voting machines have discovered that votes for Obama are often switched to McCain.

Officials blame this on problems resulting from “recalibrating” the machines after a vote. However, curiously, so far, there has never been any reported instance of votes for McCain switching to Obama. Video clips of voters who recorded their votes for Obama going to McCain have become YouTube sensations.

There have also been reports in liberal blogs of systematic attempts to purge hundreds, in some cases thousands, of potential Obama supporters from the voter register in such states as North Carolina, Virginia, Texas, and Colorado. This is fueling the sentiment among Obama supporters that if their candidate loses tomorrow’s election, it would be on account of voter fraud.

But these concerns are mutual. On October 17, the McCain and Obama campaigns, for instance, swapped accusations of widespread voter fraud. The McCain campaign alleged that the millions of new voters that have been registered recently, whom many analysts say disproportionately favor Obama, are false. According to the right-wing, the McCain campaign “warned that illegally cast ballots could alter the results of the election and undermine the public's faith in democracy.”

However, this concern doesn’t seem to be legitimate. A 2007 study by the New York University School of law concluded that "it is more likely that an individual will be struck by lightning than that he will impersonate another voter at the polls."

Obama campaign's top lawyer, Bob Bauer, on the other hand, accused Republicans of irresponsibly "plotting" to suppress legitimate votes and to "sow confusion and harass voters and complicate the process for millions of Americans."

Delayed October Surprise or November surprise?

This past weekend, the campaigns suspended their mutual accusations over voter fraud. Obama appeared to have been hit by a potentially devastating news bit about his aunt who has been discovered to be living illegally in the United States. But just when the McCain camp was stealthily celebrating this development, they got their own fair share of a November surprise: Sarah Palin was suckered by comedians who embarrassed her in their radio show.

The Obama campaign’s overweening confidence was jolted over the weekend when the Associated Press broke the story of the illegal status of Obama’s late father’s half sister, who first came to the U.S. on the invitation of Obama.

The woman, identified as Zeituni Oyango, was mentioned in Obama’s best-selling autobiography Dreams From My Father. She was first invited by Obama to the United States--to witness his swearing-in as a U.S. senator. She returned to Kenya after Obama’s inauguration and came back again on her own. She applied for asylum but her application was rejected and was ordered to be deported back to Kenya.

But she somehow escaped and has been living in the slums of Boston ever since. Her story was first broken on October 30 by TimesOnline, the online version of the British newspaper by the same name. But the story did not get traction in the United States until the Associated Press broke it on Saturday and added a fresh dimension: that Obama’s aunt is here illegally and has contributed money to the Obama campaign.

There are two ways this story could potentially hurt Obama.

First, it dramatizes Obama’s “otherness” in more concrete ways than the McCain camp had tried vainly to do. Second, because records show that the woman contributed up to $265 to the Obama campaign even though she is neither a U.S. citizen nor a lawful permanent resident, she will help to feed the Republican Party-inspired allegations that Obama’s unprecedented financial buoyancy is consequent on his receiving illegal donations from non-Americans.

However, although American voters can be notoriously fickle and amenable to be persuaded by what would strike non-Americans as non-issues, Obama has so far demonstrated an uncanny capacity to overcome revelations that would have sunk the campaigns of many candidates.

What appears to be the saving grace for Obama is the revelation on Saturday that Sarah Palin fell for a cheap prank by two Canadian comedians. Two well-known Montreal comedy duo Marc-Antoine Audette and Sebastien Trudel known as the Masked Avengers put a call through to Sarah Palin, which she picked. One of the comedians pretended to be French president Nicholas Sarkosky.

Palin believed him. And she went on for over 5 minutes discussing inane issues with the “president.” This conversation further betrayed her shallowness and ignorance of foreign policy issues.

This is now dominating the news cycle. It appears that the effect of these two events—news of Obama’s half aunt’s illegal stay in the U.S. and Sarah Palin’s inability to detect that she was being tricked even in the face of so many red flags during the conversation—cancel each other out.

What if Obama and McCain are tied?
Given the unreliability of the opinion polls and the fears that electronic voting fraud could significantly up McCain’s numbers, there is the real possibility that there would be no clear winner in this election.

The last time this happened, according to American presidential historians, was in 1824. A more recent, though less dramatic, example was in 2000.

So what happens in the event of a tie? Well, if there is a tie, the U.S. House of Representatives, which is currently controlled by Democrats, will vote to decide the next president. Of the 435 seats in the House, Democrats control 236 while Republicans control 199. But these numbers could change after tomorrow’s election because many House seats are up for grabs too.

Should Democrats lose their majority after Tuesday’s election and be unable to muster enough votes to install Obama as president, things would get more complicated.

"This would be the seamy side of democracy, the lobbying and the money would be so intense," Allan Lichtman, professor of history at American University told the Associated Press.

In the United States, unlike most parts of the world, presidents are not elected by popular vote. So on November 4 when Americans go out to vote, they would not be voting directly for the presidential candidates of their choice; they would instead be voting for a slate of state representatives (called electors) who would form an Electoral College that will directly elect the President and Vice President.

The votes of the Electoral College would itself need to be ratified by the Congress in January before they can be valid. This is usually a mere formality, though.

This means, in effect, that unlike in Nigeria, for instance, American presidential elections are not determined by a nationwide popular vote but rather on a state-by-state basis by state representatives. Each state, along with the District of Columbia, the nation’s capital, is allotted a number of votes in the Electoral College that correspond to the number of representatives it has in Congress.

To become president, a candidate must win at least 270 electoral votes. Current projections say, barring unforeseen circumstances, Obama will win over 353 electoral votes, against McCain’s 185.

However, in 26 states of the federation, electors can, technically, vote against the express wishes of their electorate by not voting for the presidential candidate elected by voters in their state, although this rarely happens. In the remaining 24 states, there are strict penalties against “faithless electors,” that is, those who do not cast their votes for the candidate their electorate voted for.

Most state laws establish a "winner-take-all" system, wherein the ticket that wins a plurality of votes wins all of that state's allocated electoral votes, and thus has their slate of electors chosen to vote in the Electoral College. Two states—Maine and Nebraska— do not use this method, opting instead to give two electoral votes to the statewide winner and one electoral vote to the winner of each Congressional district.

Other possible outcomes of the election

In the event of a tie, there are other options apart from the House of Representatives voting for a president. Other possible scenarios, according to Robert Bennett, a professor of law at Northwestern University in Illinois, who spoke to the Associated Press, are:

Before the House meets, the Obama and McCain campaigns could try to convince the Electoral College voters who actually cast each state's electoral votes to switch their support. This has happened occasionally in past elections but has never affected the outcome of an election. Electors in roughly half of the states are bound by law to honor the popular vote.

While the House picks a president, the Senate picks the vice president in the event of a tie. The Democratic-controlled chamber could pick Democratic vice presidential candidate Joe Biden even if McCain wins the House vote.

The newly minted vice president could become acting president if the House doesn't reach a resolution by the time President George W. Bush leaves the White House on January 20.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi would become acting president if neither chamber could settle on a president or vice president but she would have to resign her post.

These wild speculations about what might happen after tomorrow’s vote underscore the unusualness and intensity of this year’s election.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Thinking of home from abroad (II)

By Farooq A. Kperogi
A lot of people are often shocked to find out that Joseph Wayas, Nigeria's former Senate President from Cross River State, is “Tiv.” He comes from a part of Cross Rivers State called Obanliku where people speak Tiv, but call it by a different name. And the man was made Senate President on the basis of his being a Southerner.

During the still-born Third Republic, Iyiorcha Ayu, another Tiv man, became Senate President because was supposed to be from the North!

Take the case of Edo State, too. The people of southern Edo had shared, and still vastly share, deep cultural and historical ties with the Yorubas long before colonialism, and those in northern Edo had deep ties with northern Nigeria dating back to hundreds of years. The people of Akoko Edo, for instance, speak the same language as the Ebira in Kogi State, although they call their language Igara. Yet Edo is supposed to be in the South, and Kogi in the North.

Again, the people of Auchi have cultural values that decidedly owe their debts to people of the extreme North. I remember that Auchi people used to be called "Bendel Hausas" when, in actual fact, their language is almost mutually intelligible with Bini and Ishan in southern Edo State

The point of these examples is to demonstrate the untenability of the claim that Nigeria is a "forced" nation. We were too culturally and ethnically intertwined even before colonialism for that claim to have any basis in truth. Even without colonialism it is conceivable that Nigeria in its present form would have emerged.

I brought the examples of the cybernetics of our social and cultural relationships in pre-colonial times to make the case that if we related that closely, the British merely accelerated what was likely to have happened anyway.

Of course, the result of these robust pre-colonial relational intercourses could very well have resulted to a different kind of nation than Nigeria is today, but there is no reason to suppose that it would be the product of the kind of elaborate, unrealistic consensus that irredentists claim is indispensable to national formation.

I'm not by this pretending that Nigeria does not have profound problems that it must confront frontally to realize its vast potential. I'm only concerned that efforts at nation building are stuck in prolonged infancy because of this unhealthy and, in my opinion, inaccurate claims about our differences and the insistence that these so-called differences make the emergence of a virile, united nation impossible.

I have been involved in arguments with my Nigerian compatriots in the diaspora about this issue for several years. A persistent example people cite to underscore the “unnaturalness” of the troubled ethnic alchemy called Nigeria is the United States.

They claim that America was founded through the consensus of the Founding Fathers and that this somehow illustrates their point that if Nigeria must endure we need to have some kind of a roundtable discussion where we “renegotiate” the basis of our co-existence. Fair enough.

However, a cursory look at the history of the United States will show that claims about the consensual nature of the national formation of the country are balanced on a very fragile thread of socio-historical evidence.

Although the argument can be made that the power structure of the dominant white population built this nation on the basis of some kind of consensus, the fact also remains that the subaltern population—African Americans, Native Americans, etc—were systematically excluded from this consensus.

The African slaves that were brought here were not allowed to become citizens until relatively recently. And in much of Southern United States, they won the right to vote only in the 1960s.

Native Americans who had lived in this country for ages before the Anglo-Saxons came from Europe to cruelly uproot and, worse, exterminate most of them only became full citizens hundreds of years after the country was formed—and against their wishes. The first Native American in the U.S. Senate was elected only in 1992!

A majority of African slaves in the US wanted their own separate country within the Western Hemisphere. They were denied this right to self-determination, yet they were not fully integrated into the mainstream U.S. society even after desegregation. And we’re talking about a people who constitute about a quarter of the population of the United States.

But there are other reasons that weaken the case that America was built on the express consensus of the people who live in it. The state of Louisiana, where I lived for about two years, was BOUGHT from the French without the consent of the people who inhabited it.

Alaska was also BOUGHT from Russia without the consent of the people who inhabited it. This is true of most other states in the United States.

Again, like Nigeria, the United States fought a long, hard and bloody Civil War to "FORCE" the Southern states to remain in the Union. This makes the United States a “forced” nation—if we are persuaded by the logic of Nigerian irredentists who hold on to the idea of a mythical consensus as the foundation of national formation.

The truth, as I pointed out last week, is that every nation on earth is a “forced” nation in some fashion. Maybe advocates of “consensual” national formation should take a mass flight and hang permanently in the air since they can’t afford to live in “forced” nations!

The point of this sarcasm is to dramatize the invalidity of the thesis that nations implode or stagnate only if their coming into being was not the consequence of the express consensus of the people who inhabit it.

It is, of course, true that empires wax and wane. However, they do so not because their formation was “forced,” but because they are human institutions that are amenable to all the foibles, frailties and vicissitudes of life.

If human beings who populate nations don't live forever, why do we imagine that nations can be permanent? Nations are living things. They endure only if they're consciously nurtured and nourished.

I agree that Nigeria in its present form was created for the convenience of British colonial conquerors. But so were India, Singapore, Malaysia, and several other thriving modern nations. The fact of their colonial creation is not a reason to expect that they will collapse. If that were to be the case, only a few nations will remain on earth.

To be continued

Conceived in Atlanta, born in Abuja!

On October 24, my wife gave birth to our second child. We have named her Maryam Kperogi—in honor of my wife’s late mother who died in a car accident in 1996. To say that my joy is boundless that I am blessed with another charming baby girl is to state the obvious.

But I am also struggling with the pains of what I like to call transnational fatherhood. Although I get to see my new baby on a crystal clear web cam when I chat with my wife through Yahoo! Messenger, nothing can compensate for the loss of real filial and parental bonding that my absence engenders.

But it’s one of the prices one has to pay for desiring a better life for one and one’s family. I hope Maryam will understand when she grows up.

On a lighter note, one of my American friends here suggested that I propose an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to allow children conceived in America but born outside the country to become U.S. citizens! I will report back here when my proposal goes through.