"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: January 2009

Friday, January 23, 2009

Obama: the Great African Hope or the Great African Hype? (II)

By Farooq A. Kperogi

Obama also has a history of publicly denouncing African leaders. "If the people cannot trust their government to do the job for which it exists – to protect them and promote their common welfare – then all else is lost,” he once said while speaking of the leadership crisis in Africa. “That is why the struggle [against] corruption is one of the great struggles of our time."

On another occasion, he was quoted to have said, "Ultimately, a new generation of Africans [has] to recognize [that] the international community, the international relief organizations or the United States can't help Africa if its own leaders are undermining the possibilities of progress."

He once backed up this tough rhetoric with concrete action. Early last year, Obama included an amendment to a bill that would provide up to $52 million in aid to the Congo. The amendment he made to the bill empowered then President Bush to withdraw the assistance if the Congo did not show evidence of having made significant progress toward democracy.

Many people expect more of this kind of “tough love” for Africa from an Obama presidency.

But there is also a record to show that Obama has taken practical steps to confront the continent’s problems within the limits of his powers and resources.

As a U.S. senator, for instance, he was the primary sponsor of the Global Poverty Act, a bill that would commit the United States to "the reduction of global poverty, the elimination of extreme global poverty, and the achievement of the United Nations Millennium Development Goal of reducing by one-half the proportion of people, between 1990 and 2015, who live on less than $1 per day."

Similarly, as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Obama fought to focus America's attention on the humanitarian tragedy in Darfur.

And, in 2006, Obama invested an initial $14,000 (about 2 million naira) from his personal funds into a “microcredit” program to help a group of Kenyan women age 50 and older who have adopted children suffering from AIDS and are making a success of it.

And, although he has blamed African leaders for the continent’s underdevelopment, he has also expressed sentiments that show some sensitivity to the insidious role neocolonialism continues play in Africa’s developmental retardation. “The days of external powers on their own deciding what is best for Africa,” he once said, “needs to come to an end, once and for all.”

Well, now he is head of the greatest of the “external powers” that have been “deciding what is best for Africa” for decades. In fact, a South African writer, Patrick Bond, has perceptively and persuasively argued recently that one of Obama's leading economic advisers, Paul Volcker, “has done more damage to Africa, its economies and its people than anyone I can think of in world history, including even Cecil John Rhodes.”

It will be interesting to see how Obama harmonizes his rhetoric of not allowing “external powers” to dictate Africa’s priorities with his deeds in the next four years.

Obama’s promises for Africa
Now, what did Obama promise to do for Africa as president of the United States? During the presidential election, the Obama campaign promised to pursue three fundamental programs for the continent.

The first is to accelerate “Africa’s integration into the global economy.” The second is to enhance the peace and security of African states. And the third is to strengthen relationships with governments, institutions and civil society organizations committed to deepening democracy, accountability and reducing poverty in Africa.

Elsewhere, Obama pledged to double US foreign assistance to $50 billion by 2012 and use it to support "failing states" and sustainable growth in Africa, roll back disease, and halve global poverty by 2015.

He also promised that as president his administration would “fully fund debt cancellation for Heavily Indebted Poor Countries in order to provide sustainable debt relief and invest at least $50 billion by 2013 for the global fight against HIV/AIDS, including our fair share of the Global Fund.”

Other promises include: ending the genocide in Darfur, and launching “the Global Energy and Environment Initiative to ensure African countries have access to low carbon energy technology and can profitably participate in the new global carbon market so as to ensure solid economic development even while the world dramatically reduces its greenhouse gas emissions.”

He also said his administration would strengthen the Clinton-era African Growth and Opportunity Act to ensure that African producers can access the U.S. market and will encourage more American companies to invest on the continent.

Lofty as these promises sound, they are not radically different from McCain’s. Nor are they, for that matter, different from Bill Clinton’s and George Bus’s. In fact, in a way, many analysts point out, Obama has a tough act to follow: Some of President George W. Bush's Africa initiatives have been widely lauded as one of the few bright spots of his foreign policy legacy.

Desmond Tutu, in his Op-Ed piece in the Washington Post on the occasion of Obama’s victory, said as much. “President Bush has succeeded in working with Congress to devote unprecedented amounts of money to fighting malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS,” he wrote. “But if the United States is to show that it places as much value on a human life in Africa as on one in the United States, Obama actually has to improve on Bush's achievements.”

Why Africa should not expect much from Obama
In spite of all his commitments and promises to Africa, Obama, like any American politician, is ultimately more concerned about the well-being of his country than he is of Africa.

This fact came out clearly in 2006 when a reporter in Kenya asked for his perspective on the ways in which American protectionism is hurting African farmers.

Why, the reporter asked, do Americans retain farm subsidies and tariffs that prevent African farmers from competing in the world's biggest market?

What was Obama’s response? He talked about the soybean farmers in his adopted state of Illinois and said, "It's important to me to be sure I'm looking out for their interests. It's part of my job.”

In other words, it didn’t matter to him whether Africans are suffering as a consequence of U.S. domestic policies; what matters to him is that Americans, his compatriots, are well served by these domestic policies. That’s some discomforting home truth there. Obama, ultimately, is an American and will do anything to protect his country, even if this means hurting Africa in the process.

What is more, Obama is president at a time of extraordinary financial crisis in the United States, and his overriding preoccupation now will be to fix the economy of his country first. This, in effect, means he is limited in what he can do for Africa.

Fortunately, many thoughtful African leaders have come to terms with this reality early enough. "Africans must not ask extraordinary things from him, must not expect ... that through the miracle of his election America will drain money on Africa to change our continent," cautioned Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade. "I don't think that's going to happen, and it wouldn't be a good thing."

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, was harsher in calling on Africans to learn to look inwards and not be obsessed with the idea that Obama would somehow come and magically solve all of Africa’s problems. ''Obama, Obama, Obama! He is an American,” he was quoted to have said at a news conference last year. “Why are you looking at him and not yourself? Why don't you build your strength here?”

After all is said and done, although Africans have a justifiable reason to experience vicarious joy in Obama’s emergence as the world’s most powerful political figure, it helps to remember that he was elected to serve Americans first.

The best Africans can do to help him is to expect less from him and to accept his victory as no more than a symbolic victory for them.


Saturday, January 17, 2009

Obama: the Great African Hope or the Great African Hype? (I)

By Farooq A. Kperogi

Perhaps, at no time in history have people of African descent all over the world been as collectively and contagiously exultant—and hopeful— as they have been over Barack Obama’s historic election as America’s 44th president.

All across Africa—including the historic and contemporary African Diasporas—people are in a celebratory mood. They are ecstatic because a man sired by an African has been elected as the most powerful person on the face of the earth.

South African President Kgalema Motlanthe, in a congratulatory message to Obama, captured the emotions of many Africans when he said, “the election … carries with it hope for millions of your countrymen and women as much as it is for millions of people of ... African descent both in the continent of Africa as well as those in the diaspora."

And, writing in the Washington Post of November 9, 2008 in the wake of Obama’s election, South African Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu said, “Today Africans walk taller than they did a week ago,” adding: “If a dark-skinned person [never mind that Obama’s skin is anything but dark!] can become the leader of the world's most powerful nation, what is to stop children everywhere from aiming for the stars?”

But it’s not only the cultural and symbolic capital that Obama’s victory is sure to confer on Africans that is inspiring the mass excitement over his election; there is also an abiding optimism that this cultural and symbolic capital will somehow be converted to material capital for the continent and its people.

But is there a basis for this optimism? Is there any evidence in Obama’s previous and present relationship with Africa to inspire this hope? Or is this mere hype? Is his self-construal, in fact, in harmony with the way Africans see him?

Obama and his African identity
There are probably few international icons with an African ancestry who have been more forceful in asserting their African heritage than Barack Obama has been. He has so far visited Africa three times—first in 1987 as a bachelor while pursuing a law degree at Harvard, in 1992 after he got married and worked as a community organizer in Chicago, and in 2006 with his wife and two daughters as a high-profile U. S. senator.

And in every major speech he gave throughout his presidential campaign, Obama never failed to remind Americans—and the world—that he is part African. In fact, he once caused a little stir in the American rightwing blogosphere when he described himself during a TV interview as “an African and an American,” rather than just an American, or an African-American—the most fashionable self-identifying label that Americans with an African heritage embrace.

If his separation of “African” from “American” by a conjunction and an indefinite article rather than by a hyphen or a space was an unintentional slip, it was probably a Freudian slip that provides a window into Obama’s genuine self-construal of who he truly is: an African first who is also an American. I admit that I may be over-analyzing Obama’s innocent verbal miscue.

In his more careful utterances, Obama has sought to self-consciously portray himself as simultaneously American and pan-Africanist. That is, in his public self-definitions, he has been careful not to qualify, nay limit, his Americanness with his paternal Kenyan roots; he modifies it instead with an ecumenical African identity.

For instance, during his 2006 visit to Kenya, journalists asked him if he would describe himself as a “Kenyan-American.” He responded in the negative. "I'm an American and proud of it, and I'm also an African-American, which means I share a bond of struggle but also joy with people of African descent everywhere." Here, he simultaneously emphasized his American identity and his African identity, an African identity that embraces the geographic, cultural, and experiential diversities of peoples of African descent all over the world.

However, in asserting his pan-Africanist credentials, he has not failed to recognize that his membership of the whole is dependent on his membership of one of the parts that make up the whole. He is part African precisely because he is part Luo from Kenya. Nowhere is this awareness demonstrated more acutely than in Obama’s best-selling autobiography, Dreams from My Father.

In the book, Obama recalls an incident that compelled him to assert his “Luoness” forcefully. During his first visit to Kenya, while he was walking in the street with his half sister, Auma, an old woman fixed a gaze at him and remarked that he looked like an American—perhaps because of his light skin and curly hair.

Obama felt alienated—and a little pained—by the fact that his biracial physical features concealed, perhaps erased, his “Luoness” and caused a Luo woman to mistake him for a “foreigner.” Beating his chest, Obama writes, he promptly instructed his half sister: "Tell her I'm Luo!"

Obama is acutely aware that although he is American by birth and by upbringing, he owes his intellectual strength, his oratorical brilliance, his charm—and most of the things that make him tick— to the Luo blood flowing in his veins. He knows this because his mother told him that he inherited his brains, drive and energy from his Harvard-educated Kenyan father. As the Boston Globe wrote recently, if someone had said to Barack Obama’s father: "You know, your son might be president," he would have said: 'Well, of course. He's my son.'"

For Obama, though, being Luo is only a passport into the world of Africa; it is not an end in itself. When he visited the notorious Nairobi slum called Kibera, for instance, he sought to transcend the ethnic divisions of Kenya—and by extension of Africa—by embracing every African. "All of you are my brothers; all of you are my sisters," Obama told the slum dwellers who hailed from different ethnic backgrounds.

Nevertheless, Obama recognizes the limitations of pan-Africanism for a person hoping to lead not just the United States but the whole world. He once told the American media that although he is “rooted in the black community” he is “not limited to it.”
That was why before a mammoth crowd of over 200,000 people at the Victory Column in Berlin, Germany, in July last year, Obama said, "I speak to you not as a candidate for president, but as a citizen -- a proud citizen of the United States, and a fellow citizen of the world."

In other words, Obama is at once a Luo, an African, an American, and a citizen of the world!

What are Obama’s plans for Africa?
One can point to Obama’s unmistakably robust rhetorical and symbolic connections with Africa. But can one say the same of his passion to liberate Africa from the shackles of poverty, war and disease? What should Obama’s record—and promises— on Africa prepare us to expect from his presidency?

Obama’s record on Africa is at best a mixture of “tough love” and hard-headed pragmatism rooted in America’s national interest. Before his famous15-day 5-nation tour of Africa in August 2006, for example, Obama told newsmen in America that one of the messages he would send to the world during the trip was: “ultimately, Africa is responsible for helping itself."

To be continued next week

Thursday, January 1, 2009

When art imitates dreams: A commentary on Nigerian movies

By Farooq A. Kperogi

Conventional wisdom holds that art imitates life. But Oscar Wilde, the inimitable Irish writer and wag, once provocatively remarked, in his characteristically brilliant contortion and defamiliarization of settled existential certainties, that "life imitates art far more than art imitates life."

This apparently harebrained Wildean inversion of the axiomatic logic of the dialectics between life and art was bestowed an uncanny materiality when Barack Obama was elected President of the United States—in consonance with the plot line of The West Wing, a hugely successful American television serial drama in which a charming, idealistic, nonwhite Democratic presidential candidate defeats an old, experienced White Anglo-Saxon Protestant Republican maverick. (The drama was originally broadcast from 1999 to 2006).

It’s not just the similitude between the storyline and what happened on November 4, 2008 that is eerily congruent with Wilde’s celebrated iconoclastic rhetorical upending of conventional notions of reality; even the main characters in the drama series—the young Latino congressman Matthew Santos who ruptures racial barriers to become America’s first nonwhite president and Josh Lyman, the White House Chief of Staff in the series—were, according to the writers of the series, inspired by Obama and Rahm Emanuel (Obama’s pick for White House Chief of Staff) respectively!

Well, what has this got to do with Nigerian movies? A lot. It seems to me that while American filmic aesthetics has advanced to such creative sophistication that life is now literally imitating its art, Nigeria’s has degenerated to such a nadir of cinematic absurdity and incompetence that our art now imitates dreams.

Our movies are so hopelessly out of step with quotidian reality that instead of imitating life, or life imitating them, they are rather imitating dreams— dreams that are no more than a series of unstable, disordered, soporiferous parade of mental images and emotions that might seem perfectly logical during the unguarded moments of sleep but that strike one as completely illogical and implausible in retrospective wakefulness.

This is precisely the experience I came away with after watching an unbearably dreary Nigerian movie unoriginally titled Pretty Woman that an old Ghanaian lady from whom I buy Nigerian food here in Atlanta recommended to me a few days ago.

Over this past holiday season I got so oppressively overcome with gnawing boredom— and an inexplicable nostalgia for home— that I broke my vow never to subject myself to the torments of watching Nigerian movies after previous frustrations with their cheap, predictable storylines, slapdash plots, annoyingly inept acting skills, and poor technical quality.

But I thought Pretty Woman seemed different. It turned out, however, that I judged too hastily.

Here is a plot summary of the movie. A Lagos-based woman travels to her village in Eastern Nigeria for an event and sees this prepossessingly pulchritudinous but rustic—and impecunious— young girl. She immediately thinks that with a little polish the girl would be a perfect wife for his brother, an upwardly mobile young man in Lagos.

She drives back to Lagos and convinces her brother to seek the girl’s hand in marriage. After initial feeble reservations, he agrees to travel to the village. He is awestruck by his future wife’s raw but stunning beauty and decides without second thoughts to seek her hand in marriage.

After the wedding, he brings her to the city and literally spruces her up to meet his social standards. Then he buys her a huge grocery store. However, it is in this grocery store that she makes friends with two degenerate female chartered libertines who encourage her to cheat on her husband for financial gains. But throughout the film, she has sex with only one rich man. All other trysts are with younger men, most of them the boyfriends of the same ladies who introduce her to the life of debauchery and profligacy.

Rather than use the power of her beauty to make money, as her friends advise her, she instead buys houses for the young men she sleeps with. The husband notices that she has made unusually massive withdrawals from her bank account, but he does not suspect anything. He merely questions her without expecting an explanation.
She also begins to shirk her conjugal obligations: she comes home at ungodly hours, stops cooking, and resists all her husband’s sexual advances. Yet the husband has no suspicions. However, he is now deeply depressed and has lost his erstwhile infectious vitality and ebullience.

Then one day, one of his best friends tells him that he has circumstantial evidence that his wife is cheating on him. In an astonishingly off-the-wall move, he pounces on the friend and pounds him soundly. Huh? Is that how we behave to our best friends in real life? Well, that’s not the flakiest part of the movie.

The protagonist’s second best friend catches the lady with a young man at a hotel—almost pants down. But instead of telling on her to his friend, he demands his own “share.” The lady grudgingly obliges him in exchange for confidentiality.

One day, the family doctor summons the young man and tells him that he has aborted two pregnancies for his wife and wants to know if he and his wife have decided not to have children because he has just refused a third request for abortion pending the husband’s approval. It is at this point it dawns on the young man that his wife has been cheating on him. But why would a cheating woman go to the family doctor to abort unwanted pregnancies?

But the movie’s denouement is the most bizarre. Finally, all the men that this “pretty woman” had liaisons with discover that they have “AIDS” (not HIV, mind you!) and are predictably devastated. Her debauched friends discover too that she had been sleeping with their boyfriends and wail impotently upon discovering that she has “AIDS.”

The “pretty woman” later confesses to her husband that she had indeed been cheating on him and might have contracted “AIDS” from her many sexual escapades. The man is so riled up he resists her entreaties for pardon and throws her out of his house. But he later regrets this and cries like a baby for minutes on end—with disgusting mucous secretion running down his nose, and all!

Then his friend comes to confess to him that he too has contracted “AIDS” through his wife, asks for his forgiveness, and tells him that the other friend he punched badly for telling him his wife was cheating on him is his true friend. To this, he acts incredulous. In spite of the new revelations before him, he still appears furious with the friend who’d told him the truth about his wife’s infidelity.

But, curiously, it turns out that the “pretty woman” tests negative to “AIDS”! The protagonist’s friend also tests negative. And newspapers all over the country have front-page stories rhapsodizing over the fact that the “pretty woman” has tested negative to “AIDS,” although we were never told that her infidelity was a national story.

Now, the young man, rather than being embarrassed that the shameful conduct of his wife is now grist in the mill of the national press, is overjoyed. And that’s the end of the movie! But, rather oddly, the message at the end reads: “AIDS is real!”

Now, this can’t be an imitation of life. This looks more like an imitation of dreams, of phantasmagoria—a constantly kaleidoscopic miscellany of real or imagined images. In dreams, we sometimes helplessly suspend our credulity and accept narratives that run contrary to commonsense. But in the well-ordered and familiar structures of wakefulness we wonder why we believed the illogicalities and inconsistencies of the events, timelines, and images in the dream. Now, Nigerian movies have literally elevated this to an art.

This movie is merely representative of most Nigerian movies. And one can’t help but wonder what drives the creative impulses of the writers of our movies. Is this a conscious genre, or is it a manifestation of rank incompetence and egregious creative deficit? Why do sane and rational people watch and enjoy these movies?

Surprisingly, the popularity of Nigerian movies is growing, even in the historic African Diaspora in the Western Hemisphere—that is, in the Caribbean and the Americas—where people are expected to have more sophisticated cinematic sensibilities. The movies are also increasingly attracting scholarly attention in moving image studies.

I must be missing something. Am I, perhaps, guilty of gazing at Nigerian films, not on their own terms but through the canonical cinematic lenses of Hollywood?