At the time of the US presidential campaign of 2008, the realization of many dreams stood on the shoulders of Barack Obama, the first Black American to become a serious contender for the most powerful position of leadership on earth. The majority of Afro-Americans and Africans in the US and around the world saw in his candidacy the solution to some of their problems. This was particularly true for issues related to their long standing negative portrayal by the rest of the predominantly white humanity. Their past and present co-humans have used such pessimistic consideration to oppress and exploit them.
During Obama’s campaign his messages carried a symbol of change, which more than anything else could transform the future of those who relied then on him to do something special to transform their own lives. His performance as candidate and soon after as new American president in January 2009 was more about enabling them to perceive themselves differently, despite and most of the time against the way their protagonists identified them.
In the second half of 2008, while Obama was still touring different US regions, Laurent Nkunda and his rebel movement of National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP) which was funded by Paul Kagame’s government make a general offensive to control North Kivu and its regional capital Goma in Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Pressure on Paul Kagame from British and other European governments to restrain his rebel protégé puts a halt to the offensive. Nkunda is also probably stopped at the request of the new American administration in waiting, which would have otherwise started its term in office with a humanitarian crisis in the Great Lakes region.
On January 20th, 2009, on the day of Obama’s inauguration, Kagame’s forces enter Democratic Republic of Congo on the fallacious motive of rooting out the Forces Democratiques pour la Liberation du Rwanda (FDLR). Most likely their objectives are to strengthen Rwandan control around mining areas in Kivu provinces particularly and weaken further the Congolese government authority in the region and even beyond using its Tutsi natural allies such as Bosco Ntaganda, the military chief of staff of the CNDP. Officially, Rwandan troops join FARDC, the Congolese army, in an effort to fight Hutu rebels.
In Accra, before the Ghanaian parliament, Barack Obama, announces what would in all probability be the cure of African problems. This is on July 11th, 2009. ‘Africa needs strong institutions, not strongmen,’ he argues. He insists on the importance of good governance in achieving prosperity for all. But he as well highlights the fact that the future of Africa depends entirely on Africans themselves. He elaborates on the role of the young generation. ‘It’s young people, talented, energetic and full of hope, who will define what so many people from previous generations have never achieved,’ he explains.
Victoire Ingabire, Chair of FDU-Inkingi returns to her native Rwanda in January 2010. She has been absent for 16 years living in exile in The Netherlands. Her objective is to challenge the incumbent president Paul Kagame. Her speech in Kigali at the Genocide Memorial on January 16th sets a nonconforming tune to the country’s politics. She calls for different approaches to address pertinent issues. ‘Let’s work for a true reconciliation not characterized by intimidation, so that we politicians could put forward effective policies and manifestos, instead of distracting the populations by looking for our interests in exploiting the tragedy that has traumatized every Rwandan,’ she stresses while referring to the way Paul Kagame’s government uses the Rwandan genocide to oppress citizens. Her action on the ground has so far seriously dented the image of the Rwandan president and brought hope of change to the millions subjugated by the prevailing criminal and authoritarian rule.
On March 2nd, Senator Russ Feingold, Chairman of the Sucommittee on African Affairs, presents to the US Congress his statement on the situation of democracy on the continent. He describes a worrying context in some of the countries. Some of these are close U.S. partners and influential regional actors. These include Ethiopia, Uganda and Rwanda. He indicates that ‘Democracy is not just about a single event every few years; it is also about an ongoing process of governance that is accountable and responsive to the needs and will of citizens. And it is about citizens having the space, encouragement, and ability to educate themselves, mobilize and participate in that process.’
The widely rigged Ethiopian elections of May this year trigger some thinking among the Ethiopian intellectual community. Alemayehu G. Mariam among others questions the role of intellectuals in front of such situations. He explains, ‘I believe Ethiopian intellectuals have a moral obligation not to turn a blind eye to the government wrongs in their homeland, and an affirmative duty to act in the defense of democracy, human rights and the rule of law. I see many of them religiously practicing self-censorship and self-marginalization. At this critical time in Ethiopia’s history, I believe Ethiopian intellectuals must take a leading and active role in the public debate to shape the future of their homeland. … I always pray that Ethiopian intellectuals will never become ‘whores’ to dictators as the distinguished Ghanaian economist George Ayittey has warned of African intellectuals in general.’ Mariam’s question stands valid for any individuals of African origin who can think rationally on issues faced by their continent.
One of African sons who chose not to be a whore to dictators was Floribert Chebeya. He was head of the rights group Voice of the Voiceless and had been campaigning in defense of democracy and human rights in DR Congo since the early 1990s. His suspicious death in June adds to the criminal record of Joseph Kabila’s institutions, and whose government is incapable of providing security to the population, particularly in Eastern Congo, where serial rapes are part of weaponry used by militias and forces interested in exploiting mineral resources of the region.
On August 3rd, when he meets in Washington more than 100 African Young Leaders from almost 50 African countries, Obama’s message is consistent on the role he sees fit for the young generation in changing Africa. He clarifies for his audience the position he considers for the continent in the world. ‘I see Africa as a fundamental part of our interconnected world. Whether it’s creating jobs in a global economy, or delivering education and health care, combating climate change, standing up to violent extremists who offer nothing but destruction, or promoting successful models of democracy and development, – for all this we have to have a strong, self-reliant and prosperous Africa. So the world needs your talents and your creativity. We need young Africans who are standing up and making things happen not only in their own countries but around the world,‘ he explains. ‘The future is what you make it. And so if you keep dreaming and keep working and keep learning and don’t give up, then I’m confident that your countries and the entire continent and the entire world will be better for it,’ he adds.
On October 1, 2010, Philip J. Crowley, Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Public Affairs, made a significant announcement on the publication of the UN report ‘Mapping Exercise documenting the most serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law committed within the territory of the Democratic Republic of the Congo between March 1993 and June 2003.’ He said, ‘The United States strongly supports accountability for violations of human rights and international humanitarian law around the world, including in the DRC. …Accountability is an important step toward ensuring that further such incidents do not occur. The United States is firmly committed to helping the DRC and other nations in the region take positive steps to end the corrosive cycle of violence and impunity.’ As we know, between public declarations and their translation into action there are sometimes wide gaps. It is up to interested parties (primarily concerned victims of recorded crimes as detailed in the report) to fill those gaps by lobbying to get the right follow up to end impunity in the Great Lakes region.
The US president has inspired Africans. They shouldn’t expect from him more than what he represents as a role model. The path he has shown of achieving what was unthinkable decades ago in the US demonstrates that nothing is impossible when courage and commitment are part of the ingredients of pursued objectives. Africa is changing for the better. One of the participants at the Washington meeting for African Young Leaders summarizes well how to go forward. ‘Start by recognizing that you have power,’ he said. ‘What’s important is realizing that you are part of this process of determining your destiny, [and] that’s an important realization.’ As the November mid-term elections loom, Obama may not do so well because of the seriousness of the issues he inherited in financial, military, economic and social sectors on the home front, or in relation to US foreign policy. Whatever happens for Obama in US politics, his personal realizations have achieved for Africans something that no other American president was able to give them so far, which is freeing their minds and enabling them to think the impossible and going for it.