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Hope and Change for Africa? By: Chanda Chisala
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, November 14, 2008


There was a lot of euphoria and celebration all across Africa when Barack Obama won the American presidency, becoming the first black man to hold the most powerful seat in the world. Kenya even made a national holiday to allow its people to fully soak in the moment. Everywhere on the continent there were Obama parties and cars hooting endlessly as the election results were announced.

Many people said it gave them hope. An email from a colleague in Africa said, “it shows that even black people can achieve whatever they want in this world.”

I wouldn't like to be the one to put a pin in this balloon, but the victory of Obama does not say anything about black people. It says something about the United States of America. If it does give hope to “blacks,” it is only to those who are fortunate enough to be citizens of this great nation.

If anything, Obama’s victory exposes just how far behind the rest of the world is to the United States of America and, instead of being a cause of celebration for Africans, this should be a moment for some very serious self-criticism.

Africans would do well to ask themselves if a comparable event is even possible within their borders.  Is it possible for a non-black African to become president of any nation in Africa even if he had better ideas than his black counterparts?

Kenyans have just recently emerged from a violent electoral episode that saw the death of hundreds of people.  The battle was along tribal lines, not even racial lines, and yet Kenyans cannot see the absurdity of celebrating a peaceful election somewhere else that easily anointed a man from a minority group.  The people of Kenya should realize that what triumphed in the American elections is not "blackness" but the American spirit of individualism, the culture of permitting a man to rise on the basis of his qualities, not his racial or tribal identity.

The reason America is so unique is because it is the only nation that was specifically founded on the principle of individual rights. When you respect individual rights – because you respect the absolute dignity and equality of every individual – it becomes natural for individuals to rise to greatness when they put their effort into something.  This does not mean that America has always had laws that respected individual rights, but it means that this principle has ultimately triumphed against unjust conventions and practices. It's the principle that has shaped the general course of American history whenever it has led the way in any great social and cultural achievement.

The founders of America put in it a DNA that still guides the nation into its future.  Slavery was once practiced all over the world, but because of this DNA in the American system, it was most aggressively fought here.  Americans even went to war among themselves to end this practice of slavery.  The founding principles were on the side of those who fought against slavery and they won.

Although Africa is celebrating this moment in American history, slavery is still practiced on some parts of the continent, and not only slavery, but even other forms of gross human rights violations that are based on ethnic differences – the crisis in Darfur being a case in point. We celebrate America's achievements, but we are not inspired to fight our own injustices. The reason is that we do not embrace the philosophy that helped to create and nurture the American spirit.

Someone like Martin Luther King Junior could fight so aggressively against racist laws in America because the national DNA of individual rights, as established through the constitution, was explicitly on his side.  Martin Luther King had a dream of a day in which a man would be judged by the character of his soul and not the color of his skin.  The laws of America were changed back and since then there have been many blacks who have taken advantage of this and pushed themselves up the ladder of success.

The American spirit supports any individual to pursue his own happiness by working. In Africa, the general route to the "top" is through corruption and other anti-merit networks, including tribal ones. If Africans do not use this opportunity to press their own leaders to aim for a big, fundamental change in the guiding spirit of Africa, from collectivism to individualism, from judging a man by his tribe to judging a man by his character, from "kleptocracy" to meritocracy, then the victory of Obama will mean absolutely nothing to Africa.

Chanda Chisala is a John S. Knight Fellow in the Department of Communications at Stanford University. He is from Zambia, Africa.


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