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Four Years Later, Obama's African "Brothers" Give Him Mixed Marks

Article illustrative image Partner logo Ghana Loves Obama

 -Essay-

On September 18, I was returning from Benin where I had been presenting my latest book, and came to the Aneho border crossing, on the Togo side.

After a customs officer spent a long time questioning me on the reasons for my travel in his charming country, writing down where I had been in Togo and where I was going in my own country, Ivory Coast, he sent me to a wooden hut for my passport to be stamped. I held out my passport to the immigration officer, but he did not look at it.

His eyes were riveted on the television, which was set to a French news channel. They were reporting that Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate in the American election, running against Barack Obama, had just committed yet another gaffe. He had been filmed saying nasty things about the 47% of Americans he said were "dependent upon government," and about Palestinians, who he said were not interested in peace with Israel. The Togolese immigration officer and his colleagues were exulting. "If he continues to say things like that, we'll win easily," one of them said.

"We?" I asked him.

"Well, yes! Obama is our candidate. He is our brother." That explained it, then.

Togo is an African country where the vote is divided essentially along ethnic lines, and since the American president's heritage is half African, that makes him the brother of all Africans south of the Sahara.

This is the reason why 100 % of us would have voted for him four years ago, even without knowing anything at all about his policies. But what did Africans get from his first term? I asked the Togolese customs officer that question. "We knew he would not be sending us money. We didn't expect that. It's up to us to develop our own country. But he gave us back our pride. If a black man can become president of the United States, it means that we blacks are capable of anything."

In the Ivory Coast, my friend Ange Ndakpri, commercial director of the publishing company Fraternité Matin, which I run, told me that for his part he knew that Barack Obama had done absolutely nothing for his father's continent, but that he had no choice. "He came to power at a difficult time, with the economic crisis and the wars created by his predecessor. So Africa could not be his priority. But if he is re-elected, he will certainly do something for us."

Eugène Zadi, assistant director of the Ivoirian Electricity Company (CIE), agrees. "For a black man to become president in a country like the United States where racism was institutionalized, and which moreover is the greatest world power, is something that makes us proud.  But what with the wars of the Bushes, father and son, the economic crisis, and now the consequences of the Arab spring, which is turning out to be less enchanted than we had hoped, we cannot ask miracles from Obama, nor expect that he will pay much attention to us. Perhaps those who say they are disappointed had expectations that were too high. We are proud of him, but he is not our president."

Strong institutions, not strongmen

Jean-Louis Billon, president of the Ivory Coast Chamber of Commerce and head of SIFCA, the biggest Ivorian agribusiness company, believes that Obama, just like the European heads of state, had to confront a severe economic crisis that no one saw coming, and which was not his fault. "But on the international front, he definitely made an impact. As an African, I liked his speeches in Cairo and Accra [Ghana]. In Cairo, he tried to reconcile the United States with the Arab world. In Accra, he clearly said that we Africans don't need strong men, but rather strong institutions. It is a pity that our heads of state did not listen to his words."

Beninese writer Florent Couao-Zotti disagrees. He says he has been very disappointed by Obama, precisely on the subject of democracy in Africa. "He had the legitimate right, because his father is from our continent, to talk to African dictators in very strong language. But he kept silent. I saw a demonstration in Congo-Brazzaville where they had posters saying 'Obama, say something!' If he had spoken up, things might have been different. Aside from that, I did not expect anything from him, because he was elected by Americans to solve American problems, not African ones."

Cornélius Aïdam, former Togolese minister of culture, believes that Obama could not have done more than he did. "The racists and white extremists had never seriously thought someone like Obama, whose father was not a African-American but actually African, could be elected," Aïdam says. "They were truly surprised, and have done everything they can to make him fail, putting obstacles in his path at every turn, even for his most noble ideas. Why else would people mobilize against a project to ensure health insurance for the poor? If Obama is re-elected, it will be thanks to that health care law. If he is defeated, it will also be because of that."

Let us give the last word to Paulin, who works for an oil company in the Ivory Coast. "It is Obama’s African heritage that will doom him. While all his predecessors did not care at all if the rest of the world liked them, Obama tried to make everyone like him-- Arabs, Africans, Chinese, the poor, the rich. In the end, he didn't make anyone happy and now they’re all a bit angry with him. That's very African."

In spite of a few complaints, we Africans would vote 100 % for Obama again if we had the chance. We hope that during his second term he will finally give a little thought to us, his poverty-stricken brothers.

*Venance Konan is a writer and journalist from the Ivory Coast.

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