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Obama: Personal Vision vs the Establishment

By Dr. Bukar Usman


It must be acknowledged that Senator Barak Obama, now the President-elect of the United States of America, has scored many firsts which even his most ardent critics have acknowledged as impressive. The aspects of his victory which drew most attention included his age, race and the subtle nuances and initial hesitation by a section of Americans and others around the world.

   Some may seek cosmic explanations for Senator Obama's spectacular emergence on the political scene just as they did over the achievements of Usain Bolt in the Beijing Olympics track events and Lewis Hamilton in Formula One motor racing. These people have become the new millennium's outstanding manifestations of change and hope thrown up by nature to the consternation of those comfortable with the old order.

   But Senator Obama's own spectacle is pre-eminently mysterious. It calls for explanations that go beyond sheer brilliance, hard work, or even good luck. Everything so amazingly rallied together to work for his historic election one is tempted to believe there must be something prophetic about the Obama phenomenon. And I think prophecy can offer us a reliable explanation since it makes its pronouncements about a given significant event well in advance. No matter how strict or liberal our use or understanding of the term, "prophecy," it will always seem credible to note that an unlikely event someone had talked about many years ago came to pass exactly as he had said it.

   In 1963, in front of Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C, the great civil rights leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Rev. Martin Luther King Jnr., delivered his prophetic "I Have A Dream" speech. It was a speech which reaffirmed the equality of all men as espoused by the founding fathers of America. But it was prophecy or the dreams of King which made that speech resonate till today. "I have a dream," one prophetic element of that speech said, "that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character."

   King spoke those prophetic words on August 28, 1963, at the height of racist segregation in the US. He was shot for dreaming so wildly. For decades, the world wondered if King's dream will unarguably ever come true. Even with the later emergence of Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice as US military chief and Secretary of State respectively, the world still held its breath. Then came August 28, 2008, Senator Barak Obama officially won the Democratic Party's ticket to run for the presidency of the United States.  He defeated the formidable Hillary Clinton. It was a ticket Obama won "by the content of his character" rather than "by the colour of his skin." Thus, what King prophesied about on August 28, 1963 was fulfilled on August 28, 2008, exactly 45 years later. And with Obama's victory over John McCain in the presidential polls, Martin Luther King's prophecy was solidly validated.

   In a sense, therefore, King's word, quoted above, could be said to be a prophecy whose time came in Obama's election. Not surprisingly, Senator Obama's simple campaign theme, "Change," was overwhelmingly bought by the American electorate. They damned all misgivings about his apparently disadvantaged circumstances. In his campaign he promised new approach in doing things in Washington. Consequently, there are high expectations among Americans and the world that he is indeed going to make some positive difference, especially in the face of the current economic downturn in the U.S and other parts of the world. But in reality how much "Change" can we expect President Obama to bring to America and the world? How far could he go against the awesome power of the establishment he wants to change?

   The long campaign for US presidential office had forced the candidates to pander to countless interests in and outside the U.S. to whom they made promises. On the home front, Senator Obama had made pronouncements on various socio-economic issues and policies which were at variance with those espoused by the Republicans. His statements on the various issues in the Middle East, the hub of American foreign policy under President Bush, were most interesting and probably equally more difficult to match with decisive actions.

   While some of Senator Obama's pronouncements during the campaign may be considered as mere electoral rhetoric, some addressed serious and fundamental issues which he could not run away from while in office. These issues will haunt him and the ever-alert American media and enlightened commentators would constantly remind him and even taunt him to act on them according to his words.

   President Obama's personal vision is expected to bear on government machinery and policy formulation in line with his declaration that the buck stops at his table. But it is common knowledge that governance is never a one-man show. There is the kitchen cabinet, the establishment and entrenched bureaucracy to carry along, and their enormous influence would certainly bear on policy formulation and execution.

   The establishment is the product of all that America stood for since its inception as a sovereign nation. It is incrementally enforced by successive administrations, led by Republicans or Democrats.  This formed the bedrock of American political culture. The individual could make a significant mark on governance as every one expects of Senator Obama, but that cannot dislodge the main elements of the system and a President Obama had to come to terms with this. In the last half a century or so, there has been virtual monopoly of governance by the Republicans and, therefore, it is the Democrats that would want to change the status quo. But going by the inability of President Jimmy Carter and President Bill Clinton, during their tenures, to unravel the entrenched and vested ways of Washington as molded by the Republicans, it is clear that Mr. Obama has an uphill task ahead of him.                                  

    The President-elect is cautiously picking his team from Clinton and even from the Bush administration to form a bipartisan cabinet or a "national" government. This suggests that he wants to carry the establishment along and run a consensus-based administration. This is a handicap, and it is difficult to see how he could change the establishment by accommodating it in the heart of his cabinet. There may be changes in tactics and strategies. It could be at the end of his half term or even second term, before Obama could be assessed properly. His liberal supporters are now crying out that he has sidelined them in appointments announced so far. But it may be too early to draw any conclusions. 

    

Domestic Policies:

   Senator Obama's opponents had questioned his scanty experience in domestic and foreign policies. It is obvious his short tenure in the Congress vis-à-vis the huge government machinery over which he is going to preside is grossly inadequate. He is very much a novice in governance and the risk is that, instead of molding the establishment to suit his purpose, he is more likely to be molded by the formidable establishment and the bureaucracy he would inherit. 

   Following the security briefing which took place immediately after his election, the President-elect would have become familiar with the framework within which he will operate. Vital American interests must have been opened to him. This and the briefing from the rest of the bureaucracy must have made him by now to appreciate that there is a gulf between electoral rhetoric and the realities on the ground. 

   Lest we forget, President Jimmy Carter, a decent person by all measures, came to office with a high degree of moral standards and considerable goodwill, but he could not jolt the establishment. He was tolerated for one term. President Bill Clinton, another Democrat with a respectable credential of uprightness was lucky to serve for two terms, but he obviously could not realize his dream of changing the system.  If he had, he and his wife wouldn't be canvassing for strategic roles in Washington years after they left the White House. On the other hand, the outgoing President George Bush, a thorough establishment man, led his country into serious economic and social dislocations and loss of international goodwill.  The throwing of ‘size 10' shoes at President Bush by a journalist in Baghdad, though unethical and unprofessional, tells a lot about the esteem in which some people hold him in parts of  the world. 

   A successful war general is not necessarily a good peacemaker. President Bush can be likened to a general who fought perceived American enemies to a standstill on many fronts, but left his country in an economic mess. It will be President Obama's responsibility to reconstruct the battered American economy and rebuild its society. He stands a better chance of doing this than President Bush who, in spite of his strong belief in capitalist ideals, let his country's economy drift until the deterioration became too stark for comfort. For almost one year the Bush administration chose to bury its head in the sand refusing to acknowledge the signs of recession. He only agreed there was recession only a few weeks to the end of his tenure.

   It's difficult to see how President-elect Obama can quickly fix the economy. Although he is committed to state intervention in tackling the recession, it is not clear how American automakers, for instance, would be rescued. This is because the vehicles they manufacture consume too much fuel, a negative issue in the face of the current energy crisis. It is this deficiency in performance that paved the way for vehicles from the Far East to outsell U.S-made brands in many parts of the world. American production lines must be changed although there is no guarantee that the products would regain their market share without the U.S taking the path of strong protectionism to muscle out external competition. This is a step which would definitely pitch the U.S against W.T.O and represent a major shift from a free economy to a protected, if not planned, economy. This would be contrary to the ethos of capitalism.


Foreign Policies:

   President Obama's albatross in the external front are the so called global war against terror, the twin problems of Iraq and Afghanistan as well as frosty relations with Syria, Iran and Lebanon. There is also the nagging issue of Israeli-Palestinian / Arab relations; and the new cold war in Eastern Europe triggered by American/European intention to build a missile defence shield in Russia's neighbourhood. The fight against HIV-AIDS scourge and climate change are other issues the US is being looked upon by the rest of the world to provide unambiguous leadership and demonstrate clear commitment.

(a) Iraq/Afghanistan/Pakistan Front:

The Bush administration has hastened to fashion out a security agreement with Iraq which seems to pre-empt what President Obama intends to do. This may explain why the President-elect is already playing down the time frame. Rather, he now says he wants to ensure "responsible" withdrawal and would listen to his commanders on the ground. Well, some of the commanders who, in their appearances before the Congress, never agreed to suggestions for a withdrawal time frame, are still very much on the ground in the Middle East. How would Obama accomplish his desire for early withdrawal of US troops? Would President Obama so soon revise the agreement which by its provisions requires no less than one year notice to do so? What about Guantanamo Camp which the President-elect promised to close down? Bush is working hard to dispose of the inmates so that President Obama would meet a fait accompli on the ground and be denied the credit of cleaning up the place which has seriously dented U.S image as a respecter of human rights and decency.   

   More intricate will be the handling of the Afghanistan / Pakistan war front the momentum of which is shifting to Pakistani soil. Pakistan which had been reluctant to allow fighting on its soil has been forced to concede some grounds in an effort to prove its innocence in the recent acts of terrorism in India. This concession is at the expense of its own internal security, national prestige and, to some extent, sovereignty. Even then, the Afghanistan/Pakistan border remains the rugged terrain that had defied all odds since the abortive campaigns of Alexander the Great. Allied soldiers fighting in that area would not only be fighting the tough local fighters who withstood Russian military hardware, but also the hostile terrain itself. As in Vietnam, the tough terrain would usually give the locals advantage, in spite of the sophisticated weaponry amassed against them.    

(b) Israeli - Palestinian Problem:

   Quite predictably, the Israeli-Palestinian problem has remained static in spite of the intense shuttle diplomacy employed by President Bush and the fulltime involvement of Mr. Tony Blair. It has been motion without movement. As such, there is hardly any tangible legacy of the Bush administration regarding this problem.  The bottom line is sincerity and impartiality in intervention. This was commendably demonstrated by President Jimmy Carter but was hardly discernible in nearly all the subsequent approaches made by leaders who succeeded him.

   Israel would seem to be comfortable with the personalities chosen by President-elect Obama to handle American foreign policy as well as other key appointments made in the White House, but whether the Israeli "connections" could be seized upon to move the frontiers of peace remains to be seen. Here, the only new factor is President Obama's personality and the hope that he will be able to gain the trust of the belligerents as an honest broker to move mountains. The prospects do not seem encouraging in that Senator Obama during his electioneering campaign had made certain compromising statements and undertakings to various influential interest groups which he would find difficult to renege on without serious loss of face.

(c) New Cold War:

   The U.S/Europe threat to build a missile defence shield in Russia's neighbourhood has unwittingly set off a new cold war which has seen Russia foraging in American neighbourhood, as signaled by the Russian warships visit to Venezuela. The earlier test of will in Georgia resulted in an uneasy truce. Whether President Obama would proceed with the missile project or not and what Russia's response to the perceived threat would be should determine the level of intensity of a new cold war and even a new arms race.

(d) Global Economic Crisis:

   As the saying goes, when America sneezes the rest of the world catches cold. This truism has been amply demonstrated by the current economic meltdown in America, which has affected the rest of the world. The bubble seems to have burst in Britain ahead of others although the symptoms of the world economic dislocation had earlier manifested in America for months without any one in authority having the courage or sincerity to acknowledge the problem. It was after a lot of hide-and-seek and dodgy policies that the Bush administration swallowed its pride to confess that indeed the United States has been in a recession as far back as December 2007.

   If a doctor could not diagnose an ailment and the patient refuses to tell the truth no meaningful prescription would be made. Hence the developed world had to put up with recession for nearly a year on misplaced prescriptions. President Obama would have to do away with the Bush administration's absolute distaste for non-state intervention in the economy as soon as he takes office. Hopefully, given a new friendly face in America, President Obama would more easily get the much-needed international cooperation required to deal with the global recession. Such multilateral effort may work where Bush's "go-it-alone" policy had woefully failed.

   But even without a recession, the gradual shift of much of the world economy to the Far East, and more especially China, have been noticed by all. While the US dug herself over the years in resource-sapping wars in the Middle East, China has been quietly solidifying its dominance in the world economy. One may, therefore, dare to predict that in the next decade or so there will be a new world economic order and with it a new political order. By that time we would be back to a new multi-polar world and the new super powers would be any body's guess.

(e) Travel Restrictions and the World Economy:

   Needless to say that the economies of many countries, including the highly industrialized ones, continue to suffer from the severe travel restrictions imposed in the fight against so-called global terrorism. As a fallout, Nigeria suffered incalculable economic loss and severe damage.

   To undertake from Nigeria a simple business, medical, academic or pleasure trip to a European country, for example, requires no less than 3 months preparation by which time  the purpose of  the trip would have lapsed  or been overtaken by events at home or at the intended destination. And even when one finally succeeds in getting the permit to travel, one is subjected to indignity by literally being stripped to the waist at travel controls. Many other developing countries encounter similar travel restrictions by the West. Candidly, any solution to the world economic meltdown which ignores the damage done by undue travel restrictions is unrealistic. It is quite apparent that countries which take the risk to liberalize their travel controls are reaping economic fruits.

   While we sympathize with the plight of countries which suffer acts of  terrorism, there is urgent need for the G20 to seriously assess the impact of the travel restrictions as part of the package of efforts being made to find a solution to global economic recession. Unfortunately, given the recent U.S commission report predicting that terrorists using Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) would launch deadly attacks in the next five years, (P.II Daily Independent 4/12/08) America, and indeed the world, is likely to remain on maximum alert for all these years. Ironically, we now talk of the world being a global village while it is becoming more and more difficult for people to interact across it.


Fight Against HIV/AIDS Scourge:

If there is anything President Bush's critics conceded in his favour, it is his commitment to fighting the HIV/AIDS scourge in Africa, including Nigeria. All eyes will therefore be on President Obama to see whether he would match or even surpass President Bush's HIV/AIDS programme in Africa.  


Nigeria - U.S Relations

Senator Obama's victory has sent shock waves throughout the world. It has given hope and confidence to many minorities in all manner of circumstances that no condition is permanent.  For its symbolism, some see Obama's victory as finally nailing the coffin of slavery in America and also bringing into reality the ideals of the American constitution which says: "All men are created equal...." This is despite the fact that he is not a descendant of victims of slavery.

   Oh, how wildly agog we all were over Senator Obama's victory! This writer was warmly congratulated in streets, in restaurants and shops etc in a Far East country as if it was his presidential election. Senator Obama's election has thus turned out to be more than a routine election in America. It generated hope and optimism across several sections of the world. Obama's victory is so novel and unprecedented almost every conceivable group of people, including Nigerians, now see it as a symbol of light at the end of any tunnel of human disadvantage or oppression.

   Interestingly, some current affairs commentators and a few functionaries attempt to draw not only inspirations from the conduct of public affairs but also make comparisons between the American election and elections in Nigeria. A few had stuck out their necks to say that the U.S has something to learn from Nigeria. Patriotism aside, the truth is that any objective assessment would admit that the basis of comparison is not there. We beat our chest to say that the last election had broken the jinx in civilian-civilian transition not minding how it was achieved, a kind of the Machiavellian principle of "the end justifies the means".

   Comparing Nigerian elections with the American elections is like comparing day and night. The difference is clear. On the one side is a high degree of transparency such that a nation-wide election was conducted in a country larger than ours in all ramifications without any serious disputes; candidates conceded defeat without any prompting; and the media gave electoral verdict without the slightest accusation of bias, while the incumbency factor had little or no impact. Prof. Akin Oyebode rightly asked: "Does any body know who the President of the Federal Election Commission is in America?" (P.37, Nigeria Tribune 8/12/08). "It is just a technical job," he declared. Indeed, people hardly heard of the formal declarations by the electoral body, results were so instantaneously released and widely published by the media. Foreign observers seemed to have gone there more to learn of the procedural excellence than to act as a check on any perceived electoral manipulation or irregularities.

   The recent electoral debacle in Jos is a clear indication that we still have a long way to go in our attitude to elections.  Such attitude can hardly be brought about by new electoral regulations or even a new Constitution. Given the correct attitude to the rules on the ground as we have them today will be enough for us to govern the country meaningfully and that would have ended crave for a new constitution and additional electoral regulations. What is the need for more regulations if they can not be enforced and if each election can easily become a "do-or-die" affair? If the law provides for a special design of the ballot paper and someone did something else or the vote is not even counted, could that be the fault of the law? Saturday "Punch" columnist Joe said he could not find any significant "similarities" between Ghana's recent Presidential elections and Nigeria's April 2007 (P.64, Saturday Punch 13/12/08). You then ask: What electoral law does Ghana have in place that Nigeria does not?   

   It is quite apparent that often the urge for a new constitution is only to soothe the ego of those concerned with the form rather than the substance; satisfy the greed of those who want to carve out empires by splitting the country into more states and local governments; as well as satisfy the avarice for increased revenue allocation; or create the opportunity to squeeze in ill-conceived pet ideas like the aborted "third term" project. Ultimately a country is conditioned by the dominant political group's morality which in several countries plagued by horrible electoral and socio-economic vices is quite low indeed.  

   As relates to Nigeria-U.S relations in general, President-elect Obama's briefing will inevitably include criminal activities disrupting oil supplies in Nigeria which is of special interest to U.S. There is also the question of religious intolerance which evokes sentiment in the fight against so-called global terrorism. Of note is the recent U.S National Intelligence Council report (P.9, Sunday Punch 30/11/08) which has already predicted the likelihood of religious cleavage between the Southern and Northern parts of Nigeria. The report's conclusions are, of course, questionable in that the religious dichotomy in the country is not all that clear cut between the North and the South, and is even harder to draw in the Western part of the country.


   The authors could easily point to the recent disturbances in Jos over the local government elections as a pointer to the veracity of their conclusions. But it could be seen that electric power shortage in Nigeria has by far greater potential for more serious social dislocations in the country than any other factor in the coming years. Imagine a hitherto socially volatile area like Kano where recent reports revealed more than 500 factories have closed down as a result of power shortage. It is universally potentially dangerous to the social set up to have multitude of able-bodied jobless persons walking the streets in all parts of the Federation.


Conclusion:

All in all, I think Obama's greatest challenges as US President would lie within the US rather than outside it. The US electoral "establishment" is so transparently entrenched that Martin Luther King's dream was so sweetly fulfilled in Obama's victory. The question now is: will the ultra right-wing Washington Establishment permit the fulfillment of Obama's own audacious vision of a new liberal America of equal and attainable opportunities for all Americans and his aspiration for a US-led world founded on dialogue and multilateral action? This remains to be seen.


26/12/08                                      

 

 

 

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Obama: Personal Vision vs the Establishment

 

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