Around the world, America’s presidential election caught the imagination of young people. Nowhere was that more true than here in Darfur. In the displaced camps, people huddled around transistor radios as the election results came in during the pre-dawn hours. Barack Obama’s victory speech, received here after daybreak on November 5, was one of those rare Mandela moments — a jubilant triumph over injustice, a day marked in history when the impossible seems suddenly possible.
The election of a man of African descent to the most powerful position in the world is immeasurably symbolic for Africa. It was a precious moment at which Africans walked tall. Young Africans projected their own aspirations onto Obama. They suddenly believed that they too could overcome all odds, rise above a humble background, and achieve greatness without betraying their identity. They see Obama’s electoral triumph as a vindication of their own, thwarted dreams of democracy and opportunity for all. The inauguration is a consummation of that.
President-elect Obama has become an icon for the future, a symbol of emancipation and possibility, of the stature and significance of Nelson Mandela. His is a story that every young African can identify with, including his struggle to work out where he fitted in, what his identity should be. His leadership has six huge lessons for Africa.
First, Obama focused on what unites people rather than what divides them. He stressed the unity that arises from being comfortable with multiple identities. He didn’t try to impose any monolithic version of identity but made a virtue — an organizing principle — out of diversity. These are approaches that resonate deeply in Africa, and especially with the young.
Second, Obama didn’t dwell on the bitterness and division of the past. We did not see him fighting old battles or calculating the carve-up of power and wealth according to a zero-sum game. Instead, he resolutely looked to the future, to the possibilities of everyone becoming a winner in a shared future. The issues that helped Obama win were the challenges of the coming century, such as climate change and a positive attitude towards globalization. For Africa, a continent that has lost a sense of its future, and has even less of a feeling of controlling the direction in which it is heading, Obama was inspiring. He exuded the confidence that the future can be shaped, and nothing need be written off as lost.
Third, Obama ran a campaign of the young. The 2008 election was a generational turning point, a new leadership for America. Across the country, the youth had become politically dormant, turned off politics by its outdated procedures, its introversion and its sheer nastiness. Obama brought young people back into political life, mobilizing them through new methods that are simply invisible to an older generation of politicians, such as the internet. The codes of sociability, civility and enthusiasm that mark out the gathering places of the young — actual and virtual — were echoed in Obama’s own cool and affable demeanor. His whole campaign was a performance that resonated among the young — and he won two thirds of the votes of those aged under thirty.
Africa is a young continent, with half the population under eighteen and half of the electorate under thirty-five. Yet it is ruled by a gerontocracy, all of them born in the colonial era. Obama’s victory will remind young Africans that, at the time of independence half a century ago, it was men in their thirties and forties — and sometimes younger — who lead their countries at liberation, and that the time for another turning of the generations is upon us.
Obama’s leadership is also generous in spirit. He rose above the acrimony of party attacks and counterattacks. He did not assume the worst in his opponent, but rather challenged the best in him — and was rewarded on election night by a remarkably gracious concession speech by John McCain. Any African politician who wins an election would weep for joy if his opponent was as honorable in defeat — but that generosity needs to be earned by sticking with civil political principles. Obama was disciplined in brushing off some peculiarly nasty slurs, and courageous in sticking with his liberal and cosmopolitan messages even when most pundits saw these as dangerous for a country that has long been centre-right. That’s also an important lesson for Africa — African citizens are also far more cosmopolitan and liberal than is often assumed.
A fifth lesson from Obama’s triumph is the importance of re-learning the art of peaceful revolutionary change. Fifty years ago, Africa’s liberation was mostly achieved by non-violent civic protest. Kwame Nkrumah and Martin Luther King saw themselves as comrades in a non-violent struggle for civic rights. It is Africa’s tragedy that the continent’s visionaries turned to armed struggle and embraced the coup d’etat as a supposed short cut to achieving their goals. Africa’s leaders turned to violence because their enemies did so — but the outcome has been Africa’s loss. A leader who pursues the path of violence has no control over the outcome, but any effort to achieve peaceful change is an investment for the future. Africa, which was once the beacon of peaceful liberation, needs to achieve that status once again, and Obama’s example can provide the inspiration.
Lastly, the message of Obama’s triumph is: those who want to make a change must do it themselves. The Obama campaign did not rely on any established political machine. It did not call on figures from the establishment to represent it. It was a genuine grassroots mass mobilization. This is a tremendous example for Africa’s young people: they too can enact momentous political change, if they become involved. Already we can see that Obama’s example is motivating young people to become community organizers and political aspirants. Whatever the Obama administration delivers for Africa, this will be its greatest legacy: the power to inspire by example, to make a new generation believe that, yes we can change our world, by our own actions.