BARACK OBAMA: MONUMENTAL TASKS & GREAT EXPECTATIONS – By Genet Mersha

November 9th, 2008 Print Print Email Email

The 2008 election in the United States marks the beginnings of a brave new world. (more…)

The 2008 election in the United States marks the beginnings of a brave new world. While America remains divided on the question of race, as confirmed by the polls, the majority of the people have taken courageous decision in voting for Barack Obama. Much as the cooperation of the minority party is important in the course of the next four years, the new president’s ability also to unite both sides, without compromising his principles, is of immense importance for the speedy realization of his vision. America has given the new President a reasonably strong mandate. That not only his success would make Americans proud of their 4 November decision, but also would rally even more supporters among the ranks of those who had not voted for him.

In times of difficulty, history has always its way of picking leaders whom it calls to right wrongs by providing good leadership with common cause as the rallying point. Thus, there is every reason to believe that the new President will rise to the challenges and confront successfully the range of present challenges before his country, which have had severe impacts around the world. A world that has been yearning for human decency, qualitative change in national and international life has also become hopeful. History has already begun documenting the story of that hope, even before the new president is installed.

Mr. Obama’s victory underlines two important elements. First, the majority of the people of the United States have crossed the allegorical Rubicon, leaving behind the walls of separation based on colour, race, sex, and creed. Its example for the rest of the world is unimaginable. Secondly, his victory has dealt serious blows to anti-Americanism that has become widespread in recent years. History will devote as many pages to detail how much hope has united peoples across the globe. The 2008 election has won ecstatic support of the peoples of the world, when in reality it is not their own and they do not have a say in it. Therefore, the caution here is America needs to respect it by being extra careful this time around not to squander the huge capital of goodwill Mr. Obama’s victory has generated. At the same time, there is only so much that a president can do and those with unrealistic expectations will realize at some point that it is what it is—unrealistic.

In a little over four years, there would be ample history of both sides of the conversation as how much President Barack Obama has realized his CHANGE WE NEED vision. Therefore, his people and a world full of great expectations would watch his every step and scrutinize his actions. Their ears and eyes open, from the midst of their difficult circumstances, the people of Ethiopia are also looking to him as a real friend to stand by them when his help is need to enable them realize their dreams.

INTERPRETATION OF THE ELECTION

It is imperative, therefore, that the new change of direction in the United States be seen beyond the issues of colour and race. Its major importance has two underpinnings. First, America has recommitted itself to honour and respect the people by affording them equal opportunities and a genuine share in its prosperity. Mr. Obama has pledged to focus on the middle class with a view to uplifting the entire society with specific measures that he has outlined in detail. This is the appropriate approach for the United States. Secondly, he has articulated clearly his commitment to work with the international community (multilateralism as opposed to unilateralism). That is a good starting point. He has been one among the many who early on recognized that America’s hitherto ‘go it alone’ approach has hurt its standing in the world. For many, its singular focus on the so-called the ‘war against terror’—both its practices and the example it has set to others—has undermined the ideals America has held dear for so long and which, in turn especially after World War II, have endeared it to the peoples of the world.

In that sense, the 2008 election is equally a verdict against governance by corporations, which has ignored the wellbeing of households and the environment. In spite of the rising level of wealth in the United States, the income of ordinary citizens has been plummeting for sometime now. Partly because of that, today in the largest consumer economy, the frightening thump of recession has grown louder than ever before with severe consequences to the rest of the world. To date, ten million Americans have already lost their jobs and yet more job loses are to come especially with a precipitous decline in the manufacturing sector (the auto industry) and services. Millions have already lost their homes, their savings and hopes.

Consequently, it would be a serious mistake to reduce the narrative of this epoch-making election as a story of one black man from Chicago becoming the next occupant in the White House. Voters have spoken clearly; they want to see change in their individual lives, in the way America has lived and has done its business within and with the outside world. To me, CHANGE WE NEED means the realization of overall improvement in societal wellbeing, availability of opportunities to individuals and respect for civil rights and freedoms of all citizens. In foreign policy, beyond foreign aid, the new administration needs aggressive engagement at the popular level with civil societies with a view to identifying the scope and breadth of popular aspirations. Cooperation and collaboration with national governments both at the bilateral and multilateral levels are extremely important. However, its professed objectives would be served better with improved understanding and listening to the people.

For many developing countries, by design public space and the guarantees it requires have become non-existent. For instance, in the past decade-and-a half, a number of developing countries have attained some degree of economic growth because of increased wealth and demand in the north. Unfortunately, the beneficiaries have been a small group of elites, whose only mission at the head of government has been the prolongation of their hold on power and that of their kin. The people feel robbed; they cannot speak about it or challenge in a court of law.

The President-Elect’s promise to re-arm America with its ideals, enshrined in the Constitution, has raised hopes in that regard. The principles that will guide his administration were reiterated eloquently in his victory speech on 4 November. He said, “And to all those watching from beyond our shores, from parliaments and places to those who are huddled around radios in the forgotten corners of the world—our stories are singular, but our destiny is shared, and a new dawn of American leadership is at hand. And to all those who have wondered if America’s beacon still burns as bright – tonight we proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes not from the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity and unyielding hope.”

Therefore, Mr. Obama’s administration has its work cut out not only for Americans, but also in engaging the rest of the world and acting as an honest broker and facilitator.

In that connection, I should mention that experience has taught us that true development is a product first and foremost of real freedom and equality, not propping up of double-faced despots, or the mere doling out of foreign aid and humanitarian assistance. It is a given that democracy is not an import/export commodity; however, for a peaceful change and societal transformation, it requires creation of conditions for grassroots work to realize the aspirations of the people. In many developing countries, the façade of democracy with cyclical elections has become a ticket for ensuring international acceptance of a regime and foreign aid that mostly goes to benefit corrupt leaders. What the people ask and want is a regime of tolerance to differing views and assurances that the law would protect them when they express themselves and work in a competitive environment to translate their objectives into reality.

In my country, as is the case in a number of others, because of the absence of the rule of law and legal protection, hopes have been dashed, beautiful dreams shattered and the souls of our nation scarred by the immorality and violence of sham elections. Instead of reprobation, those who habitually steal elections have succeeded in getting a pass from our partners under the pretext of strategic and national security considerations, economic justifications or for being allies in the ‘war against terror.’

The America of Barack Obama should devise ways to ensure that taxpayers’ monies it contributes to countries serve effectively the causes of freedom, democracy and justice. There would be no real national development, peace and stability in most of the developing world without free national dialogue, close monitoring of the behaviour of despotic regimes by the people with the support of the international community. For a country such as Ethiopia, straddling the explosive Horn of Africa, the cumulative effect of constantly rising public anger and frustrations has been detrimental primarily to the country itself, and then to its neighbours.

Cognizant of this, Senator Russ Feingold early in March rightly described the Ethiopian situation when he said, “I am seriously concerned about the direction Ethiopia is headed – because according to many credible accounts, the political crisis that has been quietly growing and deepening over the past few years may be coming to a head. For years, faced with calls for political or economic reforms, the Ethiopian government has displayed a troubling tendency to react with alarmingly oppressive and disproportionate tactics.”

Obviously, there is a pressing need for a template change in global governance and its conduct. I do hope that the in-coming administration would consider that seriously. It is simple economics that it is much cheaper and effective to assist efforts towards genuine democracy in line with the aspirations of the people. Besides the moral value of saving lives, such an approach would also help avoid enormous costs at a later stage to restore shattered peace and order.

For instance, Haiti has become a lost cause, even as the United Nations has camped there for more than a decade. These days Haiti appears on the international media as mere story to highlight nature’s violence against man it being on the path of major and frequent hurricanes. If not none, rarely appears any news about the violence state machinery. For that matter, how would one explain or justify the contributions of seventeen thousand UN troops in D. R. Congo for such a long time, with no success or prospects in facilitating conditions for peace, or affording protection to the civilian population and properties? Surprisingly, in spite their presence, of late full-scale war has been raging. Hundreds and thousands of people are fleeing for their lives, while their leaders have failed, I must say, refused to stare on the face of the problem. The environment is being destroyed, including rare wild animals. We can go on mentioning several similar situations that can attest to the failure of regional and international diplomacy, an indication of lack of vision and concerted global leadership.

In 2008, 21 African countries, including Ethiopia and the autonomous territory of Somaliland have carried out presidential, parliamentary and/or local elections, according to EISA, the not-for-profit Johannesburg-based organization that strives to promote credible elections and the consolidation of democracy in Africa. One of such countries is Ethiopia, which in March 2008 conducted an election whereby the incumbent declared itself the winner by claiming over 97 percent of the vote. The irony is that that claim of ‘landslide victory’ comes merely three years after the 2005 election that was soaked in blood, because of which the country has remained terribly polarized.

That is not all. In its continued attempt to stifle pluralism, the government has now resorted fervently to strangling the emergence of opposition by drafting new laws and revised regulations. For instance, new draconian regulations have been adopted recently to muzzle the media completely. Freedom of the press has already been dead in Ethiopia for a long while. A draft regulation is on the pipeline to circumscribe the activities of local and international civil societies active in the fields of human rights and humanitarian assistance. Lately, the government has moved with determination against the latter group after most of these organizations have exposed during the summer the existence of a killer drought and famine in Ethiopia. As a government merely concerned about its image, it tried unsuccessfully to deny that there was famine in Ethiopia.

Interestingly, since the beginning of November 2008, a time chosen to coincide with the election in the United States, the regime has unleashed yet another wave of arrests of opposition leaders and their supporters, according to reports by the international media. Quoting a police report on 3 November Reuter wrote, “The National Intelligence Security Service has received credible information about an impending terrorist plot to be carried out inside Ethiopia.” The Sudan Tribune, in its November 5 piece headlined this story saying, “ETHIOPIAN GOVERNMENT ACCUSED OF MASS ARREST CAMPAIGN UNDER COVER OF TERRORISM.”

There is no doubt that this is a calculated attempt by the regime to ingratiate itself with President-Elect Obama and his team as a warrior against terror. The whole theatrics merely reflects the depth of the regime’s desperation after the victory of the Democratic Party. After all, as mentioned above, a number of senior members of the Democratic Party at one time or another have consistently made known in Congress their concerns with respect to the situation in Ethiopia. They have recognized that, in name, Ethiopia is a multi-party country, but in practice a nation under the grips of an authoritarian regime. Today in Ethiopia, even semblance public space has been rolled away completely.

Certainly, the task of building democracy is primarily the task of the nation concerned. However, in situations such as Ethiopia, sincere outside help is of paramount importance. For instance, the election in 2005 would not have enjoyed openness, competitive campaigning and access to the media, to a degree unseen and unheard of before—just because of the presence of international observers. Unfortunately, things soured when the ruling party realized its defeat. The international community buckled down giving in to rumours of internal strife, more likely to be stalked by the regime itself, were its losses to be acknowledged. However, even when foreign governments gave in, the regime did not spare the lives of innocent citizens; it caused untold sufferings to thousands of families.

Ethiopia has not been at peace internally. The latest evidence is the regime has become nightmarish; it has now established local security councils and committees in every kebele. The fear is that those opposed or suspected of being opposed to the government would be hunted. This could even take the form of witch-hunting of intellectuals with little inertest in cooperating with a government that does not even respect their civil rights. The threat of outside invasion, possibly real especially from the north, is constantly exploited; however, the real purpose to divert public attention from the real daily problems, such as the double-digit inflation, food shortage, housing, simply the un-affordability of the prices of goods and services. In brief, Ethiopia has veered completely off the democratic path. Today the regime is squandering even more of the country’s meagre resources in building a huge army and security apparatus, which the fragile economy cannot support. It does not accept the fact that Ethiopia could have seen better days within a few years, if the regime were to focus on genuine political reforms and revitalization of the economy with sound measures, including respect for property rights.

This brings me back to the 2008 election in the United States. Ethiopians watched the election of Barack Obama with great enthusiasm and both with tears of joy and sadness, partly because of the discouraging conditions in their country. Their expectation now is that the United States will become a true friend of the Ethiopian people. They are aware Candidate Obama’s message along the 21-month old campaign trail, which he has unequivocally affirmed his preparedness to support peace and security, civil liberties and defend democracy and fundamental human rights. That message has gripped my compatriots, as it has the rest of the world.

  1. Mussa Ghedi
    | #1

    Dear Genet,
    I have enjoyed your well thought article and most concerned citizens from the less fortunate parts of the world would hope for a better and fair US foreign policy. It is also obvious we have witnessed the dawn of a new erra in American history. However,a glipse in the history of US foreign policy does not encourage us to hope for a revolutionary shift that would impact on Authorotiarian African regimes. There is no indication to suggest such a swing in policy no matter which party is incumbent at the white house.
    I also believe that we should not burden the new president elect with our problems when he already has a mountain of it in his own country.

    Allah Bless

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