Where are Africa’s Obamas?


My fellow Kenyans celebrated wildly when Barack Obama was elected president of the United States. A national holiday was declared the Thursday after the U.S. election, and more than four months later, the excitement has barely abated -- and not just in Kenya, where Obama’s father was born, but across Africa. People are elated by the fact that someone with African roots has been able to rise to such heights.

But the U.S. election also should cause Africans to ask themselves this question: Why don’t more African nations have the kind of leadership President Obama is demonstrating?

African leaders have much to learn from the new president’s example. His campaign was disciplined, inclusive and grass-roots-led. He has built his Cabinet methodically, reaching out to political opponents. And when he has made mistakes, notably in vetting some candidates for Cabinet positions, his apology and acceptance of responsibility stood in sharp contrast with the arrogance and lack of transparency that too often have marked 50 years of post-independence African leadership.


It’s no coincidence that legions of young people in Africa have drawn inspiration from Obama’s call for change and hope. In Kenya, youth speak of the need for an “Obama revolution” that would lead to a peaceful transfer of power from the old guard that has ruled the country since independence in 1963 to a new generation of idealistic yet practical leaders in the Obama mold. Indeed, across the continent, younger Africans have embraced Obama as not only a hero but as a model for Africa’s future. The continent desperately needs principled and skilled leaders committed to public service and to working for the good of society as a whole.

By contrast, time and again, post-independence African governments have been unprincipled or blatantly corrupt, beholden to only a small set of cronies or elites. Too many in leadership positions have plundered national resources, persecuted political rivals and citizens who dared to question their actions, and even stoked violence within and across national borders, all the while crushing the hopes of ordinary citizens to make an honest living. Few have consented to share power freely or supported development of a vibrant civil society.

Of course, Africa has had a number of giants --Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere and South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, for example -- who embodied selfless service, justice and fairness, and who left their countries the better for their leadership. But many others have cynically and tragically played politics with ethnic identification, a devastating legacy that continues to roil many nations. In the last six months of 2008 alone, coups beset Mauritania and Guinea, and politicized violence continues in Zimbabwe, Somalia, Chad, the Darfur region of Sudan and the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo -- all caused, in large measure, by a failure or absence of genuine leadership. In Kenya, the two parties in a coalition government formed after the disputed 2007 election -- and the terrible violence that ensued -- are still competing for the perquisites of power instead of working together effectively for the common good.

In this context, Obama, simply by modeling a leadership style that’s open, fair and honest, offers a powerful example of what African leadership could become. My hope is that African leaders will take the opportunity of Obama’s presidency to challenge themselves to raise the bar of leadership, and to help bring about the revolution in leadership Africa desperately needs.

Inspired by Obama’s example, perhaps they will be motivated to practice good governance, expand democratic space, promote and protect human rights, end or discourage conflicts and ensure the sustainable, equitable and responsible use of national resources. If they do not, they must risk U.S. censure and be held accountable by the African Union and the international community.

Africa needs Obama to engage with the continent’s struggles. He should express support for the citizens of African countries as they try to develop robust civil societies, much as he did as a community organizer in Chicago. He should work to ensure that global trade rules are fairer for African nations and that odious debts --racked up by corrupt regimes and complicit lenders -- are cleared. He should embrace protection of African forests, one of the best options for the continent to mitigate the effects of global warming, as central to a global climate solution.


That Obama is of African heritage sends a signal, one I hope all Africans heed: The time for excuses for poor leadership is over. Africans must not sit back and expect that Obama will lavish aid and attention on the continent simply because he has a Kenyan father. They should demand the leadership they want rather than accept the leadership they get.

Indeed, Obama’s election could offer a new beginning for the African story. It could inspire Africans to work harder to improve their circumstances, to escape the culture of dependency in which too many are caught, and to grasp the opportunities that abound. Then, the elation millions of Africans feel now may be matched by fulfillment of the promise: that the many babies being named after the new American president will not have to leave Africa to fulfill their potential.

Wangari Maathai, the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, is the founder of the Green Belt Movement and a former member of Kenya’s parliament. She is the author of the forthcoming book, “The Challenge for Africa.”