Dear President-Elect Barack Obama,
On the brink of what may be the most historic inauguration in America in a century, I have been forced to ask myself two questions: What accounts for the international outpouring of support for your incipient presidency? And what does this flashing of a worldwide “Welcome” sign portend for America’s rapidly evolving relationship with Africa?
The conventional wisdom about Africa’s reaction to your election was that race trumps all: Africans were so thrilled to see the son of a man from Kenya win the White House that it mattered little who that man was — or so the pundits claimed. Yet, the idea that race animates our enthusiasm in Africa is far too simple.
It is true that after your election, young men and women in Senegal paraded along the boulevards of Dakar, displaying a passion for politics and democracy that many African leaders struggle to ignite in domestic elections. But the same enthusiasm was evident in many non-African capitals of the world, not only on election night but in the months since then. Nelson Mandela better captured the reasons for your post-election support when he observed that your victory showed every individual should “dare to dream of wanting to change the world into a better place.”
It is easy to forget now but it wasn’t so long ago that dreaming about a better world had a bad name. America’s great civil rights leader, Martin Luther King Jr., famously had a dream. Yet, the color-blind society that he foresaw in his “I Have a Dream” speech was dismissed for decades as utopian, an idealized but hopelessly naive vision of the future. In Africa, we have a dream, too — and it is a dream, as you know from your visits here, that has much in common with the American Dream.
Just as America has had to undo the long legacy of slavery and discrimination, Africa has had to throw off the yoke of colonial domination and exploitation. Just as America has taken two steps forward and one step backward in its march to equal opportunity, so, too, has Africa. We, too, are an imperfect union of states that have, at times, struggled with military strongmen, tribal and ethnic rivalries, the plague of AIDS, and a poverty that few Americans can imagine. But we are making progress toward the dream, too. Democracy is spreading throughout Africa, even in regions once known for brutal genocides, and African economies are expanding rapidly, even as those of the West falter. I myself am the duly elected president of a peaceful nation that is 95 percent Muslim and pro-Western.
Thus, your looming presidency has helped resurrect the American Dream on our continent as an African dream. Africans everywhere have gained renewed confidence in themselves and the capacity of their nations to change. And that affirmation is a form of aid more precious than grants and loans.
Yes, I admit that some Africans have seen your election through the old lens of self-interest. They ask, what is Mr. Obama going to do for us? But the hope that the United States will suddenly wake up to the needs of the African continent and shower us with cash is a mistake. In Senegal, we are battling like other African nations to continue our economic expansion and modernization. We need seeds and organic fertilizer and assistance to build new roads and bridges. But we do not seek handouts.
If anything, now is the time for Africans to ask themselves what they can do to assist your administration as you begin to right the problems afflicting America. In the United States there is an old adage that says “When white America gets a cold, black America gets pneumonia.” Today, when America has the economic flu, the rest of the world is in even worse shape. While working-class Americans struggle to pay their bills, Senegalese are facing far more exorbitant energy bills and food costs, and already suffer the ravages of global warming. The greatest service that you can render to Africa is to first fix America’s ailing economy.
As you pointed out in your acceptance speech on election night, globalization is here to stay - “our stories are singular,” you observed, “but our destiny is shared, and a new dawn of American leadership is at hand.” Africa stands ready to participate in that shared destiny and is eager to assume a greater role in international diplomacy and multilateral exchanges. We are determined to prove to the United States that our continent’s wealth of resources, food, energy potential, cultural traditions, skilled labor, and expanding markets offers America great opportunities for a mutually beneficial partnership.
Nothing has fired the African imagination more about the prospect of your presidency than your observation that America’s true strength “comes not from the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals.” In Senegal, the national slogan is “Teranga,” meaning the warmth of welcome. Tolerance, peace and fraternity are never far from our minds here either. If the true genius of America is that it can change, then that, too, shall be the genius of Africa. You see, the desire to be perfected, to chase a great dream, is one that we share.
Abdoulaye Wade is the president of Senegal.