Notes from a journey with Barack Obama

By Tolu Ogunlesi

On January 20, 2009, Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th President of the Unites States of America

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I stayed up all night to watch Barack Obama become the President-elect of the United States of America. At that time I lived in a hotel room in Uppsala, a Swedish University town, far away from home (Lagos). It was hard to feel that the Swedes were in any way excited at the prospects of the sort of momentous change that was about to be unleashed on the world.

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I recall comparing the apparently unconcerned Uppsala with the Lagos I left behind, a city throbbing with the nervous anticipation of History bearing down on it at top speed (even though nothing like that was happening). Even before I left two months earlier Nigeria had already been overrun by Obamastickers and Obamatalk. There was even an Obama fundraiser that brought in millions of naira; money we later learnt US campaign guidelines prohibited the Obama campaign from accepting. A friend told me that he would be attending a party hosted by the American Embassy in Lagos, where they would keep vigil as the election results came in.

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In that Swedish hotel room I swung between the Present and the Future. In the Present, Barack Obama was the frontrunner, according to polls. In the future, he was the winner (wishful thinking), or the loser – by the narrowest, most nerve-wracking, of margins (far more probable). He had come quite far, but I had seen enough football matches to know that playing well and deserving to win did not always translate into winning. There were always the minor irritants like bad luck, and bad refereeing, eager to display their abilities. What would inevitably follow was regret, and then life would quickly return to normal. 'At least he tried.'

It was also easy to buy into the supermarket-shelf array of conspiracy theories: there was no way the Republicans would sit back and allow a Black man into the White House. It was as though the overriding mission of the McCain campaign was to congratulate Americans on their sophistication; the sort that allows a person to admire one thing for hours but settle, at the moment of decision and with not the slightest trace of ambivalence or guilt for its opposite.

To worsen matters, despite Sarah Palin’s massively embarrassing blunders, the crowds stayed with her, and cheered her, appearing to have made up their minds to ignore all the very loud signs of her cluelessness. But then, wasn’t that why they were Americans – citizens of the greatest country in the world? Hadn’t they got to those heights by not following the kind of logic the rest of us mindlessly succumbed to?

Providence itself, apparently also knew the rules of the American game. It knew that even if Obama deserved the White House, it just wasn’t time yet. This story was too good to become true just yet, but surely the protagonist (Obama) would get a generous consolation prize (a lengthy Wikipedia page at the very least) for trying so hard.

(And if ever the powerful Republicans or painstaking Providence needed assistance, it could certainly count on the Electoral College system, the kind of complication that only the Americans could invent, and manipulate).

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My mind was further made up when the scores started to roll in across the television screen, and Obama took an instant lead. Wasn’t that how it always happened? Wasn’t Hollywood built upon the principle of the last minute conquest? One guy would take the lead, inching closer and closer to the finishing line, and then just when it was almost over (The End), the Other Guy, the One ‘scripted’ to win, would go ahead and do just that.

*

I cranked up my Facebook machine (those were my pre-twitter days), pushing out a minute-by-minute status-update account of the tally, as BBC World (the only English-language news channel on my hotel room TV) released it. I was not the only one excited by the possibilities of synchronizing my Facebook page with History as it tumbled off the assembly lines. As soon as I posted the latest BBC tally, someone would issue a query or a rebuttal (“What network are you following, dude?), and then post a different set of figures, from Sky News, or Fox or CNN. Obama, the Rising Son (of Africa) appeared to be imitating that pattern of the rising sun to reveal itself differently to different parts of the world.

When the waiting ended, at around 5a.m on the morning of the 5th (November 2008), I, at once euphoric and numb (paralysed by the indigestible weight of reality), pondered the beginning of a new Age. The Anno Domino Age had come to a sudden end, to be replaced by the After Obama Age (AO). From that moment on we would begin to count time anew. 2008 AD had become 0000 AO.

Later that day, I walked into the store at Uppsala’s railway station, straight into an array of newspapers proclaiming the good news. I chose to buy only one, a copy of the Swedish language paper, Aftonbladet. Its giant headline, splashed across a triumphant photo of Barack Obama, were the words, YES WE CAN. That said it all. A joyous incarnation of the latest phrase to break free from the jealous grip of the English Language.

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Weeks later, on the day that Barack Obama was sworn in, the flatscreen television in my boss’ office (in Lagos) came alive, and a group of us watched as Chief Justice John Roberts caused the President-to-be to stumble on the words of the Presidential Oath. In response to CNN’s challenge to create and post our own images of the inauguration on the CNN website, I enlisted my Nikon D40, balanced the flickering TV screen within its frame, and proceeded to record history, second-hand (all the accompanying images are from that effort).

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Ten months later, I found myself in Scandinavia again, this time in Oslo, a city as proud as it is invisible. In a little over two weeks, Barack Obama would be in town, to claim the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize. Since I would be gone by then, sadly, I convinced myself that I ought to visit the City Hall, where the historic presentation would take place, to see what I might find: a manager or administrator willing to be interviewed; or an iconic image to be captured pre-event, for subsequent uploading onto Facebook.

A, my Norwegian host, pointed to the manhole covers spaced out in the area surrounding the city hall, and told me that before the arrival of the American President all of them would be air-sealed, for security reasons. No one, he told me, would have a chance to come this close to the City Hall when the President came to town. But that wouldn’t stop the protesters, he added. And he would be one of them.

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Eventually I didn’t go to the City Hall. My one week in the wet, cold city came to a hurried end, and I returned to Lagos.

That was how it came to be that it was again in – better still, from – my office (I had now changed offices) that I witnessed the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony. I stood, cursing the distracting noise of office banter as I struggled to catch the words that floated out of the television. In my hand were a pen and a notebook, and I made notes, as though to establish a tactile connection with history as it was being made (with Obama again at the centre of it).

I listened to the Nobel Academy Chairman Thorbjørn Jagland defend again and again the decision to award the Nobel to a man whose biggest achievement lay in his, to put it in the words of the Nobel Committee, his “extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.” (Never mind that the bulk of that ‘effort’ consisted simply of a magnetic rhetoric, one that brilliantly succeeded in conferring on the Word the urgency and dynamism of action. Never mind also that the rest of the ‘effort’ was actually the handiwork of a predecessor whose overriding achievement was a flawless devaluation of the concept of “multilateral diplomacy”).

Jagland’s listing of Obama’s achievements came out this way: “The U.S.A. is now paying its bills to the U.N. It is joining various committees, and acceding to important conventions. International standards are again respected. Torture is forbidden; the President is doing what he can to close Guantanamo. Human rights and international law are guiding principles.”

George Bush had lowered the bar so much that Obama only needed to step across it, with a smile on his face and a speech in his hand.

As I feverishly jotted down quotable quotes from Obama’s acceptance speech, totally awed by the force of his charisma and the lucidity of his arguments, moist eyes were what the moment demanded, and deserved. (Regrettably, I didn’t succumb).

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A few weeks later, as 2009 rolled to an end, I came across Mr. Obama again, this time in a Lagos bookstore. A photo book detailing his journey from being the second most junior member of the 100-member United States Senate (99th in seniority!) to the most powerful man in the world. And all of this within four years. Included is a 2005 photo of Mr. Obama walking unrecognised on a Moscow sidewalk. There is not the slightest hint that only three years later he would become the planet’s most recognizable face. Another photo, taken during his first few weeks as Senator, shows his almost-bare temporary office in the basement of the Senate Building.

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Africa has been the constant companion (“unseeing” guest; “silenced” listener) on my year-long journey with Barack Obama. I can’t help remembering that a certain song became popular in Kenya, as Obama inched closer to the White House. The song observed, ruefully, that a Luo (Obama’s father belonged to the Luo ethnic group, Kenya’s second largest) had become the President of the United States of America, a feat that thus far had proved impossible in Kenya. (When it looked like it'd almost happen, thousands of people were butchered, and it still didn’t happen).

I also recall the gathering, the day after the elections, of a group of academics and researchers, at the Nordic Africa Institute (NAI) in Uppsala, Sweden, aimed at coming to terms with the election of Mr. Obama. What I will never forget, from that day, is a question, thrown up by Nigerian political scientist (and NAI researcher) Cyril Obi, PhD, who moderated the session. He asked: “Why has a son of Africa done so well in America when the sons of Africa are doing so badly in Africa?”

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No one had any answers that day.

It is a question I will never stop asking. Perhaps until the day I can watch live returns from a Nigerian Presidential Election, and not think that I am wasting valuable time watching what is merely a rerun of a drama scripted long before that moment by moneybags, professional riggers and criminal godfathers and already previously staged to their utmost satisfaction.


All photos by Tolu Ogunlesi (c) 2009

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