President-Elect Barack Obama: Expanding the Boundaries of Possibility

If America can keep this promise of a new dawn of American leadership and build on the global goodwill attracted from across the world, then it just may regain its respect and its crown of global leadership.
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Fourth November 2008 could mark the end of one history and signal the beginning of another future. A new future for America, a new future for Africa, and possibly a new future for the world. As we witness this epic event in American politics and watch as the future unfolds before our eyes, one cannot help but think the world as we knew it may never be the same again. These are great times to live in and we are privileged to bear witness to this seismic evolution in human society, in global politics and in race relations. These are times that have challenged our assumptions about what is either possible or impossible, and perhaps have revealed new lessons on how much can be achieved through the extraordinary powers of courage, clarity, conviction and competence.

Towards the end of the last millennium, we witnessed one gentleman -- who until this year the United States still listed as a "terrorist" -- being sworn in as the first black President of a truly democratic South Africa. This man, Nelson Mandela, who is now celebrated as a beacon of hope, integrity and great leadership across the world, had been in jail for 27 years. Upon his eventual release, he led his party the African National Congress (ANC) to a landslide victory that ended one era of South Africa's history and changed the country's future forever.

This was a feat that even the most passionate optimists and committed cynics alike thought impossible. Margaret Thatcher, a pioneer in her own right who also expanded the realms of possibility when she became the first woman Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and Leader of her party, unfortunately fell into the category of the cynics when she reportedly said that anyone who believed the ANC would ever rule South Africa was "living in cloud cuckoo land". Four years later, Mandela led the ANC into a landslide victory and the ANC has ruled South Africa ever since. 'Cloud cuckoo land' became a reality on planet earth. The boundaries of possibility had been expanded by the conviction of one man standing against the cynicism and pessimism of many others more powerful than he.

Now less than fifteen years after Nelson Mandela made history, another seemingly impossible feat has been achieved. A young man who seemed to have all the odds against him: age, inexperience, race, funds, family background, cultural heritage and even his name, overcame all these gargantuan obstacles to become the first African-American President in US history. This achievement exceeded even the renowned 'dream' of Reverend Martin Luther King of an America without racism. Though Obama's vision was partly inspired, crystallised and catalysed by Reverend King's dream, Obama pushed the boundaries of possibility further. His vision saw far beyond the good Reverend's dream and he pursued it with sagacious clarity, convincing sincerity, intellectual rigour and relentless vigour that inspired our world like nothing else we have seen in recent times. Even the most committed cynics were left speechless. The boundaries of possibility were tested and the unexpected and seemingly impossible emerged. Perhaps the human race is not as bad we often think. Perhaps the fences between us are not as entrenched as we assume. Perhaps the boundaries of possibility are more expandable than we dare to dream.

This is a euphoric and inspirational moment in world history, and it is one that has sparked a new light of hope in a troubled and conflicted world. However, what happens next and how we all react to this event as individuals, groups or nations is what would be most crucial in consolidating and spreading the gains of Obama's victory. Perhaps a good place to start may be in looking at some of the lessons that could be learnt.

For the US, it may be worthy to note that based on how much attention the whole world paid to this election, it is clear that the world has not turned its back against America. If anything at all, many across the world still need and look to the US for leadership. Leadership, not through aggression or unilateralism but through diplomacy and multilateralism; leadership, not through instruction but through inspiration; leadership not just for America's interests but leadership for shared global interests. It is thus encouraging that President-elect Obama stated in his victory speech that "our stories are singular, but our destiny is shared, a new dawn of American leadership is at hand" and he acknowledged that there were "alliances to repair." He seemed to understand in his campaign and at his moment of victory, that he was not about to become just the leader of the United States but possibly the leader of a world where majority want to be united in peace and live in dignity.

Now, if America can keep this promise of a new dawn of American leadership and build on the global goodwill that the Obama presidency has attracted from across the world, very much like after September 11, then it just may regain its respect and its crown of global leadership, and find more real 'friends and allies' across the world - both in nation-states and amongst world citizens. If America can respect and protect the lives, rights and dignity of peoples and nations across the world, then it is more likely that these same nations and peoples will respect and protect America and Americans in return. It's now time to invest more in 'hearts and minds', 'notebooks and pencils', 'bread and butter', 'vaccines and medicines' , 'roofs and wells' and less in bullets and bombs.

For Africa and its leadership, we need to ask ourselves serious questions. First, if the President-elect of the world's most powerful and wealthiest nation is a direct descendant of an African and bears an African name, then what excuse do we have today as to why we cannot produce the same calibre leaders within Africa, who can lead our own countries into greater, faster and more sustainable growth, stability and development? Secondly, we need to ask, if Barack Obama with all his education, knowledge, skills and passion had been a 'young' forty-seven year old from a modest background and a minority ethnic group in an African country, would he have been given a chance to become President, as he was in America? What was the fate of Raila Odinga in Kenya or Morgan Tsvangrai in Zimbabwe in the last two hotly contested African elections which could have facilitated a generational shift in the leadership of these countries? If Obama had been an Africa-based politician liked Odinga or Tsvangrai would he have been given a chance? Would he have been elected an African President?

Perhaps those who deprive Africa's young emerging leaders from opportunities to lead through service, need to see that the political, economic and cultural fences that we place in the path of our youngest and brightest, only stop us from harnessing the energy, the vitality and the freshness of ideas that younger leaders can bring to the leadership table. For as long as we fence, intimidate, antagonise and hound our young stars out of the political sphere, seeing them as threats and not as opportunities, and continue to relegate them to the hidden corners of society, disempowered and unable to contribute to the leadership and the development of their countries, then we will continue to be trapped in the same vicious cycle of poor governance, instability, underdevelopment and conflict, even though we have all it takes to live in prosperity, peace and development. Unless we reverse this trend and create a more equitable political playing field for all Africans old and young, female and male, irrespective of ethnicity, creed or socio-economic background, we will continue to lose our best and our brightest to other regions of the world who appreciate them more and give them more opportunities to be the very best they can be, and to soar to the highest peaks they can reach. Sometimes new ideas and good leadership comes from change. Africa needs this kind of change. Change we can grow with. Change for development.

For the world, we may want to realise that the foreign policies of the outgoing US government do not wholly reflect the aspirations, the nature or the character of the vast majority of American people. How America voted in this election has told us this in no uncertain terms. These votes were not just votes for Barack Obama, they were also votes against George W. Bush's policies and votes for the rest of the world. Like a political Council of Bishops, the Americans have elected a political Pope for the world and several polls confirm that the world agrees with America's choice. And if the agencies and arms of the American government under President-elect Obama embody the same spirit of change, of dialogue, of responsibility and of global partnerships that Obama espouses, then there is no reason why the world should not give America a chance and support it in this change process. The same way we all need support to get things right, having realised where we went wrong, America will also need the world's support to actualise Obama's change process.

The bottom-line is that all of us from diverse countries, cultures, races and creeds want to live in a world where our dreams can become realities. After all is said and done, and irrespective of America's challenges, America remains the only country where Obama's extraordinary dreams could have become possible. By voting-in Barack Obama in this election, America has chosen to lead once again by showing the world that irrespective of its wealth and its military might that it is still a country that believes in the power of hopes and dreams and of giving ordinary people extraordinary opportunities. Its democracy has worked and it has delivered a new era of hope to the American people. If a 'new' America can afford and support other countries to actualise the kind of hopes, dreams and opportunities it has just allowed itself, then it would have proven itself a credible leader of the 'free world' and its democracy one worthy of emulation. Then it can lead, with less resistance and more global support.

The election of Barack Obama is one of those transformative experiences that will become one of the key milestones of the evolution of human society. Depending on how we all respond, it could also signal a new direction in international relations and global politics. Its ramifications and impacts are multifarious. On an individual level, it expands the boundaries of imagination, broadens the scope of possibilities of human endeavour and inspires one to overcome the most towering of obstacles. On a societal level, it restores a broken faith in our shared humanity and inspires the belief that we can rise above the physical, economic, political and social boundaries that have kept us apart when in actuality, deep within, we are all the same. On a global level, if offers a new ray of hope and the inspiration to believe that perhaps, a new world order is possible.

Barack Obama's story is one that will inspire several generations to come. This man has not just made history, he has made the future. Through his courage, clarity, competence and conviction, Obama has opened new doors not just for African-Americans, wider America or even Africa. He has opened new doors for the future of human society, simply by expanding the boundaries of possibility. The question now is what we do on the individual, societal and global levels with our new found possibilities.

'Dapo Oyewole is a World Fellow at Yale University & Director of CAPPS, a Lagos-based policy think tank. E-mail:

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