Africans harness enthusiasm for Obama

By: AP
By: AP

LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) -- The performers pounded on animal-skin drums, the singer howled praise for Barack Obama, and the audience of fist-bumping supporters of the U.S. presidential candidate joined in the chorus: "We can do it! Yes we can!"

The shindig, held by a group calling itself "Africans for Obama 08," drew hundreds of people from the Nigerian business elite. Each paid more than $2,000 to munch on grilled snails, sip from flutes of Veuve Cliquot and Moet & Chandon and join in a lively, if poorly executed, series of the "fist bumps" popularized by Obama and his wife, Michelle.

Interest in the U.S. presidential race is blooming around the world's poorest continent as Obama emerges as the Democratic candidate, stunning many here who never believed that a son of Africa had a real shot at leading the United States. Now, with roasted snails and Champagne, text messages and T-shirts, both political organizers and entrepreneurs are seeking to harness the growing enthusiasm for Obama's message of youthful change, which resonates on a continent where leaders often hang on as long as possible.

"In Africa, we just keep recycling the same old people, so change isn't welcome. Let people who are unique, who are young, who have ideas - let them come up," said Robinson Allen, a 40-year old banker at a recent gala in support of Obama. He said Obama's achievements show a triumph over discrimination. "It's an event that's enabling for all people."

The group says it plans to use the proceeds for advertisements in African media urging people to pray for Obama. The message, according to one organizer: "We can't vote for you, but we can pray for you." Similar efforts are under way in Tanzania, South Africa and Kenya, organizers said.

Another Nigerian group, "Blacks Unite for Obama 08," is running full-page ads in the country's mass dailies asking customers to send text messages costing about 75 cents in support of Obama, while registering to win a trip to the United States.

In Ghana, songs boosting Obama run on the radio. An artist called Blakk Rasta sings in pidgin English of his pride at Obama's quest: "Originally stepping out of Kenya, Africa/Adopted into the cold woodlands of America/Dem youthboy defied every order and turned a Senator."

And in Uganda, about 5,000 students at Makarere University have joined the Obama Solidarity Group, essentially a fan club for the candidate. Its leader, Patrick Rutalo, cited Obama's example in his own successful drive for student body president. "He inspires young leaders to go for highest offices," said Rutalo.

In fact, the Obama infatuation seems to have somewhat annoyed Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, who told Ugandans to turn their attention in more self-fulfilling directions. "Obama, Obama, Obama. He is an American. Why are you looking at him and not yourself? Why don't you build your strength here?" Museveni said at a news conference.

The interest in Obama may be highest in Kenya, where his father was born and lived before traveling to study in the United States. There, vendors sell T-shirts, key chains, banners and hats to capitalize on the popularity of the candidate locals consider practically a native son.

"I like him because of the things he stands for: He stands for hope, that anyone can live their dreams if they believe in themselves," says Antony Otaye, a 28-year old graphic designer who makes Obama paraphernalia. "He is reviving the American Dream."

At bars, patrons ask for a local beer, Senator Keg Lager, by the name "Obama Beer." And a travel company is including on its itinerary a visit to the western Kenya village where Obama's extended family still lives.

To Edwin Odhiambo, a 33-year old civil engineer, Obama represents resilience for Africans. He bought an Obama hat for about $6 and sported it recently at a popular restaurant in downtown Nairobi.

"It is a statement that regardless of one's background, who your dad or mother is, or how you grew up, you can do something for yourself," he said. "You cannot sit back and wallow in misery. You can always make good of something no matter what circumstances you are facing."

For many Africans, who feel their hopes are hobbled by crushing poverty, corrupt leadership and crumbling infrastructure, the American Dream is also the African Dream. On a continent where most people struggle each day just to fill their children's stomachs, America symbolizes the idea that hard work should mean success, not just survival.

About half of Nigerians surveyed in a recent poll said they were following the U.S. race at least somewhat closely. The same poll also found that 48 percent of Nigerians following the race believe Obama would change U.S. policy for the better, compared to 32 percent for presumptive Republican candidate John McCain. McCain, while also hailed by many as a fine candidate, hasn't captured the African imagination.

"I don't know John McCain. He's not my brother," said Olakunle Ologun, a banker who attended the recent Obama event in Lagos, Nigeria's commercial capital. "We're in support of our brother African, Obama."

However, the support for Obama comes with some controversy. An organizer of the Africans for Obama 08 fundraiser, Nigerian Stock Exchange head Ndi Okereke-Onyiuke, was questioned by anti-corruption police after a complaint that she was violating U.S. electoral regulations by raising money for the Obama campaign. Okereke-Onyiuke wasn't charged, and attendees were told repeatedly from the stage that proceeds couldn't be sent to America.

On Sunday, anti-graft police said Okereke-Onyiuke didn't break any Nigerian laws with her party, but directed her to return the roughly $630,000 she gathered at the event to its attendees. The agency did not explain why she was ordered to return the money if she had not violated any laws.

Some Nigerians also criticized the glitz of the event as insensitive to the plight of the majority of Nigeria's 140 million people, who survive on less than $1 per day.

Others question the basis of many Africans' support for Obama, saying it comes from a reflexive tribalism that has long plagued the continent. They point out that Obama, an American, has only a tenuous link to Africa through a mostly absent and unknown father.

"Obama is truly a new American (note: American), who stands on all the delicate cutting edges of America's murky politics," read an editorial published Aug. 18 in Nigeria's Daily Trust newspaper. "It is unhelpful to own him via silly tribal fundraising projects from Africa that in itself is begging for ownership of some kind."

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Associated Press writers Tom Odula contributed to this report from Nairobi, Kenya; Godfrey Olukya contributed from Kampala, Uganda; and Francis Kokutse from Accra, Ghana.

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