Sayonara Obama

Approximately eight years ago, there was a subject – more than any other – that so concerned me and my friends, it was the only topic of discussion. I was in high school then, and the world was only as large as the campus grounds. I lived in a bubble; I listened to pop music, participated in petty gossip and chased (or at least tried to chase) girls. That was the world as I knew it!
But then, Senator Barack Obama ran for president of the United States of America. I have never before that time paid any attention to local politics, let alone international affairs. I have, on occasion, heard of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Vladimir Putin or Tony Blair. But they did not mean much to me. They existed in some part of the universe, far above that of mine, making decisions that had absolutely no implication on my life. Or so I thought.
But when the 2008 presidential elections took place, almost everyone I knew was riled up; all because of the unique color of the candidate. Race, despite the very naïve assumptions of today, matter very much then. And not just to African-Americans in America, but to Africans everywhere.
For the past two centuries, or even further than that, the most powerful individuals in the world have always been male individuals of European descent. Obama was the first (and for a long time to come, I am sure, only) possible exception. As far as history was concerned, the prospect of a black US President was a game changer.
And Obama was not just an African-American – he was a first generation African-American, meaning that his parents, or at least one of them, was not even American. Obama’s biological father was from our neighboring country of Kenya, an East African. This, somehow, made the future president so easy to identify with, to support and if he finally won, to rally behind.
Eight years ago history was revised. Obama proved that once and for all, anyone, from anywhere, could become and do anything. Hope is not overrated, success takes hard work, democracy is a working process and the freedom of the media helps create a tolerant and reasonable society. These were the lessons to be extracted from his victory.
So much has passed since then, a seemingly simpler time, both locally and internationally. Here in Ethiopia, in 2012, long serving Prime Minister Meles Zenawi was reported to have died in a Belgium hospital, from an infection. Some time before that, the construction of the Great Renaissance Dam, which is to draw massive megawatts of electrical power from the Abay River, and get financed with bonds, had begun. Life went on. I was correct, Obama, Bush or Clinton – they all mean nothing to this medium-sized, ancient, undeveloped but developing country.
But that undeniable historical significance of the Obama presidency was flung back into our collective Ethiopian consciousness when it was revealed he would visit the country as part of his Africa tour. Many other American presidents have come to Ethiopia, like Bush or Clinton, but they both came after they were already out of the White House. The fact that Obama was visiting, as the sitting president mattered – it showed that we are not insignificant to the outside world, this 90 plus million citizens, their dreams, aspirations, and existences, like during the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie, do influence international geopolitics.
There were a number of criticisms. Some pundits analysts suggested that Obama’s visit legitimizes the government, which they consider undemocratic.
I understand that everything a sitting president does and says has multilateral effects in political affairs, but Obama regularly visits countries like Saudi Arabia and China, and we do not hear of the same types of accusations. He is quite an important person but his visit deceives no one, least of all the Ethiopian people.
On the press conference that followed his visit, where both foreign and local journalists were in attendance, Obama talked of his time in Ethiopia and the bilateral policies the two countries are proud to flaunt. As the President gave one of his famously focused and touching speeches, he would drop some Amharic words here and there, drawing fervent applause from the crowd.
This was actually not the first time Obama came to Ethiopia. He also did visit the country, almost a decade ago, when he was a Senator. In the Ethiopian city of Dire Dawa, the focus of his visit, it was rumored that he mentioned his plans to one day run for president.
By the time press, Obama will not be a president anymore. He would have packed his belongings and moved out of the White House and the American political life (that is unless Michelle Obama decided to run for president in the future). I would like to say he is giving way to a new generation of leaders, but no. He and his administration will be replaced by conservatives and political hardliners.
I wonder if Donald Trump will visit Ethiopia. I wonder if he will visit Ethiopia if Premier Haile-Mariam Desalegn said nice things about him on Twitter. I wonder if Trump knows which continent Ethiopia is in.


By Christian Tesfaye
Christian Tesfaye is a film critic whose interests run amok in both directions of print and celluloid/digital storytelling. He can be reached at

Published on Jan 24,2017 [ Vol 17 ,No 873]



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