America is, of course, the most important nation on the face of the earth. At least that's what we Americans like to tell ourselves. You might even forgive us for thinking so this year, however, as eyes and ears all around the world tune in eagerly, anxiously, amusedly to the Presidential election that is being billed by international media as, well, the most important on the face of the earth.
For Ethiopia, there is one point of interest concerning the U.S. elections and one point only – Barack Obama. Ethiopia loves Barack Obama. Charismatic and eloquent son of a Kenyan father, a black man who has risen meteorically in American politics and now stands well positioned to assume the highest office in a country whose wealth and freedom hold an almost mythical pull for most Ethiopians, he has captured hearts and imaginations in this developing East African nation.
The evidences of Ethiobamamania are everywhere. Within the past five months, "Obama Café"s have sprung up all over the country. The largest and most prominent of these is in Bahirdar, where you can eat the best steak-and-cheese sandwich in Ethiopia under multiple images of the man himself, smiling endearingly down on you from the walls. Unsurprisingly, the most extravagant display of Obama exuberance can be found in the capital city of Addis Ababa, where an eight-story construction project has been christened the Barack Obama Building. A fellow volunteer reported to me an incident in which her Addis taxi driver told a young street girl soliciting money, "Obama yistilin" – in Amharic, "May Obama bless you." The driver remarked, "God and Jesus, number 1. Obama, number 2!"
Ethiopia's affection for Obama is grounded in both the personal and the political. Asked why they favor Obama, I have heard Ethiopians respond, "He is a black man," "He is a youngster," and even, "He is tall and handsome!" Black skin and youthful optimism about the world have made Obama a compelling symbol of the hope for a prosperous and respected Africa. Yet, some of this hope reaches beyond the symbolic. Many local friends and colleagues have told me of Obama, "I think he will bring good governance to Ethiopia." It is a belief that I hear echoed regularly among Ethiopians.
Expressions like these make me incredibly nervous. Inflated American sense of self-importance aside, the American president's potential for real impact in the internal governance of African nations like Ethiopia is extremely limited. Diplomatic pressure and economic sanctions can only go so far, as evidenced forcefully in the case of Zimbabwe, for example. Moreover, the limited success that was achieved diplomatically in Zimbabwe was only realized through the mediation of fellow African leader Thabo Mbeke, of South Africa. Ultimately, real achievements in African governance have to come from the African people themselves.
What should it say, then, that so many Ethiopians are resting their hopes for their own country on a U.S. presidential election? For one, it should pose challenging questions about the way in which the U.S. and other developed nations have interacted with Africa, and about the appropriateness of the messages being sent by our methods. When the ingrained instinct is to wait for help from the outside instead of mobilizing it from within, we have all taken steps backward.
As this historic election advances toward its conclusion, questions about an Obama presidency hang expectantly in the air. Would an Obama presidency in fact salvage America's tarnished image in the global community? Would Obama indeed bring an element of cooperation and dialogue that has been lacking in recent American politics? Will Obama, or any American leader for that matter, really deliver sound governance to Ethiopia? In the last matter, at least, I fear real risks for dependency and disillusionment on the part of the Ethiopian people.
If nothing else can be said for sure, however, it is clear that Ethiopians are allowing themselves the audacity to hope.