How I used to be proud of President Barack Obama
First, I am never proud of politicians. Second, I am never ashamed of politicians. I am often dismayed and even angry over things they did (said) or did not do (say). Mostly, I am critical of politicians on some issue of accountability or lack of transparency. I often rage against their corruption, hypocrisy, duplicity, cynicism, amorality and immorality. Perhaps I should not let them get my goat that way. After all, politicians and members of the world’s oldest profession share one thing in common. They are shameless. I can’t help shaming shameless politicians. The question for me is not whether to shame or not to shame a politician but whether I should be ashamed of myself for being proud of a shameless politician.
I made an exception to my hard and fast rule against shameless politicians. The year was 2007. The politician was a young, charismatically magnetic and silver tongued politician named Barack Obama running for the presidency of the United States. I liked the man for his values and achievements. I was proud of him, but my pride in the man had little to do with the fact that he could be the “first Black President.” I do not believe in classifying human beings created in the image of God by race, color, nationality, gender, religion and so on. My creed is humanity before ethnicity, nationality and raciality. Anyway, to my way of thinking, the Barack Obama I proudly supported in 2007 and help get elected president was a statesman and not a politician.
A point of clarification: I express my views in this commentary only to the extent of President Barack Obama’s record on civil liberties and Africa policy. I do not seek or aim to critique his entire presidency
I was proud of President Barack Obama because I believed that he believed in the rule of law as the bulwark of liberty. I have this wacky and dogmatic conviction that government officials, leaders, institutions and anyone exercising power should be constrained by a “supreme law” of the land and held strictly accountable for their actions and omissions while in office. That supreme law protects citizens from arbitrary deprivation of life, liberty and property by those in power. To explain it in my own metaphor, the constitution (or the supreme rule of law of the land) is fundamentally the people’s iron chain leash on the “government dog”. The shorter the leash, the better and safer it is for the dog’s masters.
John Adams, the second president of the United States, observed, “There is danger from all men. The only maxim of a free government ought to be to trust no man living with power to endanger the public liberty.” To me, the rule of law is that insurance policy against men who endanger the public liberty. President Dwight D. Eisenhower said, “The clearest way to show what the rule of law means to us in everyday life is to recall what has happened when there is no rule of law.” (Could he have been talking prophetically about Ethiopia today when he said that?) On July 28, 2014, President Obama told a town hall meeting of Young African Leaders, “Regardless of the resources a country possesses, regardless of how talented the people are, if you do not have a basic system of rule of law, of respect for civil rights and human rights, if you do not give people a credible, legitimate way to work through the political process to express their aspirations, if you don’t respect basic freedom of speech and freedom of assembly … it is very rare for a country to succeed.” On August 5-6, 2014, he assembled the most flagitious violators of the rule of law and destroyers of democratic freedoms from Africa under the rubric of “U.S.-Africa Leadership Summit” and wined and dined them at the White House.
I was proud of Barack Obama, President of the United States, who took an oath “to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States”. I was proud to hear him speak on December 15, 2013, Bill of Rights Day, proclaiming the Bill of Rights as “the foundation of American liberty, securing our most fundamental rights — from the freedom to speak, assemble and practice our faith as we please to the protections that ensure justice under the law.” My pride in President Obama took a big hit when U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon in the District of Columbia on December 16, 2013 described President Obama’s national security surveillance (indiscriminate collection of telephone metadata) policies in a 68-page ruling as “almost Orwellian”. I remembered presidential candidate Obama’s famous declaration at a fundraiser on March 30, 2007: “I was a constitutional law professor, which means unlike the current president I actually respect the Constitution.” An “almost Orwellian” constitutional law professor?
I was proud of Senator Barack Obama who wrote in his book, The Audacity of Hope, “We hang on to our values, even if they seem at times tarnished and worn; even if, as a nation and in our own lives, we have betrayed them more often that we care to remember. What else is there to guide us? … If we aren’t willing to pay a price for our values, if we aren’t willing to make some sacrifices in order to realize them, then we should ask ourselves whether we truly believe in them at all.” President Obama was not willing to pay the price for the priceless liberties of free expression, free press, freedom of religion, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures and so on in Africa by simply telling African dictators that the U.S. will not give them their annual handouts unless they respect the basic human rights of their citizens and do right by their people. So I dedicate to all Africans yearning to breathe free under the boots of African dictators William Cowper’s verse on liberty:
‘Tis liberty alone that gives the flower
Of fleeting life its lustre and perfume;
And we are weeds without it.
Then liberty, like day,
Breaks on the soul, and by a flash from Heaven
Fires all the faculties with glorious joy.
I was proud of Barack Obama the constitutional and civil rights lawyer who toiled “to make sure that everybody’s vote counted,” as he liked to describe it. Barack Obama filed a lawsuit in 1995 forcing the State of Illinois to enforce the 1993 federal Motor Voter law making it easier for people to register to vote. In his book, Dreams From My Father, young Barack Obama wrote, “In my legal practice, I work mostly with churches and community groups, men and women who quietly build grocery stores and health clinics in the inner city, and housing for the poor.” He chose to do community work spurning the potentially big rewards a Harvard law sheepskin could bring.
I was proud of Professor Barack Obama who taught challenging law courses on civil rights, the equal protection and due process clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment and institutional racism in the law. I like professors who teach what they preach and preach what they teach.
I am proud of college and law student Barack Obama. Obama distinguished himself at Harvard Law by becoming the “first African American president” of the law review (a student-run scholarly journal publishing legal articles by distinguished legal academics and others). I am most proud of 19 year-old Barack Obama at Occidental College in Los Angeles who in 1980 got baptized in political activism by participating in an anti-apartheid South Africa divestment protest as a sophomore. In his very first speech as a student political activist Barack Obama said,
There’s a struggle going on. It is happening an ocean away, but it is a struggle that touches each and every one of us. Whether we know it or not. Whether we want it or not. A struggle that demands we choose sides. Not between black and white. Not between rich and poor. A harder choice than that. It is a choice between dignity and servitude. Between fairness and injustice. Between commitment and indifference. A choice between right and wrong.
In December 2013, President Obama told Nelson Mandela at a White House reception, “I am one of the countless millions who drew inspiration from Nelson Mandela’s life. My very first political action, the first thing I ever did that involved an issue or a policy or politics, was a protest against apartheid. I studied his words and his writings.”
I was very proud of Senator Barack Obama who single handedly managed to enact S.B. 2125, (Democratic Republic of the Congo Relief, Security, and Democracy Promotion Act of 2006). At the time, I was one of the Ethiopian-American activists pushing for passage of H.R. 5680 “Ethiopia Freedom, Democracy, and Human Rights Advancement Act of 2006” (introduced by Christopher Smith, R- New Jersey; renumbered in 2007 as H.R. 2003 and introduced by Donald Payne, D-New Jersey and passed in the House in 2007). What is there not to be proud about a statesman who managed to pass a law promoting democracy in Africa?
I was proud of President Barack Obama for a very personal reason. I identified with his heritage in East Africa. Barack Obama, Sr. was the among the first generation of young Africans in post-independence Africa to come to the U.S. for higher education. The great Harry Belafonte and his friends arranged for 81 young Kenyan students, including Barack Obama, Sr. to come to the U.S. I was part of the early second wave of young Africans to come to the U.S. for higher education in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Young U.S.-educated Africans in the 1960s were role models for me and millions of other young Africans. Obama Sr.’s situation deteriorated after he returned to Kenya. He had serious policy and ideological disagreements with founding President Jomo Kenyatta. In Dreams from My Father, son Obama described how his father’s career and livelihood ended at the hands of an old school African dictator: “After Kenyatta fired my father he was blacklisted in Kenya, found it impossible to get work, and his life deteriorated into drinking and poverty.” I believe Obama Sr., was a victim of human rights violations. Kenyatta blacklisted Obama Sr., because of his political beliefs and drove him into poverty where he could find comfort only in the bottle. Today, millions of highly educated Africans choose to live outside Africa to avoid facing the fate of Barack Obama Sr. I thought President Obama, just for the fact of his father’s persecution, would have a heightened interest in human rights in Africa. I thought his father persecution at the hands of an old school dictator would impel him to deal more firmly with the new breed of African dictators swarming the continent. I was wrong!
“Shame on me for being proud of President Barack of Obama!”
In 2014, I hold my head in shame and say, “Shame on me for being proud of President Barack of Obama!” It is excruciatingly painful feeling to say that in public. For years, I defended and extolled the presidential candidate and president in my weekly commentaries, even when my defense was not objectively justifiable. I even signed up to defend certain policies he has pursued in campus and town hall debates and in the media. I waxed eloquent on his eloquent speeches. I argued to my readers that we must be with him through thick and thin as he comes under withering ideological attack from the old guards. All of the evidence now suggest he is the “old guard” when it comes to civil liberties and Africa.
It is unlikely that I will ever be able to share my views in person with President Obama. I doubt I will be able to convince him on the need to pay the price of our values in Africa. But I would be thrilled if President Barack Obama would talk to Barack Obama, the sophomore at Occidental College, who spoke prophetically and stirring rhetoric about the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. I’d love to be the fly on the wall as the two carry on with their conversation:
College Student Barack Obama:
There’s a struggle going on. It is happening an ocean away, but it is a struggle that touches each and every one of us. Whether we know it or not. Whether we want it or not. A struggle that demands we choose sides.
President Barack Obama
…Make no mistake: history is on the side of these brave Africans, and not with those who use coups or change Constitutions to stay in power. Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions… [G]overnments that respect the will of their own people are more prosperous, more stable, and more successful…
College Student Barack Obama:
[The choice is] Not between black and white. Not between rich and poor. A harder choice than that. It is a choice between dignity and servitude. Between fairness and injustice. Between commitment and indifference. A choice between right and wrong.”
President Barack Obama:
Regardless of the resources a country possesses, regardless of how talented the people are, if you do not have a basic system of rule of law, of respect for civil rights and human rights, if you do not give people a credible, legitimate way to work through the political process to express their aspirations, if you don’t respect basic freedom of speech and freedom of assembly … it is very rare for a country to succeed.”
The fly on the wall would suddenly drop into the conversation.
The struggle is still going on in Africa in 2014. True, it is not a struggle about a minority white government oppressing a majority African population. It is a struggle against ruthless and greedy black dictators who grab and cling to power by force and oppress their people. It is not a struggle against minority white supremacists but minority ethnic supremacists who oppress other black Africans because of their ethnicity, religion, language, gender and so on. Neither the nature of the struggle nor the intensity of oppression has changed in Africa since the days of apartheid South Africa. Only the faces have changed; it is now black faces committing the atrocities, corruption and human rights violations.
In 1980, black South Africans fought against a system of Bantustans (so-called black homelands). In 2014, Ethiopians suffer under a modernized Bantustan system euphemistically called “ethnic federalism” (“kilil” or ethnic homelands), a political concept and doctrine which perfectly mirrors apartheid’s “Bantustans.” Today, Ethiopians are corralled into “kilils” like cattle and prodded to fight each other by stoking the fires of ethnic grievances that burned out long ago. In 2014, ruthless black African dictators and thugtators are oppressing black Africans. President Obama wake up and open your eyes. You “must choose sides” in Africa. Between Africa’s strongmen and the defenseless ordinary African people. In your Africa policy, your “choice is between dignity and servitude. Between fairness and injustice. Between commitment and indifference. A choice between right and wrong.”
Has President Obama chosen the side of Africa’s strongmen?
On September 25, 2014, President Obama met with a “delegation” of the ruling regime in Ethiopia in N.Y. City for a bilateral meeting. What he said at that meeting dam near caused me emeses (a more polite medical term I prefer to use to describe the urgency I felt to expel the contents of my stomach after listening to that clip). He said,
…[S]some of the bright spots and progress that we’re seeing in Africa, I think there’s no better example than what has been happening in Ethiopia — one of the fastest-growing economies in the world.
We have seen enormous progress in a country that once had great difficulty feeding itself. It’s now not only leading the pack in terms of agricultural production in the region, but will soon be an exporter potentially not just of agriculture, but also power because of the development that’s been taking place there.
We’re strong trading partners. And most recently, Boeing has done a deal with Ethiopia, which will result in jobs here in the United States. And in discussions with Ban Ki-moon yesterday, we discussed how critical it is for us to improve our effectiveness when it comes to peacekeeping and conflict resolution. And it turns out that Ethiopia may be one of the best in the world — one of the largest contributors of peacekeeping; one of the most effective fighting forces when it comes to being placed in some very difficult situations and helping to resolve conflicts… So Ethiopia has been not only a leader economically in the continent, but also when it comes to security and trying to resolve some of the longstanding conflicts there. We are very appreciative of those efforts,… [in] … some hotspot areas like South Sudan, where Ethiopia has been working very hard trying to bring the parties together, …
As an afterthought, President Obama added,
Two last points I want to make. … terrorism… That’s an area where the cooperation and leadership on the part of Ethiopia is making a difference as we speak…. So our counterterrorism cooperation and the partnerships that we have formed with countries like Ethiopia are going to be critical to our overall efforts to defeat terrorism.
And also, the Prime Minister and the government is going to be organizing elections in Ethiopia this year. I know something about that… And so we’ll have an opportunity to talk about civil society and governance and how we can make sure that Ethiopia’s progress and example can extend to civil society as well, and making sure that throughout the continent of Africa we continue to widen and broaden our efforts at democracy, all of which isn’t just good for politics but ends up being good for economics as well — as we discussed at the Africa Summit.
Fact-checking President Obama
Does Ethiopia “lead the pack in terms of agricultural production in the region” and “will soon be an exporter” of agricultural commodities? The 2014 World Food Programme (the branch of the United Nations and the world’s largest humanitarian organization addressing hunger and promoting food security) completely contradicts him:
Despite these positive advances, Ethiopia remains one of the world’s most food-insecure countries, where approximately one in three people live below the poverty line. The 2014 Humanitarian Requirement Document (HRD) released in January by the Government of Ethiopia and the humanitarian community, estimates that 2.7 million Ethiopians will need food assistance in 2014 due to droughts and other short-term shocks… In 2014, WFP Ethiopia plans to assist nearly 6.5 million vulnerable people with food and special nutritional assistance, including school children, farmers, people living with HIV/AIDS, mothers and infants, refugees and many others.
Does President Obama know that the “export” he is talking about could come about only because millions of hectares of fertile land in Ethiopia have been sold to so-called foreign investors at fire sale prices by the regime in Ethiopia displacing hundreds of thousands of indigenous people? Is it even fair to export food to the Middle East while Ethiopians starve and the regime goes out panhandling for food aid throughout the world?
President Obama said Ethiopia is “one of the fastest-growing economies in the world… [and is] … a leader economically in the continent”. Is this supported in fact?
The 2014, the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHDI) Multidimensional Poverty Index (formerly annual U.N.D.P. Human Poverty Index) reported for the fourth successive year that Ethiopia is ranked as the second poorest country on the planet. In 2010, OPHDI reported that the percentage of the Ethiopian population in “severe poverty” (living on less than USD$1 a day) was 72.3%. In 2014, 82 % of the rural population in Ethiopia struggles “in severe poverty” compared to 18% in the urban areas. Does it even make sense to talk about “one of the fastest-growing economies” amidst such abject poverty?
The fact of the matter is that the hyperbolic claims of economic growth in Ethiopia are based on fabricated and massaged GDP (gross domestic product) numbers. No one has been able to disprove my evidence and claims challenging the official statistics of economic growth presented in my commentary “The Voodoo Economics of Meles Zenawi”.
President Obama said, “… it turns out that Ethiopia may be one of the best in the world — one of the largest contributors of peacekeeping… [and have] … one of the most effective fighting forces” in conflict regions. Is one’s “effective fighting force” another’s “war criminals”? In its December 2008 report on Somalia, Human Rights Watch stated:
… Ethiopia is a party to the conflict, but has done nothing to ensure accountability for abuses by its soldiers. The United States, treating Somalia primarily as a battlefield in the ‘global war on terror,’ has pursued a policy of uncritical support for transitional government and Ethiopian actions, and the resulting lack of accountability has fueled the worst abuses. The European Commission has advocated direct support for the transitional government’s police force without insisting on any meaningful action to improve the force and combat abuses.
Unlike beauty, the ugliness of war crimes is not in the eyes of the beholder!
In his very “last point”, as an afterthought, President Obama said, “… the Prime Minister [Hailemariam Desalegn] and the government is going to be organizing elections in Ethiopia this year. I know something about that… And so we’ll have an opportunity to talk about civil society and governance and how we can make sure that Ethiopia’s progress and example can extend to civil society as well…” How much does President Obama really know about Ethiopian elections? Does he know that the ruling regime stole the 2005 elections in broad daylight and jailed virtually all opposition party leaders, critical independent journalists, human rights advocates and civic society leaders? Does President Obama know that in the 2010 election, the ruling regime won 99.6 percent of the seats in parliament?
I am really intrigued when President Obama says, “I know something about that”. Does he know that just in the past few weeks, young men and women barely in their 20s have been arrested and jailed for “terrorism” merely for blogging on Facebook and speaking their minds on other social media? Does he know that in the past few weeks six popular independent publications including Afro Times, Addis Guday, Enku, Fact, Jano, and Lomi were shuttered and dozens of journalists jailed or exiled as a consequence? Does he know Ethiopia’s best and brightest journalists have been languishing in subhuman prisons throughout the country for years?Does he know that no one in Ethiopia could write about the corrupt dictators there in the way I can write about him in America fully protected by the First Amendment? Does he know opposition parties are harassed, intimidated, jailed, persecuted and prosecuted for peacefully opposing the regime? How can there be an election worth the name where the press, opposition parties and civil society organizations are suppressed and persecuted? Does President Obama know that in 2010 as a result of the so-called “Proclamation on Charities and Society”, “the number of civil society organizations in Ethiopia was reduced from about 4600 to about 1400 in a period of three months in early 2010. Staff members were reduced by 90% or more among many of those organizations that survive”? Does President Obama know that he is the one subsidizing Africa’s ruthless and corrupt dictators with hard-earned American tax dollars?
Verdict of history on President Obama
I was proud of President Barack Obama because I believed that he believed in liberty and human rights not only for Americans but also Africans. I believe the vast majority of Africans were also proud of him because they believed his message of, “Yes, we can”. When Barack Obama was elected President of the United States in 2008, there was not a pair of eyes in Africa that did not shed tears of joy. In 2014, there are many pairs of African eyes shedding tears of sorrow at the very sight of President Obama hugging and embracing the worst African dictators, wining and dining them in the White House and showering them with undeserved praise without a hint of criticism of their abominable human rights records. President Obama has become a not-so-strange bedfellow of African dictators.
The verdict of history shall be that President Obama gave the people of Africa empty words of hope in their time of despair. But he gave corrupt African dictators not only billions of dollars in aid but also moral legitimacy by lionizing them in the court of world public opinion. President Obama has been a sore disappointment to millions in Africa who believed in his promise of “hope and change” and followed his clarion call to go “Forward”. His “audacity of hope” proved to be an audacity of indifference and a source of disillusionment for millions of Africans. Obama offered “change we can believe in.” The verdict of history is, “We can’t believe nothing changed in Africa during the presidency of Barack Obama!” No one in Africa believes in President Obama anymore, except the palm-rubbing, panhandling dictators and thugtators. President Obama’s “Yes, We can” slogan in Africa turned out to be, “No, we cannot do anything to improve human right conditions in Africa.”
I don’t want my readers to get the impression that I do not like Barack Obama as a person. I like him. I have enormous respect for him as a highly accomplished human being. I honor him as a dutiful father and husband and as a role model for all of us. I admire him as a gutsy constitutional and civil rights lawyer. I believe him to be a decent and an honorable man. I have also no doubts that he is well-intentioned and well-meaning person. I do not believe he is a malicious man, but I do not doubt he is a victim of malicious political circumstances. He has done many good things in office. History will remember his “Affordable Health Care Act” as a practical demonstration that “Obama Cares”. Obama, the man.
All I am saying is that I am no longer proud of President Barack Obama. All I am saying is that I am ashamed of what President Obama is doing with corrupt and ruthless African dictators who trample on the human rights of their citizens. All I am saying is that I am ashamed of President Obama for authorizing the National Security Agency to collect and store information about the phone call of ordinary law-abiding Americans. My heart is shattered when I make this declaration to a candid world.
President Obama will be remembered for generations to come as Africa’s most illustrious and renowned prodigal grandson. For Africans in Africa and in America who are no longer proud of President Obama, I commend them to heed the steely words of Frederick Douglass, a great American who escaped slavery to become a champion of freedom. “ The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”
Perhaps there is a bit of poetic justice for me in all of this. The man who has been dishing out his version of the truth to power and those who abuse power for so many years must now take his own medicine and ‘fess up to his readers. “Yes, I messed up!” How do I feel? Like Othello in Shakespeare’s Othello: “O fool! fool! fool!” But hold on! I gather inspiration from George W. Bush as I move forward: “There’s an old saying in Tennessee — I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee — that says, fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can’t get fooled again.” Whatever! You know what I mean.
Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam teaches political science at California State University, San Bernardino and is a practicing defense lawyer.
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Amharic translations of recent commentaries by the author may be found at: