For some time now, American elections - as with most things American - have been a global spectacle, with the leading presidential candidates receiving instant international celebrity status. It is no surprise really; the leaders of the reigning superpower will most likely make (or not make) decisions whose ripple effects will be felt by the most remote global communities. From the 'Special Relationship' with the UK to unending involvement in the Middle East to the unspoken tensions of the UN Security Council; the world has every reason to step when the US shakes up its leadership.
If the world had already been somewhat intrigued with American presidential politics, the emergence of Barack Obama on the scene in the run-up to the 2008 election signed and sealed the love affair. One only has to revisit his historic Berlin Speech to catch a glimpse of his international notoriety (something that even the opposition derided him for during the campaign!). And if the world as a whole had fallen victim to Obama's charm, Africa had to have been spellbound. My social networks were flooded with my friends on the continent and in the diaspora holding on to every Obama soundbite. I even received congratulatory messages from family back in Africa when the president was re-elected (Despite the fact that I have never shared my political views, and as a non-citizen, am not even actively involved in the electoral process!) From bootleg Barack Obama clothing to twin babies named after him and opponent Mitt Romney, Barack Obama was the surrogate son of the soil who had made it all the way to the top.
In the ancient spirit of Pan-Africanism, Africans have always rooted for people of African descent in the diaspora, be it BB King or Tiger Woods, Mohammed Ali or Usain Bolt. Thus when Obama, a handsome and eloquent young family man with an unmistakably African name and but one generation removed from the motherland, threw his hat into the presidential ring,the continent's obsession with the candidate (and subsequently the election) grew exponentially.
Yet, all things considered, Barack Obama's presidency has meant precious little more for Sub-Saharan Africa than the typical American presidency. In his first term, he only has one Sub-Saharan Africa country visit to his name, trailing George W. Bush's first term by at least 4! And While George Bush's unheralded presidency at least brought about the highly commended PEPFAR program for Africa, this season's foreign policy debate between Obama and Romney made one reference to Somali pirates, and that was all there was to be said about Black Africa. Not to mention, too, that several of this administration's liberal policies fall way out of sync with the socially conservative values still held to heart by traditional communities.
So what, then, is the source of this seeming eternal flame between the continent and American presidential politics, and specifically Barack Obama ? Well, there are three fundamental factors that fuel the passion.
1) The African Underdog Story
The undertone is obvious; almost everyone, everywhere likes a 'David vs Goliath' story. We are looking at someone who, a few decades ago, would not have been allowed to vote; and now he leads the free world. While there are numerous firsts still to be had in presidential politics, this was the first time the president wasn't a White Male: he happened to be someone of recent African descent; and that is quite something.
2) The Entertainment Appeal of American Anything
In its highs and lows, the USA has been the global stalwart in popular culture. U.S. movies and music have set the commercial bar high, and even the debauchery that is reality TV seems to have an international following.
It was inevitable that presidential politics would soon fall victim to certain aspects of the country's greatest export: entertainment. The passionate debates broadcast the world over; judging of debate moderators as if they themselves were running for office, the exorbitant amounts spent to finance months of campaigning, attacks on cartoon characters, over-the-top responses to an attack on a cartoon characters, celebrity endorsements, polarized news channels...
One would be hard-pressed to find any other country whose presidential system is dramatic in this way.
Africa, as with the rest of the world, could only grab their popcorn and watch attentively as it all unfolded.
Going along with #2, there is an entertainment value in the madness that is the American presidential electoral system that provides a much-needed escape for many nations.
You know how we watch superhero movies and vicariously feel as if the power to save the world is only a screen away? Or how a romantic drama would have us believe in an all-conquering love? Such is the cathartic effect of the American presidential race.
It is no secret: Sub-Saharan African elections are often rocky. In the past five years or so, we have seen the formation of compromise or- politically correctly- 'Unity' governments in Zimbabwe, Kenya, Zanzibar, and Ivory Coast after the loser in the presidential elections refused to concede. In pre- and post-election activities, several people die or are arrested for their political views or lack thereof. Zimbabwe is due for presidential elections: we're just waiting to be told when exactly; whenever the powers that be feel they are ready. And when they do happen, people often have to stand in line for hours, only for corruption's ugly head to rear itself and rig the elections. (With all this said, full credit to the many African nations that have held peaceful democratic elections.)
Scenes from the Aftermath of the Ivory Coast Elections (2010)
Thus, several Africans are disillusioned and are turned off from political engagement. People would rather dedicate their efforts to money-making endeavors and socialize with their friends and families away from politics. As if by accident, that is working pretty well in several places: millionaires and other success stories arising from weak and failed states.
Yet, even though people are adapting to a politics-free survival, it does not substitute for the absolute need for governance within communities: that political craving persists.
In comes this larger-than-life election with debates, attacks, neighbors with opposing candidates' signs on their lawns; and when it's all said and done, the lose concedes defeat (even when the election is close!), and there has been no widespread bloodshed. And, in this particular case, 'Africa's son' had won, cementing the continent's fascination with Obama and the election as a whole.
For Africa, it is a tough situation with no definite answers. Ideally, the fascination that people had with the American election could all be channeled back into refining our own political process. Then again, very few are willing to put their efforts, time and quite possibly, blood on the line to overturn in a dilapidated electoral culture. It has to be done: The revolution cometh.
Until then, well, we'll just place Obama's election on a pedestal and dream that it means more to the motherland than it actually does.