"The Most Powerful Single Black Individual That’s Ever Walked Planet Earth" -- Historian Puts Obama in Context

Human Rights

The following is an excepted transcript of an interview with historian Ali Mazrui, from Democracy Now! by Amy Goodman.


Goodman: We turn now to our next guest, an intellectual giant in African studies for the past four decades. ... I’m talking about the Kenyan-born, Pan-Africanist thinker Ali Mazrui. He is Albert Schweitzer Professor in Humanities and the director of the Institute of Global Cultural Studies at State University of New York, Binghamton. Born in Mombasa in Kenya in 1933, Dr. Mazrui studied in Manchester, New York, and Oxford, then became a professor in Uganda, in 1973 forced into exile by the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, and has taught in the United States as well as at institutions around the world. ... It is great to have you with us. ... This is the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Kwame Nkrumah, the founding president of Ghana. It’s also the time of the election of the first black president of the United States, his father from Kenya, Barack Obama. I heard you speak yesterday at the International Studies Association in New York, and you said it’s bigger than that for Barack Obama.

Mazrui: Yes, indeed. Barack Obama is setting a precedent not just for the United States, but for the entire Western world. In none of the countries in the Western world with a white majority population has there been an election to install a head of state or a head of government who was black.

Goodman: You’re saying he’s the first black president of the Western Hemisphere?

Mazrui: And of the Western world. That is, including Europe, not just the Western Hemisphere, but the Western world as a whole, because we keep on wondering when we’ll have a black president of France, for example, although there’s been progress in appointing ministers who are from Africa or from the world of color. And then, a black prime minister of Great Britain would be very nice, and I’m sure it will happen, not necessarily in my lifetime, but probably in yours or in the lifetime of my children. And then, even more surprising, but -- historically, but perfectly understandable in modern terms, a black chancellor of Germany, and that will take a while. But I’m sure because of Barack Obama breaking that original taboo in the Western world about appointing as heads of states people who are not of European extraction, it opens other doors around the Western world as well as the Western Hemisphere.

And then, Barack Obama, himself, becomes the most powerful single black individual in the history of civilization, you know? There’s never been a person in control of the resources which the United States has, of the creative and destructive powers that the United States has. We’ve had great individuals in African history, like Menelik II of Ethiopia or Ramesses II of Egypt or even a more recent one like Kwame Nkrumah. Those were powerful within their countries or their regions. They were not globally powerful in the sense in which a president of the United States is. So he’s easily the most powerful single black individual that’s ever walked planet earth. And that’s a major breakthrough in race relations.

Goodman: His father also is Kenyan, as you are.

Mazrui: Yes, indeed.

Goodman: The significance of Barack Obama’s links, his relations to Kenya?

Mazrui: Yes, well, although I didn’t know the older Barack Obama personally, we share friends. There are friends even now I talk to for information about the older Obama. And we are waiting for the first book about the older Obama, the father, which will be published in Nairobi.

Goodman: Really?

Mazrui: Yes.

Goodman: But he was a student at University of Hawaii, right?

Mazrui: Yes.

Goodman: And also at Harvard?

Mazrui: Yes. He did go to Harvard, as well, yes. And then he went back home, and he had ups and downs with the authorities, unfortunately, the way I have had ups and downs with the authorities.

Goodman: What do you mean “ups and downs with the authorities”?

Mazrui: Well, he -- unlike me, he actually was a part of the government, because he was appointed into the civil service. And then, now and again, he took positions which put him into a bad light with authorities, including his very strong position upon the assassination of Tom Mboya, who was a fellow Luo, but much more importantly, he was a potential next president after Kenyatta and was probably eliminated because of those credentials, presidential credentials for Kenya. And the older Obama was trying to get the government to be much more serious about investigating and not to engage in cover-up, because the chances were that people in government knew about the plot to kill Mboya and were hiding. So, he was a fairly brave man. And he was sacked out of the civil service on one occasion and then readmitted later on. He had ups and downs. But he didn’t realize he had produced a son who would change the history of race relations in the world.

Goodman: How do you respond to someone like -- critics like Glen Ford -- he writes for the Black Agenda Report -- who says, “Obama will provide US empire with a black face, and that could be very destructive.”

Mazrui: It is a risk, really, because sometimes people are swallowed up by the position they occupy. I would hope he would help reshape the position he occupies, the presidency of the United States. And I’ve spoken, including in India -- the one thing I hope he will avoid is initiate another military conflict for the United States, because since the 1930s, every single American president has initiated a conflict, either large-scale war or some kind of confrontation with another country involving weapons -- everybody since Franklin D. Roosevelt. So, my hope is he will break that tendency for the American presidents to feel the way to be really presidential and commander-in-chief is to be ordering an army into action on another society.

Goodman: And what sense do you have that he will go that way? I mean, since he has come into office, we see one after another of these unmanned drone attacks in Pakistan. Of course, while he says he’s going to draw down in Iraq, he’s talking about a surge that will double the force in Afghanistan.

Mazrui: Absolutely. So, at the moment, I’m not optimistic that he’ll necessarily be just a peacemaking president with the conflicts that are on. So my dream was he will be the first president not to start a conflict, not that he would be the first president not to preside over a war, because he’s inheriting two wars, anyhow. And then, with one of them, the Afghanistan, he’s not planning to end it, really. He’s planning to escalate it for a while, so that is disappointing. So my prayer was slightly different, that I don’t want him to start a war with Iran. I hope he wouldn’t start a war with Syria. He would be mad if he started a war with North Korea, you see? So, in general, I hope he won’t start any war and break this idea that a commander-in-chief has to be engaged in an actual war to be a credible president of the United States.

Goodman: The Ethiopian invasion of Somalia that took place -- looking at modern conflicts and the US role in that, Professor Mazrui?

Mazrui: Oh, absolutely. I think although Ethiopia always has reasons for being suspicious about its neighbor, Somalia, and has reasons to engage in hostile action against Somalia, the actual use of troops to enter into Ethiopia and virtually be an occupying power had a lot to do with American encouragement to do so. So the Ethiopians were allowing themselves to be used by the United States against another African country, in spite of the fact that you could argue that Ethiopia had its own national interests at stake in Somalia, whatever happened. So, we must be fair to Ethiopia. They weren’t just doing Washington’s dirty work, although they were doing that, but they had also good reasons to be cautious about dealing with Somalia, but that was not the answer.

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