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Obama’s victory could change the world

Nov 09, 2008 Leadership, Sunday Nation

I am feeling rather emotional as I write this, on the morning when Barack Obama has been elected president of the United States of America. This is my 300th article for the Sunday Nation, and the milestone could not have come at a better moment. So you will forgive me if I stray from the strictures of writing a column, and let go a little.

I believe sincerely that I have witnessed a once-in-a-lifetime event, a moment that may change history as we know it, a result that may make many of us rethink what we know about the world.

I believe sincerely that Barack Obama is a leader who will define his epoch. I am a student of leadership, and I believe this man is the real deal: the kind of leader who, like a Mandela before him, transcends race and origin, and who will blaze a trail for the world at large.

Senator Obama visited us here in Kenya two years ago, and I noted then in this column that we were in the presence of extraordinary talent. We all saw that this man has that indefinable ‘something’ that all those destined for greatness have. A star quality, a confident demeanour and youthful good looks, yes; but Obama has far more than that. He combines a powerful intellect with a warm heart; he focuses on those kicked down by life.

We are proud of the President-Elect’s ‘Kenyanness’, but we all seem to forget that he has no such thing in him. His connection with Kenya is with a father who abandoned him and his mother when he was a baby; a father who went on to sire many more children with many more women. That is indeed the Kenyan way, and no one would have forgiven young Barack for wanting nothing to do with this heritage.

But that is not what the young man had in mind. He sought out his father and his roots, and confronted the reality head-on. He built bonds with his step-siblings, and spent time understanding his Kenyan grandmother and her life. He forgave, and he gave forbearance. That is the mark of an unusual man, who I am sure is destined for unusual greatness.

Obama demonstrates all the qualities of great leadership. First and foremost, he is a thinker and a listener. He has clear ideas, but he pays attention to the opinions of a wider team. He picked some outstanding strategists to join his team, and the results were telling. This was quite possibly the best-planned, best-funded, best-executed election campaign in history. It had to be, to place a black man in the White House.

Obama attracts talent. Robert Rubin, Paul Volcker, Larry Summers and Warren Buffet stepped forward to advise him on matters economic; Colin Powell broke party lines and endorsed Obama as the right man for America. A top leader has this magnetism: good people believe in his brand and want to work with him. The world at large endorsed Obama with a margin of 4 to 1.

Let us also congratulate America, its ideals and its people. I did not think Americans were capable of electing a black, or even part-black, person to the highest office in the land. But they have shown that indeed they were. And let us be honest: which other society is ready to elect an outsider to lead it, a man with a skin colour that is not that of the majority; a man with a strange and unfamiliar and suspicious name; an outsider who will command its armed forces?

Certainly, those more venerable countries of Europe who often show such disdain for America could not have done this. Certainly, we in Kenya are not ready to elect a white or brown or yellow man, and may never be. We aren’t even ready to elect an African woman. So let us applaud those who are able to vote across ethnic lines, let us stand up and give them the most resounding of ovations. If America voted for tribe, as Kenya always does, Barack Obama could never achieve more than 10 per cent of the vote, and would never become president.

Here in Kenya, where a person’s entire life can remain circumscribed by the particular hut he was born in, and by the surname he was given, we need to think very hard about that one. Next week, I will dwell on the lessons for us.

Barack Obama knows he has not yet effected the change he campaigned for; he has merely won the chance to begin his work. He acknowledged this in his acceptance speech, an address that made grown men weep (including this one). All I can say is, go Barack, go. You have unleashed remarkable energy in people who aren’t even in your constituency. You have immense intellectual capital at your disposal. The planet feels great about your victory. You can change the world. Yes, you can.

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