By William Hershey
COLUMBUS: After Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, Ebere Onwudiwe was so excited that he traveled 5,000 miles from Nigeria to Washington, D.C., to attend Obama’s inauguration.
“I just had to be a part of history by witnessing the inauguration of America’s first black president,” Onwudiwe told me. “That experience made me proud as an African who shares the same ‘land of our fathers’ with President Obama.”
Onwudiwe, 61, has a unique perspective from which to judge Obama’s performance as president and to gauge his chances for success in the three years remaining in his second term.
He is a native of Nigeria, but also is an American-educated political scientist, with a doctorate from Florida State University. He spent more than 20 years in Ohio teaching at Central State University, the historically black public university in Wilberforce, before retiring and returning to Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation. He also was a visiting professor at the Ohio State University in Columbus.
“As one who has lived and worked in the American heartland, I make the following confession: I love America,” said Onwudiwe, now the executive director of the Ken Nnamani Centre for Leadership & Development in Abuja, the Nigerian capital. Nnamani is a former president of the Nigerian Senate.
Onwudiwe’s observations were helpful to me when I was reporting on Ohio and national politics, and we had a chance to catch up when he returned to Ohio recently for a brief visit. We continued our conversation through email exchanges.
Onwudiwe recalled that when Obama, the son of a black father from Kenya and a white mother from Kansas, first was elected president, the excitement in Nigeria and the rest of Africa came close to the frenzy when Nelson Mandela was released from a South African prison in 1990.
“It seemed that author Ralph Ellison’s ‘Invisible Man’ has risen to be the leader of the free world,” he said. “ … This man Obama was God-sent and, therefore, simply invincible. And in the general mood of such wishful thinking, his re-election was assured in my head and in the heads of many Africans, I imagine.”
Obama, Onwudiwe acknowledged, has not been invincible, and 2013 was a particularly trying year.
“I think that 2013 from the Arab Spring to the economic meltdown and health-care log-in palaver was a very difficult year for the president,” Onwudiwe said.
To many Africans, tea party attacks on Obama and his policies “have a ring of racism louder than the usual noise of opposition politics,” said Onwudiwe.
“Remember the idiotic congressman who called the president a liar in Congress in full view of a watching world?” he recalled. “And how about those asking to see the president’s birth certificate? Are such Tea Party congressman just irrational, or racist? My answer is that they are racist and irrational. … I do not of course suggest that to oppose Obama is to be racist.”
Obama’s reaction to such attacks has been disappointing, however.
“ … Some people here question why in the world Obama is unable to fight back, especially against those extremist legislators who are blocking his nominations for no good reason at all,” said Onwudiwe. “Many see this as a major weakness.”
There has been disappointment, too, that Obama has not placed a higher priority on relations with African nations.
“As an African, I must say that his most important weakness is his apparent insensitivity to the hopes he has dashed on the continent,” Onwudiwe said.
Africans believed that a president with Obama’s background would have a greater understanding of Africa and also offer more assistance, he said.
“None of this has happened,” Onwudiwe said. “Dollar for dollar, it can be argued that Africa was better off under President George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.”
Despite all this, Onwudiwe remains high on Obama.
“I think Obama has done great (things) for his country. No question about that. Obamacare is obviously his signature accomplishment so far, one that I am sure his Republican opponents regret every day,” said Onwudiwe. “I don’t believe that the current cyber hiccups around this historical pro-low-income- health-care feat in any way diminish this Obama historical achievement.”
If the difficulties with Obamacare are corrected, the economy continues to gain strength and employment continues to grow, 2014 will be a “breakthrough” year for the president, said Onwudiwe.
“For us here in Africa, if the president can see to it that the electric power generation which has become the bane of development here is significantly improved, 2014 will see him as what the doctor ordered for our sustainable development,” he said.
“And we will be truly grateful, too.”
Hershey is a former Washington correspondent and Columbus bureau chief for the Beacon Journal. He also was the Columbus bureau chief of the Dayton Daily News. He can be reached at email@example.com
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