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Richard Dowden is Executive Director of the Royal African Society in London ( Richard worked for the Times until 1986 when he became Africa Editor of the Independent and in[…]

The journalist notes a great deal of enthusiasm for Obama but no homegrown leader of equal stature.

Question: What is the meaning of Barack Obama’s election to Africans?


Richard Dowden: The initial one was just huge. I had so many African friends e-mailing me, just saying, isn’t this absolutely wonderful? I was trying immediately to dig a little deeper, thinking, do you think he will make a difference in Africa? And then, I got a much more mixed reaction. It might be just the opposite because he may reading dreams from my father, suggest that he kind of gets it. Well, he’s caught up in it.

I mean, there’s terrible family feud with his own family and not knowing how he should really respond to it. And I just wonder whether he might say, almost because of my African parentage, I’m going to leave this to others.

On the other hand, I think what he could do is pick up the phone to African leaders in a way others could not and say, “This is the president of the United States speaking, and don’t forget I’m an African leader. I know you, you know. I know what you’re about.”

And be able to really talk directly and powerfully to people who he wants to persuade. I hope he’ll do that because, I think, he will make an impact. But, yes, elsewhere, among ordinary people, I think it’ll give a huge, huge boost to African self-confidence. And that is so important.


Question: Will Africa ever have its own Obama?


Richard Dowden: The extraordinary thing at the moment is that there isn’t a continent-wide leader at the moment. I think the last one who clearly qualified for that is Nelson Mandela. And since then, it’s all been a bit messy.

And I notice that the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, which gives this annual prize for leadership in Africa, I think this year, they’re going to have a difficulty in finding a candidate. Which will probably be quite a good thing. What they had in the past, they had Chissano of Mozambique, before that. Yeah, okay. And I just wonder whether they will find someone this year.

I don’t think, at the moment, we’re at that stage. It’s still at a rather messy, the long march stage where there’s going to be nobody that the rest of the world recognizes as a the leader of Africa.

And it’s a shame because there are so many things they could do at the moment if you had someone really powerful.

Before, when you had President Mbeki in South Africa, President Obasanjo in Nigeria, the two of them, between them, could sort out a lot of the problems in the continent. And I think the reason those wars that were being fought in the ‘90s in Africa came to an end was largely the efforts supported by the international community, but Mbeki and Obasanjo did a lot of work on sorting them out. There is no one of that weight at the moment. And maybe one of the reasons is that they do like to stay on. And the longer they stay on, they worst they get. Instead of leaving after two terms and then becoming an international statesman and creating, what I would think of as a sort of council of elders of ex-president who could go around in some, smack-down to war and they move in and they get in and; I think that would be terrific.

But it’s not happening. It’s not happening.


Recorded: March 16, 2009