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Out of Africa

The Kenyan politician who made Barack Obama.

An episode that took place in New York nearly four decades ago--on March 18, 1969--sheds a special light on the meaning of Barack Obama's inauguration as our nation's first African American president and the transformation this signifies in American race relations. On that date, Tom Mboya, a prominent Kenyan leader, delivered a lecture to a large Harlem audience on the challenges faced by newly independent African nations in the aftermath of colonialism. Toward the end of his speech, he took on a topic of hot debate among American blacks: the idea that activists should organize a mass "back to Africa" movement among African Americans in the United States. Mboya started by rejecting the notion, but, before he could explain his position, he was interrupted by several hecklers, one of whom hurled four or five eggs in his direction. The meeting was abruptly concluded.

Mboya was not satisfied to leave it at that, though. Soon thereafter, he and a friend, civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, decided that Mboya should write a major article explaining his views on the "back to Africa" proposal and on the larger subject of the relationship of American blacks to Africa. Rustin was a natural partner for such a project. A former radical who had organized the March on Washington in 1963, he had emerged as the leading opponent of the outspoken nationalists, pointing out that their proposals would only isolate blacks. The "back to Africa" movement, Rustin often said, was only the most extreme example of nationalist futility, an expression of hopelessness more than a plan of action.

Mboya's article, which appeared in The New York Times Magazine on July 13, 1969, under the headline, "The American Negro Cannot Look To Africa For An Escape," begins by acknowledging the special relationship between Africans and black Americans and the parallels between their respective struggles for independence in Africa and for legal and political equality in the United States. But the nub of his argument points out some crucial separations between African nationalism and black nationalism in America. "African nationalism," Mboya writes, "is, by its very nature, integrationist, in that its primary objective is to mold numerous tribes into a single political entity." Black nationalism in the United States, on the other hand, had more in common with tribalism than with African nationalism. Mboya recognized how "extraordinarily difficult" it was for a group that had been "an oppressed racial minority" to resist letting a new racial pride degenerate into "a form of racialism." But he saw such nationalism as a dangerous trap for American blacks. The task ahead was clear and should be faced with firm resolve: "Just as the African must reconcile the differences between his tribal and his national identity, so too must the black American realize to the fullest extent his potential as a black man and as an American."

Mboya ended his article by calling for Africans and black Americans to work together in support of his campaign for a student airlift to the United States. In 1959, he had established the African-American Students Foundation, the purpose of which was to raise funds to bring students from Kenya and other parts of East and Central Africa to study at American universities before returning home to work in public service. In fact, the Harlem incident and the reflection it prompted on the separate identities of Africans and American blacks would not command our attention today were it not for the fact that one of those students, on the very first airlift of 81 young Kenyans, was a man named Barack Obama.

It is now well known, of course, that Obama Sr. entered the University of Hawaii in 1959 where he met and married Stanley Ann Dunham, who gave birth to Barack Obama Jr. on August 4, 1961. Obama Jr.'s birth, even as an almost casual by-product of the airlift's principal purpose--Obama Sr. didn't stay long in the United States, returning to Kenya where he became a senior economist in the Ministry of Finance--adds yet another thread of experience to the deep interconnectedness of Africa and the United States, which was such an important theme for Mboya. Even more, Obama's successful presidential campaign is an affirmation of the main theme of Mboya's message to his "American cousins"--that, if the black American can overcome racialism and "merge his blackness with his citizenship as an American ... the result will be dignity and liberation."

Obama's rise to the presidency is a vindication of this vision of post- racialism, and the impact it has had on American democracy illuminates an even more profound observation Mboya offered, almost in passing, about race in America. Commenting on the gains that blacks had made in Africa and elsewhere in the 1960s, he wrote that American society had "been forced to undergo a genuine social revolution in response to the black struggle." This was true as far as it went--the black struggle was, indeed, the spark that ignited a broader social revolution. But it was able to do so in the same way the anti- slavery movement had transformed America a century earlier--by mobilizing social forces to address what Gunnar Myrdal called "the American dilemma," the contradiction between the American creed of equality for all and the unequal condition of American blacks. Obama built upon that legacy, using the vision of an America overcoming racial division to inspire a movement to broaden and deepen our democracy.

Mboya lived his commitment to non-racialism in Kenya, too, and the country's history contains a message for Obama at the threshold of his presidency. During the run-up to independence in 1963, when Kenya was beset by tribal divisions, Mboya, who was a Luo, campaigned for the release of the country's imprisoned nationalist leader Jomo Kenyatta, who represented Kenya's largest tribal group, the Kikuyu. With Mboya's support, Kenyatta became Kenya's founding president when a republic was declared in 1964, and many thought Mboya, who had been a key leader of the political struggle against British rule, was being groomed to be Kenyatta's successor. This was a source of great concern to Kikuyu hardliners and a reason for Mboya's preoccupation with the danger of tribalism. As it happened, he was assassinated on July 5, 1969, by a Kikuyu tribesman, just a week before his article was published in The New York Times Magazine. (Obama Sr., himself a Luo, would also run afoul of ethnic politics, losing his official post, becoming overwhelmed by a weakness for drink, and dying in a car wreck, only 46 years old.)

Superficially, Kenya has been an African success story--it has avoided coups and major armed conflicts and has been a hub for humanitarian assistance and international operations in East Africa. But it has been beset by systemic corruption that has been subsidized by misguided international aid. As Mboya found, it has enjoyed the trappings of democracy but not the substance. It has suffered under an imperial presidency, a self-serving and feckless legislature, a partisan election commission, and a centralized federal system dominated from Nairobi by the Kikuyu, the largest ethnic group in the country but only one out of 42, representing just 22 percent of the population. All of these problems erupted into chaos following the disputed presidential election of December 2007, leaving more than 1,000 dead and 300,000 others displaced in less than a month.

Some might conclude that Kenya is just another lost African cause, but that would be a serious misreading of the situation. The crisis erupted when it did, not because of endemic ethnic conflict or public despair, but because citizens across Kenyan society lost patience with corrupt political leaders. Kenya has actually been on a forward democratic trajectory since 1992, when multi-party politics was restored, and especially since the defeat of Daniel arap Moi's party in the 2002 presidential elections. Kenyan civil society, from NGOs to religious groups, has broadened and become more assertive, and the press has become bolder, exposing corruption and empowering citizens with information. There is simply no turning back from the continuing struggle for democracy, respect, and economic opportunity.

Kenya is not unique in this regard, but emblematic of a broad democratic awakening that has occurred, to different degrees, in other African countries and other regions, not excluding even the Middle East. Obama's campaign has certainly contributed to this awakening, since it was the most closely followed democratic competition ever and has raised expectations of citizens around the world about what they want from their governments in terms of democratic performance and respect for basic rights. It has also raised expectations about the kind of support such aspirations should receive from the United States. Obama will need to respond to these hopes and meaningfully help those who are fighting for democratic rights, even as he tries to get our economy back on track. It would be an appropriate way to repay Kenya, and the world, for Tom Mboya's gift to America.

Carl Gershman is president of the National Endowment for Democracy. Maina Kiai is former chair of the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights.

By Carl Gershman and Maina Kiai