Barack Obama: The Only President I Have Run To.....

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Barack Obama’s win in 2008 was a major change in my life. How I did it, I cannot tell but the simple fact that I got on a flight and flew 6,000 miles, spent 3 days walking around The National Mall in Washington DC in the freezing wintry chill and then, stand for 8 hours out in the freezing -6 Centigrade chill on the actual inauguration day must take a beating.

[My Reflections On American Election]


Gulu; Uganda: As far back as my living memory takes me, I can recall that I have spent most of my life running. Running away from tyrannical presidents. Harsh, brutal and sinister men who merely killed for fun.

Presidents who associated eliminating fellow humans with a leisurely past-time like fly-fishing or a game of golf. At the drop of a hat, I was gone.

I learned to run when I was barely 5 years old. I ran for my life when Idi Amin Dada’s army arrived in Gulu after he had overthrown the government of President Apollo Milton Obote on the 25th January 1971. I never stopped running from that point on.

Juba; Sudan: I ran when Idi Amin’s soldiers kept harassing my mother and throwing her into prison and police cells – I can recall not less than 6 occasions, between 1972-76, when my mother was arrested and thrown in the brutal cells of Idi Amin.

Her crime? She was an Acoli woman married to someone who had eluded the murderous talons of Idi Amin. I ran and went to live in Southern Sudan with my father. When the situation became too harsh for my sister --who was only three years old then-- and I, we ran back to Uganda. I was 8 years old then traversing international borders with a young child.

Nairobi; Kenya: We ran again when my mother was chucked into prison by Idi Amin in 1976. That was the last straw. We ran to live in Kenya. In 1979, when Idi Amin was overthrown by a combined army of Ugandans and Tanzanians, our hosts in Kenya felt that we had perhaps overstayed our welcome so we ran back to Uganda.

London; UK: Life in Uganda was not quite what we yearned for post-Amin. From 1979 until I left Uganda in 1987, I was running. Running from unruly, uncontrollable soldiers regardless of the regime. Cowardly soldiers who were only brave behind their guns. Bullies drunk with "Dutch courage" from the guns on their shoulder slings.

There are many people in Uganda today, grown men like me, who have never stopped running. The regime in Uganda today preaches peace, stability and democracy but on the ground, it is defined by persecution, despair and a corrupt autocracy.
Today the most commonly misused word in Uganda is "impunity" … Ugandans use that word with ‘impunity’.

The UK has been a solace to me, it has been a sanctuary not just to me and my family, but to millions of people from all walks of life and sometimes I cannot help but wonder whether the British could have not made it easier for everyone if they just did one of two things: they could have either stayed in their former colonies since they were doing a much better job of administering them than their successor African despots or, in the alternative, just left the former colonies well enough alone and cut them loose instead of the intermeddling they indulge in until now.

Washington DC: Funny enough, Barack Obama’s win in 2008 was a major change in my life. How I did it, I cannot tell but the simple fact that I got on a flight and flew 6,000 miles, spent 3 days walking around The National Mall in Washington DC in the freezing wintry chill and then, stand for 8 hours out in the freezing -6 Centigrade chill on the actual inauguration day must take a beating.
I was still running I felt; but this time, I was running to, and not from a president. On the 20th January 2009; my siblings, in-laws, nephews and I, woke up very early. I had barely slept all night. Partly due to the excitement and partly due to my differing body clock. I was in a time zone 6 hours behind. I was awake by 4am having barely had two hours’ sleep. We were at North Capitol next to Union Station in DC by 6am and proceeded to our allotted entrance gates. I entered through D Street then onto 3rd Street and then onto Constitution Avenue where I found what, under the circumstances, was one of the best vantage points on the steps of the Department for Labour. I met so many people (Obama’s friends and foes alike but 99% of the atmosphere was jubilatory) and made so many friends that day. The crowd was jubilant, black and white together celebrated. It was as if a huge weight had been lifted off the shoulders of Americans that day. The climax was not the actual swearing in of The 44th President of America Barak Obama – not at all. The loudest cheers were reserved for when the helicopter carrying the 43rd President lifted off from Capitol Hill – it could be heard as far away as Virginia and possibly Hawaii.

The inauguration ball was a far grander albeit sombre affair than the day’s events had been. It was, I felt, a fine end to a historic experience but I could never forget my conversations with all those people, some Americans who had travelled almost 3,000 miles to come and watch this amazing event. I stood next to a black man of 80 who had tears rolling down his cheeks and I nudged him and said “it is touching isn’t it?” to which he responded and said “it is not that son, it is frigging cold, I cannot feel my toes”. We shared some laughter and I went and got his some coffee. Jack said he thought he would never live to see this day ever.

A place called Hope: Today I read, hear and watch people asking what happened to the hope that Obama promised? If Americans want a leader who does nothing but trumpets failings disguised as promises and policies, they should not look beyond their previous presidents. If Americans want a leader who has had it so good and yet left the nation in the throes of economic purgatory, they need not look beyond the economies of Europe of even the UK before the present coalition government took office. Obama, like former President Bill Clinton recently said in a campaign rally, “has done a good job with a bad hand”. His hands have been tied with a Republican dominated Congress that has from day one, torpedoed almost every major policy that he has attempted to introduce and although Obamacare was passed, he is still stigmatised by his GOP nemeses and they promise that it is the one thing they will repeal if they win – God help poor Americans. Even the most right wing in the UK wax-lyrical about the virtues of the NHS.

Back to Africa: Obama, unlike his predecessors, is not one to promulgate his achievements. This has worked against him in the first term. He has succeeded in his foreign policies without committing tens of thousands of American lives; he has made proclamations that have seen political changes sweep across Africa and the Middle East, ousting dictators who at one time felt immortal and immovable. Since coming to office, several African dictators have had to review their expositions in office. Many have been uncomfortable with a president – this President - in The White House, who has been very caliginous with his relationship to the old tyrannical hands who have mastered the art of wooing US and European leaders. Several have watched grudgingly hoping that Obama does not win a second term. Obama has been tough with them because he knows how their modus operandi, Obama lived in Africa, he understands the African “big man syndrome”.

On return to work, my colleagues, having watched the inauguration on television like billions others around the world were all in awe at my experience and continuously asked me to narrate my experiences. One of them in particular, Derek, on hearing about how long I had stood out in the freezing cold was aghast at my resolve and counselled me on the wish for a President, not just a Ugandan President, but an African President who could inspire even a fraction of a million people to congregate in one place to commemorate their election success – in a cleanly and fairly contested election moreover.

Back to now: When I started writing this article on my return from the inauguration of 2009, I decided to shelve it so I could finish it in 4 years’ just in time for the 2012 elections. Here I am. I have not lost faith in the American democratic system. Will I go to the steps of Capitol Hill again in minus 6 degrees? Of course. It is because I believe in Obama and I believe in the American democracy. Bad people do not make a bad democracy – a bad leader makes bad people. I will never walk in the hot African sun to attend an African dictator’s rally, because Africa still has eons to go to catch up with the US; even a nation like India which is still renowned for its high levels of corruption can at least boast a broken system that works.

I hope to be back on the steps of the Labour Department building come January 2013 …. It is better to travel in hope that to arrive. I still have my ‘I witnessed history’ badge’ so I will be running back to DC.


The author is a practising lawyer and an elected politician in the UK – frankabe@hotmail.co.uk

"Speaking Truth To Empower."


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