From Obote to Obama; Nilotic Embrace

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[Global: Opinion On Obama's Luo Ascendancy]


When I started my career at Makerere College in Uganda in 1963, Barack Obama was two years old.

His Luo father was about to win a scholarship to Harvard University, a temptation that made him leave his wife and son in Hawaii, almost never to return except for a short visit eight years later. Uganda had won independence from Britain the year before my arrival. The basic divide in Uganda was between ethnic groups collectively referred to as the Bantu concentrated in the south of Uganda and ethnic groups collectively designated as the Nilotes --of the Nile-- concentrated in the north.

Uganda’s most illustrious single "Bantu" (or "Muntu") was the King of Buganda, Sir Edward Mutesa, who became the country’s Head of State from 1963 to 1966. The most illustrious single Nilote was Apollo Milton Obote, who became first Prime Minister and later President. He was overthrown by Idi Amin in January 1971.

When I was growing up in colonial Kenya, the Luo were sometimes referred to as the Kavirondo because their flat terrain near Lake Victoria did bear that name. The Luo of Uganda were often referred to as "the Lwo" or split into smaller groups much as Obote’s Langi.

Collectively, all the Luo were associated with the Chari-Nile --Eastern Sudanic-- linguistic culture of the Nile-Saharan family of languages. Since Lake Victoria was the mother of the River Nile on its Uganda shore, the Luo or Lwo family were widely referred to as Nilotes or people of the Nile.

In both Kenya and Uganda the Luo were major contenders for the post-colonial presidency of each country. In Uganda an alliance between the Langi and the Acholi did succeed in capturing the state in the 1960s. Obote became Uganda’s first Nilotic Head of State.

When Kenya became independent in December 1963, the most prominent Luo political figures were Tom Mboya and Oginga Odinga, Raila’s father. Both Mboya and Odinga had their political eyes on the Kenya Presidency, but Jomo Kenyatta beat them to the State House. Mboya was assassinated in 1969; Odinga was deprived of the Presidency by both Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi.

The next Luo to aspire for the Presidency in Kenya was Raila Odinga. For a while, nobody even remotely considered the presidency of the US as being also a potential trophy for the role of the Luo in history. But by October 2007, I was able to pose a question to the Standard newspaper in Kenya: "which country will be the first to have a Luo President: Kenya or the USA?"

If the Kenyan Luo candidate was Raila Odinga, the American Luo contender was, of course, Barack Obama.

In my thirtieth year of life, 1963-1964, I lived in the shadow of Milton Obote, who was on his way to becoming Uganda’s first Nilotic Head of State.

In my seventy-fifth year of life, 2008-2009, I am living in the shadow of Barack Obama, who has become the first son of the Nile to ascend the Presidency of the US. Obote had considerable political influence on my life in my Ugandan past.

By capturing the American Presidency, Obama in all likelihood will have considerable influence on my American future. Raila Odinga as Prime Minister of Kenya and potential Head of State is already having legal jurisdiction on my life as a Kenyan.

I first met Odinga in his new capacity as Prime Minister not in our mother country, Kenya, but in Obama’s country of birth, the USA. In his speech at a luncheon in his honor in Washington D.C., Odinga drew the attention of the large audience to my presence in its midst. I stood up to a thunderous applause.

Odinga then referred to my historic question as to which country would be first to elect a Luo President: Kenya or the United States. He gave his own witty reply with a broad smile.

"The question has actually been answered in Kenya’s favor. Kenya has a Luo President who has not been sworn in." The huge luncheon audience burst into laughter and applause.

The US has now outdone Kenya by having a Luo President who will no doubt be sworn in.


Prof. Mazrui teaches political science and African studies at State University New York

First published in Uganda's The Daily Monitor

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