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Sunday, August 31, 2008

American politics is very African, thank you!

Of all the industrialised democracies, the one whose politics could be most recognisable to Africans right now is the USA — and Italy, some might argue.

In the run-up, and in the first two days of the Democratic Party convention, a lot of the news was about whether Senator Hillary Clinton who was beaten by Senator Barack Obama in the party’s nomination, would come out unequivocally and urge her supporters to vote for Obama in the November presidential race.

On Tuesday night, Mrs Clinton delivered a rousing speech that left many teary-eyed, and urged her supporters and party to unite behind her rival, Obama.

As one newspaper put it, she “reaffirm[ed] her support for Obama in soaring and unconditional language.”

Hillary and her supporters had been unhappy that she was not considered by Obama as his VP choice, and generally not treated with enough respect.

Former President Bill Clinton, in particular, was less conciliatory in public than his wife towards Obama, and continued to needle him in speeches.

As several commentators have put it, the Democratic Party is still largely a “party of the Clintons”. Obama’s “mistake”, then, is that in beating Hillary, for whom winning the nomination was supposed to be a Sunday walk in the park, he cheated her out of a birthright.

It is quite unusual in a mature democracy for a political party to be considered the private property of a family.

There are two surprising things about this.

First, the American media were content to make a big story of it without the smallest question.

I watched CNN for four hours late on Monday and Tuesday nights. Several Clintonites were trotted out to gripe about how their woman had been treated badly by the Obama camp, and all the talking heads beat up on the issue.

For those two days, hardly a single Obama supporter was interviewed for an alternative view! For both nights, there was just one panellist appearing to argue that the media had made too much of the anger of the Clinton camp.

The second surprising thing about this is that the Democratic Party is supposed to be America’s progressive party, yet it is caught up in feudal politics. If it had been the Republicans, you might have been tempted to say it is understandable.

In Africa, we have seen what is happening in Tanzania where former President Julius Nyerere’s prestige allowed him to continue to be the most powerful force in the ruling CCM after he stepped down, and in fact, he continues to influence some party affairs from the grave.

This influence is not always benign. In Togo, when its long-serving dictator Gnassingbe Eyadema died in 2005, the army suspended the constitution and picked his son, Faure Eyadema, who was already a minister in his father’s government, to succeed him. Inevitably, he later stole the presidential election for himself.

One of the most outspoken critics of Faure’s takeover was Togo’s exiled opposition leader Gilchrist Olympio, considered president-in-waiting should the country ever become truly democratic.

The irony is that Olympio himself is a political heir. His father, Sylvanus Olympio, was Togo’s first president. He was murdered by Faure’s father in a military coup in 1963.

One of the nastiest fall-outs we have seen between a sitting president and his predecessor, who was reluctant to let go of control of the party, was in Malawi where President Bingu wa Mutharika feuded bitterly with former president Bakili Muluzi who still held sway over the United Democratic Front. In the end, Mutharika dumped UDF and formed his own Democratic Progressive Party.

This business of succeeding a relative or spouse, or riding on the political prestige of your relative, however, is very American. It is as rife in the Republican Party as it is in the Democratic Party.

There was President George Bush, Senior. Then now President George Bush, Junior. His brother Jeb is governor in Florida. Then there is the Kennedy clan, and even a firebrand like civil rights leader, Jesse Jackson, has a son who is a Congressman.

That said, if Obama wins and becomes president, going by the performance of his wife, Michelle, at the convention on Monday night, who knows, she might be the future Senator from Illinois.

Talking of making up, we recommend that everyone who wants to learn how it is done should travel to Somerset in England and consult one Mr John Matthews.

Matthews, the Daily Telegraph reports, suspected that his wife, Pam, was having an affair with Mr Neil Edwards, a local cricket star.

Edwards vehemently denies the affair. The couple have since made up.

However, the way Matthews expressed his frustration at Edwards is one for the ages. He went to Edward’s flat and blocked his toilet, the bath plughole, scratched a plasma television screen, tore the curtains, and poured grime over the furniture.

He left the best for last — he went for Edward’s bed, the scene of the crime, as it were, and sawed it into half. With that, Matthews is reported to have “felt an enormous emotional burden lifted off him”.

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