Obama’s farewell speech is remarkably relevant for Africa

What you need to know:

  • Even in some of the more democratic countries of Africa, leaders refuse to acknowledge their opponents in a well-mannered way
  • Even though the Republican President-elect Donald Trump refers to Democrats as enemies, Obama was respectful in his speech praising his country’s democratic traditions
  • Obama laid the groundwork so that others can succeed. Let our leaders aspire to emulate this great man

I watched President Barack Obama’s farewell speech to the American people last week and concluded that the speech wasn’t just meant for Americans after all. He spoke to the world. In this column, I will I try to give it an African context.

He began his speech by thanking Americans for giving him an opportunity to serve them, telling the American people that they:

are what have kept me honest, kept me inspired, and kept me going. Every day, I learned from you. You made me a better president, and you made me a better man.

You can read volumes of books on leadership and you will still not come up with a common definition. Some say a leader has to have vision and charisma but this is academic nonsense.

That is why you see African leaders gloriously refer to the first prime minister of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew’s leadership in their speeches. They even promise to follow his footsteps yet rarely emulate any of his deeds. 

Clearly, there is a disconnect between the views of consultants attributing success to a well-laid-down vision when the ordinary folks just need honesty in public affairs.


Leadership, as Obama has elaborated, entails honesty, inspiration, the humility to learn from followers and as you will later learn from his speech, the courage to share credit with those you work with. In thanking his staff, he acknowledges the trust he had in them that they would take up responsibility in their dockets.

Former Information and Communications Permanent Secretary, Dr Bitange Ndemo, meets then US Senator Barack Obama in 2006 during the future US president's visit to Kenya. PHOTO | US EMBASSY | COURTESY

This reveals another aspect of leadership, that a leader is merely the first among equals. He or she is but part of a team, in spite of the many differences that exist among people. After elaborating the achievements in his administration, he acknowledged those who made it possible for his administration to succeed:

But that’s what we did. That’s what you did. You were the change. You answered people’s hopes, and because of you, by almost every measure, America is a better, stronger place than it was when we started.

Even though the Republican President-elect Donald Trump refers to Democrats as enemies, Obama was respectful in his speech praising his country’s democratic traditions.

In 10 days, the world will witness a hallmark of our democracy: the peaceful transfer of power from one freely elected president to the next. I committed to President-elect Trump that my administration would ensure the smoothest possible transition, just as President Bush did for me. Because it’s up to all of us to make sure our government can help us meet the many challenges we still face. 

These smooth transitions in America are a stark contrast to African regime changes, which are often characterised by bitter disputes, intransigence and violence. Good examples include what is currently going on in the Gambia, Democratic Republic of Congo, and South Sudan.

Even in some of the more democratic countries of Africa, leaders refuse to acknowledge their opponents in a well-mannered way.


What this shows is that we in Africa have failed to see our common purpose and destiny irrespective of our differences. Yet it is by recognising these that we shall fully exploit our potential. In my view, Obama was also projecting his message to Africa when he said:

But that potential will be realised only if our democracy works. Only if our politics reflects the decency of the people. Only if all of us, regardless of our party affiliation or particular interest, help restore the sense of common purpose that we so badly need right now. 

It is what we need today in Kenya to lower the anxieties we have for the general election in August. Perhaps the greatest lesson for Kenya from the speech is the understanding of the ethos of democracy, which Obama said “does not require uniformity.” 

According to him,

our founders quarrelled and compromised, and expected us to do the same. But they knew that democracy does require a basic sense of solidarity – the idea that for all our outward differences, we are all in this together; that we rise or fall as one. 

I am hoping that all political parties will seriously see the wisdom of these words and dispense with the differences that may tear our country apart. This also applies to many other African countries where compromise is a taboo. The purpose of leadership is to serve, to make people’s lives better, a fact that Obama emphasised in the following terms:

Our democracy won’t work without a sense that everyone has economic opportunity. Today, the economy is growing again; wages, incomes, home values, and retirement accounts are rising again; poverty is falling again… The unemployment rate is near a 10-year low. The uninsured rate has never, ever been lower. That, after all, is why we serve – to make people’s lives better, not worse. 

It bothers me to see our leaders criss-cross the country as the doctors' strike continues and the patients continue suffering. If indeed their role is to serve, let them suspend campaigns, put doctors in the room and strike a deal because at this rate, many voters will die.


It is clear that both sides of the political divide are not interested in solving the crisis posed by the doctors’ strike. The government, as usual, is bullish. The opposition, on the other hand, has failed to offer workable solutions and use its leverage to request the doctors to stand down. Instead, it is capitalising on the strike for political gain.

In this bonfire of vanities, poor Kenyans continue to die.

Good leaders have the courage to recognise their failures. Obama noted that when the economy doesn’t work as well,

a few prosper at the expense of a growing middle class. But stark inequality is also corrosive to our democratic principles. While the top one per cent has amassed a bigger share of wealth and income, too many families, in inner cities and rural counties, have been left behind – the laid-off factory worker; the waitress and healthcare worker who struggle to pay the bills – convinced that the game is fixed against them, that their government only serves the interests of the powerful – a recipe for more cynicism and polarisation in our politics.

I need not elaborate on the growing gap between the rich and poor in developing countries, with Kenya being on top of the list. Yet Obama knows what needs to done for a better future. As he put it:

And so we must forge a new social compact – to guarantee all our kids the education they need; to give workers the power to unionise for better wages; to update the social safety net to reflect the way we live now and make more reforms to the tax code so corporations and individuals who reap the most from the new economy don’t avoid their obligations to the country that’s made their success possible….  For if we don’t create opportunity for all people, the disaffection and division that has stalled our progress will only sharpen in years to come. 

We all know too well that if we don’t create opportunity for our youth, our division will only worsen.


The outgoing US leader enumerated a number of issues that he considers a threat to democracy, including race relations, media and lack of evidence-based ideas. As he spoke on race relations, his speech mirrored our tribalism, which he said was a threat to democracy and:

remains a potent and often divisive force in our society….. Going forward, we must uphold laws against discrimination – in hiring, in housing, in education and the criminal justice system. That’s what our Constitution and highest ideals require. But laws alone won’t be enough. Hearts must change. If our democracy is to work in this increasingly diverse nation, each one of us must try to heed the advice of one of the great characters in American fiction, Atticus Finch, who said, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

On media:

The rise of naked partisanship, increasing economic and regional stratification, the splintering of our media into a channel for every taste – all this makes this great sorting seem natural, even inevitable. And increasingly, we become so secure in our bubbles that we accept only information, whether true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that’s out there. 

There are great lessons for Kenya and several other African countries in this statement. The media, and especially vernacular stations and social media, with its parochial, chauvinistic views, will tear us a part unless we build a consensus on how to manage it especially this election year. He noted the increasing trend where politics of ideas and compromise is under threat, saying it:

represents a third threat to our democracy. Politics is a battle of ideas; in the course of a healthy debate, we’ll prioritise different goals, and the different means of reaching them. But without some common baseline of facts; without a willingness to admit new information, and concede that your opponent is making a fair point, and that science and reason matter, we’ll keep talking past each other, making common ground and compromise impossible.” 

Although he was taking a jibe at Trump, the message resonates well with the Kenyan situation, where politicians have failed to articulate issues by hiding in tribal bubbles.


Another lesson for Kenyans in the speech is on constitutional matters that we have left to politicians. Obama had some wise words on this, noting that the American constitution is:

a remarkable, beautiful gift. But it’s really just a piece of parchment. It has no power on its own. We, the people, give it power – with our participation, and the choices we make. Whether or not we stand up for our freedoms. Whether or not we respect and enforce the rule of law.

It is our responsibility to see to its fullest implementation. Burying our heads in the sand only worsens matters. In the coming election, we must stand up to weed out criminal legislators who give leadership a bad name. That is how we can get leaders who will have our interests at heart. Quoting from George Washington’s farewell speech on ties that bind America, President Obama said,

We weaken those ties when we allow our political dialogue to become so corrosive that people of good character are turned off from public service; so coarse with rancour that Americans with whom we disagree are not just misguided, but somehow malevolent. We weaken those ties when we define some of us as more American than others; when we write off the whole system as inevitably corrupt, and blame the leaders we elect without examining our own role in electing them.

We are clearly to blame when we elect bad leaders from the cartels that malign well-meaning public servants in order to exploit a dysfunctional system.

We have seen the Integrated Financial Management System that has effectively served many countries denigrated in Kenya just to open up opportunity to steal public funds. Unfortunately, the gullible public cheers on.


While talking about his formative years in Chicago, President Obama raised one of the key issues that has bedevilled our potential to succeed: expecting change without involvement, our failure to take on leadership. Here he said:

It was on these streets where I witnessed the power of faith, and the quiet dignity of working people in the face of struggle and loss. This is where I learned that change only happens when ordinary people get involved, get engaged, and come together to demand it.

In concluding his remarks, Obama touched on our weakest link in democracy, noting that democracy needs us:

Not just when there’s an election, not just when your own narrow interest is at stake, but over the full span of a lifetime. If you’re tired of arguing with strangers on the internet, try to talk with one in real life. If something needs fixing, lace up your shoes and do some organising. If you’re disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clipboard, get some signatures, and run for office yourself. Show up. Dive in. Persevere. Sometimes you’ll win. Sometimes you’ll lose. Presuming a reservoir of goodness in others can be a risk, and there will be times when the process disappoints you. But for those of us fortunate enough to have been a part of this work, to see it up close, let me tell you, it can energise and inspire. And more often than not, your faith in America – and in Americans – will be confirmed.

We must not just leave all protests to Boniface Mwangi to organise. It is for all of us to do our part. We have a chance in 2017 to judge, not through selfish interests, but by evaluating ideas from those seeking to lead us in the coming years.

Chris Hadfield said, “Ultimately, leadership is not about glorious crowning acts. It's about keeping your team focused on a goal and motivated to do their best to achieve it, especially when the stakes are high and the consequences really matter. It is about laying the groundwork for others' success, and then standing back and letting them shine.”

Obama laid the groundwork so that others can succeed. Let our leaders aspire to emulate this great man.

The writer is an associate professor at University of Nairobi’s School of Business. @bantigito


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