11:02 pm
26 October 2016

Five Ways A US Presidential Race is Like an African One: Conspiracy theories and Birthplace Wars

THE election year begun in earnest in the US, with campaigns heating up and incumbent Barack Obama settled into his final twelve months as president. Obama gave is final State of the Nation address last week.

Last year, during his visit to Africa that brought him to Kenya – the land of his father’s birth – and Ethiopia, Obama took a dig at African presidents who cling to power, saying that he would want to run for a third term, and if he did, he would “probably win”, but the US constitution “does not allow” him to.

That sent the African Union audience into nervous laughter, as presidents probably looked at each other with eyes that said: “Wait, is he talking about me?”

In any case, the upcoming US election has many familiar “African” elements; when South African comedian Trevor Noah claimed that Republican frontrunner Donald Trump might be America’s first “African” president, he might have been on to something.

We consider the five ways the US election is like an African one

It’s like an African election because:

Family members of former presidents are in the race

Five current presidents in Africa are sons of former presidents: Uhuru Kenyatta in Kenya, Ian Khama in Botswana and Faure Gnassingbe in Togo, Joseph Kabila in DR Congo, Ali Bongo Ondimba in Gabon; current Prime Minister of Mauritius, Navin Ramgoolam, is the son of the founding Prime Minister Sir Seewosur Ramgoolam, and Peter Mutharika in Malawi’s brother was also president.

And many African sucessions are wrapped up in controversy whether or not sons (never daughters apparently, that’s more common in Asia) should succeed their fathers – the propping up of Gamal Mubarak in Egypt, and Saif al-Islam al-Gaddafi in Libya, helped turn the tide against their fathers’ regimes; Karim Wade’s gig in Senegal ended in disgrace, and the whispers of Muhoozi Kainerugaba’s “fast-tracking” in Uganda had many shaking their fists to the heavens.

This US election has all the familiar family tentacles – Jeb Bush’s brother, and father were both former presidents, though Jeb doesn’t seem to have a chance in this race. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, has a very good shot at becoming the Democratic candidate.

Candidate’s birthplace and eligibility controversy

What would an African election be without a good old debate about whether a candidate is eligible to vie for president on account of where they – or their parents – were born?

Zambia and Malawi in particular have a penchant for this game, and Zambia’s founding president Kenneth Kaunda found himself in this disgraceful position when a Zambian court stripped him of his citizenship in 1999, declaring that as a person whose parents had “originally” come from Malawi, he had ruled Zambia illegally for over two decades.

In Ivory Coast, current president Alassane Ouattara’s bid in 2010 was engulfed by the citizenship debate, as he was said to be “originally” from Burkina Faso. Funny because Africa loves to regularly denounce its arbitrary, ‘artificial’ borders.

Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni has over the years had to fight off critics who claimed he was born in Burundi or Tanzania, and wasn’t a “true” Ugandan. In Zambia, again, the country had been proud to portray itself as race-blind when Guy Scott, who is white, was Michael Sata’s vice president. Then in October 2014 Sata died, and Scott became acting president.

With an election to replace Sata coming up, the ruling Patriotic Front (PF) of which Scott had been a long-standing member turned on him and expelled him, in a revolt based partly on the fact that his parents weren’t born in Zambia so he couldn’t be president.

This US election too doesn’t disappoint in giving out these rungs to hang judgement on a candidate’s suitability. Republican frontrunner Donald Trump spent much of Obama’s first term trying to discredit him as president by claiming that Obama was born in Kenya – forcing Obama to produce his original birth certificate that confirmed he was born in Hawaii, a US state.

This time, Trump has set his sights on fellow republican contender Ted Cruz, who was born in Calagary, Canada to a Cuban father and an American mother.  But according to US law, any child born to an American citizen abroad is a US citizen – and unlike many African legal regimes, mothers can confer citizenship on their children. So because his mother is American, Cruz is eligible to vie for the presidency.

‘Tribal’ politics and mobilisation

African politics is notorious for mobilising along ethnic lines, with politics often nothing more than dividing the electorate into “blocs” and securing a victory on this numbers game.

Although this is seen as a particularly “African” way of doing politics – derided because it is thin on ideology and addressing “issues”– it is by no means unique to Africa: similar demographic groups often do have similar political priorities.

The US election demonstrates this, with a vehement falling in line of different “tribes” behind their candidate of choice. Even Donald Trump, who was long seen as a clownish outsider, is currently leading in the Republican primaries because he represents a real constituency – the “tribe” of conservative, angry, working-class white middle America.

Hats, T-shirts, and other election “goodies”

What would an African election be without free T-shirts, caps, hats and umbrellas? In some African homes, acquiring T-shirts and lessos (wrap-around fabric) at campaign rallies is one way to secure the clothing needs for adults in a household for the next five years, until the next cycle comes round.

Recent reports on campaign financing in the US have these familiar elements too. Donald Trump’s recent quarterly campaign finance report shows he spent more more than $500,000 just on hats and related apparel.

Trucker-style hats bearing Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” became a hit fashion accessory over the summer, Business Insider reports. The only difference is that they weren’t really free – people had to hand over $25 to $30 towards Trump’s campaign.

Personal insults and conspiracy theories

Slanging matches, accusations and counter-accusations are the bane of politics nearly everywhere, so, there’s no surprise there – Alpha Condé in Guinea was re-elected last October, but that was not before opposition candidates claimed he was responsible for the spread of Ebola and were calling him “Alpha Ebola”.

Trump is notorious for his offensive outbursts, none of which need repeating here. But Obama has probably had more personal insults, controversies and conspiracy theories ascribed to him than any other president. News magazine Mother Jones put together this delightful Venn diagram that summarises all of them in what it calls The Obama Conspiracy-o-Rama, including, that he is the Antichrist, went to Mars as a teenager, caused the US recession in 1995, killed his grandma to cover up his birth, and is a lizard. Yes, seriously.