|Zambian fellow Sombo Chunda shouting behind Obama|
By Paul Shalala in Washington, DC
Today, he entered the Regency Ballroom at the Omni Shoreham Hotel like a rock star.
If one of the ancient writers of the Bible was present at the event, he or she would have said: “President Barack Obama made a triumphant entry into the ballroom.”
“Yes We Can! Yes We Can! Yes We Can!”
Those are the chants President Obama was welcomed with when he walked into the ballroom to address the 1,000 Mandela Washington Fellows who had just completed their six weeks training at various universities across the United States.
Just when the American President reached the podium and thought the Mandela fellows would stop the chants, they unanimously changed strategy and sang the happy birthday song to wish the first African-American President his 55th birthday.
This blogger was also carried away with the excitemen.
He even forgot to get notes when President Obama read the first few paragraphs.
Of course it was his first time to see the American President but it is typical of journalists to also be carried away, kaili mutola nkani naeve ni muntu (Even a journalist is human).
He held a town hall with the fellows whose number was this year doubled from the initial 500 in 2014 and 2015.
The 1,000 fellows came from 49 African countries and studied at universities in four different tracks: Business and Enterpreneurship, Civic Engagement, Public Management and Energy.
As is common for him, just his first few words caused a lot of excitements and standing ovations by the fellows.
Later, President Obama gave a wide ranging speech from issues such as corruption to women’s rights, development and US-Africa relations.
The 44th US President spoke for about 30 minutes and then devoted over an hour to a question and answer session which saw fellows asking him questions on various issues.
He also recognised three youths for their hardwork in various areas such as governance, human rights and entrepreneurship.
President Obama also described John Paul Usman as a dedicated youth who will earned himself the title of Mandela Washington fellow and will continue having it even in death.
Usman drowned in June a few days after arriving in Virginia for the six weeks training under the Mandela Washington Fellowship.
President Obama said he was working hard to ensure that the volume of trade across the Atlantic grows every year.
“We are working hard to boost trade with Africa. I’m just from signing an executive order which will encourage more American companies to invest in Africa. This year am also hosting the second US-Africa Business Forum,” said President Obama.
|President Obama addressing the Mandela fellows|
He said when trade increases between the US and Africa, more jobs will be created.
Possibly the most important part of his speech was a line were he pledged to ensure the Mandela Washington Fellowship continues to bring young African leaders to the USA beyond his retirement.
“I will continue with the YALI (Young African Leaders Initiative) program even after I leave office next year because I believe in it.”
He also disclosed that over 250,000 youths across sub-Sahara Africa had so far joined the YALI online Network where they are organising grassroot activities.
President Obama added that over 150,000 certificates had been issued to youths who had completed online courses on various issues.
Answering a question from a Congolese fellow who asked him to personally sort out the on-going conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, President Obama said there was need for Africa to make a different and not blame the past.
“We should not always blame the past for what we are going through. It is now our time to make a difference. If people in the past messed up, our current generation must make a difference and make democracy thrive.”
He however conceded that democracy was not only a problem in the developing world but even in the oldest democracies.
He said democracy was hard even in the US but all players in the country were committed to its tenets.
On His Two Terms In The White House
President Obama spent more time to talk about his two terms in office which come to an end on January 20, 2017.
|Fellows raising hands to ask questions|
“The financial crisis of 2007 to 2008 was the biggest challenge. It hit us just when I entered office. But we worked hard and averted the worst of the crisis,” he said in response to a question posed by Charles Tembo of Zambia on Facebook.
The ongoing conflicts in Syria and South Sudan also pose a challenge to his presidency.
He said these wars are a source of his daily frustration.
President Obama called for a free press in Africa adding that the media promotes transparency and accountability to those in public offices.
He said in America, the media always probes in order for the public service to serve the people efficiently.
President Obama said most leaders who fight the media are those who overstay in office or those who have something to hide.
“In my two terms, I have also had a fair share with the media. Sometimes I read newspapers and think ‘no they are being unfair to me.’ But sometimes I see what they report and I smile.”
He however accepted that American TV networks always reported Africa with stereotypes saying Africa appears only when there is war, poverty or disease.
President Obama has encouraged African journalists and every African to take the lead in telling the African success story.
His Advise To Young Politicians
When asked by Folanski Aina of Nigeria what his words were to aspiring politicians, President Obama said anyone who thinks of going to politics must first check himself or herself.
“If you want to join politics, first ask yourself a question: ‘What do you want to do for people?’ Can’t you do that even without being elected? It is not only with an office that you can serve people.”
He said his ascendancy to the national scene was not easy.
President Obama disclosed that when he was a Senator in Illinois, he ran for US Congress but lost and when he tried for the second time, he told his wife Michelle that when he loses he will leave politics but he ended up winning.
|Some of the Zambian fellows during the Town Hall|
He revealed that when then Democratic presumptive nominee John Kerry chose him to speak at the party’s National Convention in 2004, he did not know that the speech would earn propel him to stardom and help him get nomination for the presidency four years later.
“John Kerry accidentally picked me to speak at the convention in 2004. The following day, I was all over in the media and a crowd of hundreds stood outside waiting to greet me.
I walked towards them with a friend of mine and I told them ‘I’m not more smarter than I was yesterday.”
President Obama said he wants to be remembered for having been a good parent who brought up his children well.
“I don’t want to be remembered for having given that powerful speech at some conference or things like that….. One day when I will be on my deathbed, I will be happy to remember how I held the hand of one of my daughters and walked her in a park.”