Remembering Late Dr. Tajudeen Abdulraheem in the Twilight of the Obama Presidency
By Adagbo Onoja
Although the world awaits the definitive characterization of the gubernatorial leadership in Jigawa State of Nigeria from May 2007 – 2015 following on-going court scrutiny, the government was, otherwise, conceived as a small experiment in transformative politics and progressive governance which naturally attracted the attention of progressive activists across the world, particularly with the initial gestures to the Talakawa. One of such activists was the late Dr Tajudeen Abdulraheem who was then based in Kenya as a Deputy Director with the UN. He had a specific task: to communicate, convince and come along with Maathai Wangari, the equally late Kenyan environmentalist and Nobelist in September 2007. Taju, as he was popularly called, was more than enthusiastic to deliver the governor’s letter of invite to Maathai whose presence at the planned launching ceremony of the tree planting aspect of the anti-poverty campaign in the state was considered important. Eventually, Maathai could not make it as she was heading for an electoral contest by the end of that year. And that closed that chapter.
But the powerful ideological message of something like The Jigawa Talakawa Summit held in October 2008 kept Taju totally connected with and to Jigawa. The Global Call to Action Against Poverty, (GCAAP), which he substantially animated was part of the coalition that gave intellectual, ideological and activist verve to the entire Talakawa Summit. There were four others: CDD, CITAD, ActionAid International Nigeria and UNMDG.
It was not surprising that he found time out of his commitments in Nigeria to visit the Government House, Dutse on March 11th, 2009. Because people rarely knew him in Nigeria, his arrival in Government House did not cause a stir as to disrupt the flow. Beyond the then governor who had seen Taju at work articulating and acting out Pan-Africanism in global fora, including African foreign ministers meetings, not many knew who had come in. He had a session with Lamido from where it was now our turn to talk. And that ended up being dominated by the subject matter of an on-going academic work then about what explained what was conceptualised as Obamamania in the Nigerian press during the 2008 presidential contest in the United States. As someone whose activism had reached where he was called ‘the first African president’ even as no such office existed, Taju was the person to confront for his opinion on that question, particularly in the aftermath of Jesse Jackson’s history laden tear drops in front of global television and Colin Powel’s “we did it” remark in November 2008 when Obama was elected. Additionally, Taju had, in a previous media outing, contested the dominant narratives about the emergence of Obama. The views he expressed at that conversation is considered a good fit ‘postscript’ to Ta-Nehisi Coate’s magnificent “My President Was Black” which this newspaper has just completed serializing from The Atlantic.
I began by asking him what he thought was animating the Nigerian press. Was it the influence of the American media, (media imperialism) or was it sentimental solidarity with pigmentation and what does that tell us about the character of the Nigerian press. He took a broader view of the question beyond any of the two above. For him, it was the sheer possibility of a blackman becoming the American president. He called it a residual outcome of the Clinton effect and goes on to connect it to its global context. His analysis is that Obama came in at a historical moment, a moment marked by general lack of animation in global politics and in which someone who was capable of talking to people rather than talking down on people was bound to strike the chord. So, what Obama was selling and which both America and the world were very keen to buy was the quality of newness inherent in Obama. He said no such person had appeared after Kennedy as far as revitalization of politics was concerned. Taju’s overarching thesis is that no American election has excited the world as the 2008 contest. The Obama or race factor is one explanation for that while the second is the gender factor – Hilary Clinton contesting against a man. He gave the higher rating to the race factor. You cannot put Obama political personality in the same category as Reagan, he said. “When you read Obama’s two books, it fulfills the truly American dream. He confronted the racism of his own identity. He didn’t come from any double barreled family. He was not the product of any party structure or political machine. He inspired a mass movement”.
But Obama was not a black candidate. He was not an Angela Davies who contested three times. The traditional civil rights people didn’t trust him, he said, attributing that to Obama’s level of politics which was/is that he didn’t have to be a protest candidate.
Now, don’t tell Taju that Obama was ruling class politics; that the American ruling class or the MIC masters sought to buy legitimacy by bringing in a product of a triple heritage – An African with Asian and Latin American traces in him. No, Taju would not accept that. He tells you it is an old style class conspiratorial analysis which gave too much intelligence to the MIC masters. “No, they have run out of gas. The ruling class woke up to it. So, the Clintons miscalculated. The historical process had moved”. He told a story at this point whose outline in my jottings does not give me the complete sense now. He seemed to have said that anybody who was stuck with that level of class analysis was comparable to the Professor of Geography who kept telling people that it was whirlwind when it was actually a storm. And goes back to say that Obama was a fulfillment of the 50 year prediction for a black president which tallies also with similar prediction of a black president after 200 years of Lincoln. His belief in these predictions makes it difficult to understand his rejection of Obama’s emergence as ruling class politics, although it is doubtful if it is correct to say he rejected that explanation because, at some point, he also said Obama’s emergence is a combination of factors. What is not clear too is whether he ever heard Bill Clinton say that Obama was a deliberate decision, although the fact that Hilary Clinton, his wife, was Obama’s tough contender, interrogates that view. Interestingly, Clinton made that statement in one of his post-office visits to Nigeria.
Taju was supremely convinced that Obama is a product of what he called the fudge. “The fudge there is what makes him”, he said. And he defines the fudge partly in terms of his being a melted man, with identity shaped by the African, Indonesian, Hawaii and Chicago combination in him. So, he emerged a historical personality, well positioned to jump the identity bridges. “This is the thing about the historical personality”, he theorised, exemplifying with how Mandela started talking to the Boers ever before the ANC got on to it or Gandhi’s ability to mobilise the average Indian.
Taju’s claim is that the African-Americans couldn’t understand or believe it and that it showed in what we saw in Jesse Jackson and Colin Powel breaking down emotionally because the African depicted in History and the residual hatred of white people were being deconstructed simultaneously before their own eyes. It seemed so impregnable that they couldn’t understand what magic Obama was performing. The cry was the psychological satisfaction with the prospects of an Obama taking charge at the peak, Obama who had effectively emerged as the inheritor of the heritage of Lincoln, Clinton, Jesse Jackson, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. “That is the paradox of the anti-colonial discourse”, he asserted and which, for Taju, is worse in Africa. His reason is that even a Kikuyi who would not vote for a Luo in Kenya had no problems endorsing Obama.
Let us allow Taju to conclude the session on Obama in the conversation in Jigawa in his own words: What was considered elaborate attention to Obama candidature in the 2008 presidential contest in the US by the Nigerian press was beyond media fixation. There was content. It was attention to a movement from incredulity to possibility”.
There is so much in what Taju said in 2009 that can be found in the piece Coate wrote in 2016. The two just have to be read together.