My dear Q,
I wonder how much description will be tolerable for you to hear and me to write. I am so full of interesting news that I don’t know where to being, and yet so much more is going on to reshape the face of capitalism, as I write this letter to you this morning.
I will try to tell you at least about my first-hand experience during the two days of the Obama Road Show in London last week.
To the outsider, the London docklands, where the conference took place, is a commercial district with lots of financial institutions; but I must tell you also, that in fact, this area of east London is one of the poorest in England.
In the shadow of the glittering Canary Wharf financial district and neighbouring smart Docklands development, it has a substantial proportion of residents without qualifications and one of the highest levels of joblessness in London.
It is also one of the most diverse neighbourhoods, with more than half of its population falling into black and other minority ethnic groups at the last census.
As a news freak, I am sure you must have been following the Obama Road Show as his motorcade tracked back and forth in Central London last Wednesday, meeting first with the Russians, then the Chinese and of course, having tea with the Queen at Buckingham Palace. What you may not have known or might not have heard or seen on the news is that President Barack Obama wasn’t in the London we all know.
The Obama Road Show was staged at a place that only exists in a kind of presidential parallel Universe: spruced up, sanitised, security swept, hermetically sealed and bearing precious little relation to the city where nine million people live and work.
Within minutes of landing Tuesday night at Stansted Airport outside London, the American President and his wife Michelle were whisked off again, by helicopter to the US Ambassador’s residence in London. Indeed, had it not been for the brief welcome at Stansted, the Obamas would not have even realised that they were hundreds of miles away from the White House.
It is unquestionably true my dear Q, that from the moment the Obamas woke up in Winfield House, the US Ambassador’s residence in Regent’s Park, he was in an alternative London. The residence was an oasis of elegance, power and tranquillity; but then that’s what you get when your place has over 10 acres of grounds and half the British Metropolitan Police are on guard.
As a frequent visitor to London, and knowing the challenges one faces when moving around the city, you can imagine and make your own list of the fun, laughter and cries of pain, love and desperation that the President missed. Of course this list might include traffic jams, London buses, greasy spoons, Borough Market, Harvey Nicks, the Eye, the Kew Gardens, and an old fashioned boozer.
However, I will not be doing justice to the Obamas if I did not mention that Mrs Obama had a taste of the old fashioned London, whilst her husband was talking world politics and economics with other World leaders. Mrs Michelle Obama visited a Cancer healing place and an inner city girl’s school, where she gave an inspirational speech to young girls attending the school.
Beaming warmly as students sang and danced, addressing them as “diamonds and wonderful girls”, and encouraging a spontaneous mob of hugs and high fives as she finished her address, Mrs Obama at one point appeared a little choked by her words. “I’m an example of what is possible when girls from the very beginning of their lives are loved and nurtured by people around them,” she told them, adding “you too can control your own destiny.” My contact with the American First lady’s entourage told me the girls left the hall believing that they too can make it…
I am told by those who have met Mrs Michelle Obama, that she has a magnetic aura that draws people to her. That came as no surprise to me, when one looks back at the elections campaign last year in the United States. Indeed, it is no longer a secret that since her husband won the Presidential elections last year; Mrs Obama has drawn comparisons with Jackie Kennedy, despite the moment when Americans in particular recoiled in horror when she was seen to put her arm around the Queen.
I don’t think many people know this, but Royal watchers say that touching the Queen is a breach of protocol bordering on high treason. I will keep you posted on that.
Back to the main show; this was Barack Obama’s high diplomacy before the G20 conference at the London’s Docklands Excel Centre on Thursday. Apart from the thousands of protesters on the streets of London protesting against capitalism and homelessness and demanding more environmentally friendly initiatives, Obama had the French and Germans to deal with. Before the summit, the French President, Mr Nicolas Sarkozy, had threatened to walk out of the G20 conference if firm commitments were not made.
So on Wednesday, I grabbed breakfast and left the house early in order to get a proper look at Barack Obama in the flesh. You know, after all the adulation and the hatred, you have to reassure yourself the new president of the United States is just a man struggling to do his best.
My journey to the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office where the Press conference was going to take place was dull. It was April fool’s day and one could have easily been fooled that all is well with the world whilst on board the train from West London to Westminster.
But as I disembarked from the train station at Westminster, I sensed the high tension “Renegade Obama” was on the loose on the streets of London. The snipers were in place, the manhole bolted, the rubbish bins removed, unattended cars towed away, the cameras trained and the motorcycle outriders primed. Suddenly one realises that this was no ordinary day… “the world is about to be saved”.
At 10 Downing Street, security was tight as the US Presidential motorcade entered the compound designed for about six cars, but the US presidential motorcade was over ten, and you know how the Americans build their cars. However, with the British Police and the US secret service at hand, there was no need to panic, everybody, including hundreds of journalists knew their places, as the motorcade came to a stop in front of 10 Downing street.
As President Obama stepped up to 10 Downing Street, he leant over, made eye contact, said something courteous, and shook the hand of the police officer standing guard. There’s always a police officer there; he is a tourist logo in his ridiculous helmet. He tells you that this is London, and the late 19th century. No one has ever shaken the hand of the policeman before, and like everyone else who has his palm touched by Barack Obama, he was visibly transported and briefly forgot himself. He offered the hand to Gordon Brown, the British Prime Minister, who was scuttling behind. It was ignored. He was left empty-handed. It isn’t that Mr Brown snubbed the police officer; he just did not see him. To most British people, a police officer is as invisible as the railings.
The US President did not light up the gilded pomp of the Locarno Room at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office where we waited for over two hours – a security driven feature of dealing with a US president for many years now. When he entered, he looked tired, not much evidence of his famous cool on this occasion – and he did not smile much, though he does do humour and made a couple of decent jokes.
Taking questions from journalists, Obama at once was emollient, self-critical and articulate, in a way that put an initially bashful British Prime Minster at his ease. “I came here to put forward ideas but I also came here to listen and not to lecture,” the president said, setting the tone – one that subtly combined humility with firmness about responsibilities of others – you could say he was referring to the other Heads of States who were also in London.
This man is a Professor; I came to that conclusion after watching his 50-minutes press conference with the British Prime Minister: an eloquent professor who picks his words carefully and manages to drop in a quotable phrase in most answers, but a professor all the same. He once was one; he taught law.
You must have seen him on CNN or any of the other international medium last week.
At the Franco-German press conference, the French president’s arrival was heralded by a French naval officer dripping with gold braid, a reminder that the man in the Elysee’ palace is also a Commander-in-Chief of the French Armed Forces.
The French President’s language was tough and his tone moralistic, with more than a touch of histrionics in his signature line about giving “capitalism a conscience”. Forgive me, but this issue of giving capitalism a new face is something we will have to talk about in my next letter to you, the issues involved are big and provoking and the Americans don’t think it was capitalism that sank the world economy.
More than twenty Heads of States, perplexed finance Ministers, inflated retinues and government officials and journalists, from over 25 countries all gathered in one area to address “the greatest financial crisis since the Depression”. Can they come up with an answer in less than seven hours?
Arriving at the point where I had to go through the first security clearance before getting my accreditation for the Thursday’s meeting, I was greeted by a group of Ethiopians who had come to demonstrate, their Prime Minster, Mr Meles Zenawi was in town supposedly representing Africa, although I was personally told by the South African President, Mr Kgalema Motlanthe that Africa was not fully represented at the G20 conference.
According to the South African President, “South Africa was invited as an emerging economy” and not as the representative of Africa, whilst the Ethiopian leader was attending in his capacity as chair of NEPAD, an institution the Senegalese president once described as “dead”. The South African President put it well when answering to my questions about Africa’s presence at the meeting. He said, “Africa was represented by default”.
Meanwhile the African Union current Chairman, Colonel Gadaffi was in Qatar telling Arab leaders that “I am an international leader, the dean of the Arab rulers, the King of Kings of Africa, and the Imam of Muslims. My status does not allow me to descend to a lower level”.
I wonder if the G20 conference was “the lower level”, the Libyan leader was referring to in Qatar.
Anyway, after my brief encounter with the Ethiopians, I was directed by a group of Police Officers to a makeshift tent, for my first security clearance before boarding a bus to go and collect my accreditation. Excited, I made haste towards the tent, not realising I was heading for the gate of hell. At the entrance of the tent, I was greeted by a Philippine security guard who directed me to a fairly big black woman in red jacket and black trouser; by her appearance, she must be an ex-service woman but on Thursday, she was Satan’s representative at the G20 conference.
There were no niceties, no hellos, and no small talks about the journey to the Docklands, or about the protest, or even about Barack Obama, all of which are common currencies in England between journalists and the security authorities during such encounters, in recent days. She simply demanded the email from the Foreign & Commonwealth Office advising me about my accreditation and the point of collection.
You won’t believe this, but I did not print out the email, thinking that my passport and press card, issued by the British Police Authority were sufficient proof to get me to board the bus to the conference centre.
As I watched three buses taking off with journalists for the next stage in the security clearance process, all the Obama excitements disappeared from my inner self, and I felt naked in front of an unattractive woman; I had problems opening my laptop for her to read the email, I could not find my way around a newly acquired blackberry and most of the other journalists who could help with their blackberries, were either trying to avoid her or were having problems with her over the same issue-no email confirming their accreditation.
Ah yes! You guessed it right, she would not back down, “no email, no bus ride to the conference centre” for accreditation. And by this time there were about five of us with no email print-outs from our message in-boxes.
In the end, I managed to open my laptop and she saw and read the email from the FCO indicating that my accreditation is ready for collection. I was then bundled off a “dirty” bus in a godforsaken car park in Peruvian Wharf, East London, so named because this was where they used to unload the guano. It seemed appropriate, somehow.
After collecting my accreditation, we were clambered on to a “clean” bus (spy-talk for security-cleared) and were driven through a landscape like Mars with litter. We got off this bus and were directed on to another. Eventually, we staggered into the grievously misnamed Excel, slightly triumphant to have made it this far.
Looking around the Media Centre to find friends, and let them know that I was finally there, I remembered a history book called I was There. Well, finally I was there but it seemed that history was actually 200 yards down the hall in the Red Zone. I, as a Yellow Zoner, was banned. Still, if journalism is the first draft of history, then I must have recorded the first draught of history after my encounter with the IMF Managing Director when he entered the Yellow Zone to talk to Journalists.
The best way to describe the Excel centre is to imagine a giant tin can on its side. Security aside, we could not see out, which, given the view, may not have been such a bad idea. In the Yellow Zone, which is for the Media, we were visited by Red Zoners, like Bob Geldof, whom we treated like demi-gods, for we were desperate for news.
No wonder a colleague of mine from South Africa told me that he hardly goes to international conferences these days. Asked why, he went straight to the point; the accommodation is scattered, expensive and scarce. There are always difficulties with transport. The ladies and gentlemen of the press are corralled like beasts of the field. They are occasional pushed and prodded by “security” and these days questions are never answered correctly or satisfactorily.
Which brings to mind, President’s Obama second and last press conference at the end of the G20 meeting last Thursday evening.
“I think we did OK,” President Obama responded modestly when asked how he had performed in his first appearance on the world stage. “You know, when I came here, it was with the intention of listening and learning, but also providing American Leadership.”
As we battled and shouted for his attention, so that we could ask him questions, Mr Obama seemed already convinced of his place in history, telling the hall packed with Heads of States, Heads of International bodies, and journalists, that he had asked other G20 leaders whether they could have imagined 10, 20, or 30 years ago, “a President of the United States named Obama”.
Everything, he suggested, was different: “we exercise our leadership best when we are listening, when we recognise that the world is a complicated place and that we are going to have to act in partnership with other countries, when we lead by example, we show some element of humility.”
His promise of American humility apparently did not quite extend to himself as he reminded us, that the standing of the United States had already improved in the little over two months he had been in office.
When a “Times of India” reporter received the call to pose her question with a causal “how are you?” from Mr Obama, she was giddy with excitement. “Thank you for choosing me. I’m very well,” she said. Mr Obama responded: “Wonderful”. India’s prime minister was also “wonderful”, Mr Obama said.
“Thank you. I know,” laughed the reporter. “I agree … just really proud of him, Sir”. The Indian reporter replied.
President Barack Obama then took questions from the Chinese, the Australians and even Mexican … but when it came to us African journalists, even at the point when I personally shouted “any message for Africa, Mr President”? There was no reply.
This American President, who happens to also be half Kenyan has something under his sleeves for Africa, that we may have to wait for, or, just maybe, that half Kenyan connection is going to be an inhibition on Barack Obama, when it comes to dealing with Black Africa, one New York Times Journalist, sitting next to me explained as Mr Obama left the stage heading for Europe.
What a long letter.
Well, I have to go now, but next week, we will talk about how China is now challenging US global financial leadership, amongst many other things … Kind regards to all and God Bless.
Winston Ojukutu-Macaulay Jnr