Obama's Visit to Ghana Sparks Celebrations, Unanswered Questions

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At the end of a week-long tour that included meetings with Russian leaders, attending the G8 Summit and an audience with Pope Benedict, Pres. Barack Obama generated both excitement and sharp questions with an overnight stop in Ghana and a speech to that country's Parliament. While the speech did not attract the attention of his so-called speech to the Muslim world earlier this year, the importance of US policy toward Africa is difficult to overstate.

Obama told the Ghanaian parliament that he was capping his international journey with a visit to Accra in order to emphasize that, "The 21st century will be shaped by what happens not just in Rome or
Moscow or Washington, but by what happens in Accra, as well." He acknowledged that the legacy of slavery and colonialism had undermined the political and economic development of African nations, but argued that many of the continent's current problems are the result of a failure to build democratic institutions, root out corruption and protect human rights. At the same time, Obama lauded nations such as Ghana that have built stable democracies and growing economies fueled by a well-educated workforce.   

While Obama's speech emphasized the United States' readiness to partner with African nations that commit to peaceful, democratic and sustainable development, the Prsident knows that the continent plays a crucial role in meeting the energy and security needs of the US and other powerful nations. The US gets more than one-fifth of its crude oil from Africa, and that percentage is likely to rise over the next 15 years, according to analyses such as this one from the Center for Strategic and International Studies. China is also banking on Africa to meet its rapidly accelerating energy demands. 

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Christian Science Monitor reporter Drew Hinshaw highlighted the competition with China for access to African energy and mineral resources:

"Mr. Obama commands popular adoration in Africa that no world leader can match. But analysts say that he may have less leverage than his predecessors when it comes to advancing US interests - increasing US business involvement in Africa and promoting democracy - in large part due to China's booming Africa presence.

"'America needs to know that Africa has options,' says Adama Gaye, economist and editor for West Africa magazine. 'We are no longer in the unipolar moment [right after] the cold war. Today, America is a bankrupt country, and China appears as a rising power with financial muscle and a properly defined strategy.'"

Indeed, its likely that Obama chose to go to Accra not only for his Administration's stated reason -- to lift up Ghana's stable democracy as a model for other nations on the continent -- but also because of that country's newly-discovered oil. The Nation's Emira Woods notes that the discovery of oil in Ghana has drawn new US investment-- and a heightened US military presence:

With heightened interest in Africa's oil, the US has moved to strengthen its military (and naval) presence in Africa's "Oil Gulf." In October 2008, the US Africa Command was officially established. Transplanting a framework from the Middle East, US military assets would be aimed at securing Africa's oil and seeking so-called "terrorists". The US Africa Command claims to "help Africans help themselves." The command lists humanitarian missions like dental clinics, building of schools, wells, etc. What is more opaque is the intent to train and arm proxy militaries that can secure and sustain the ever-present fix for the United States' addiction to fossil fuels.  

In his Accra speech, however, Obama made a point of saying that AFRICOM is not serving an imperialist agenda:

"And let me be clear: our Africa Command is focused not on establishing a foothold in the continent, but on confronting these common challenges to advance the security of America, Africa and the world."

Both history and current events support the notion that terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda see Africa as an important recruitment and staging area. Al Qaeda's deadly 1998 attacks on US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania are just one example. Just today, an al Qaeda affiliate in Mali released a Swiss hostage who had been held since January, according to a news report from Al-Jazeera. 

Security issues were a top priority for Pres. George W. Bush on his five-day visit to several African countries in 2003, sepecially in Uganda. During his two terms Bush also pursued agreements on energy, and drew widespread support for his efforts to step up public health spending on malaria and AIDS. 

Obama's speech was short on policy specifics, so it is unclear just how closely he plans to follow the policies of his predecessor. Some African bloggers fear that excitement about receiving a US president who has, as Obama put it,  "the blood of Africa within me,"  is obscuringimportant, but difficult questions about the President's intentions. Here's Edwin Okong'o's take:

By the time Obama landed in Ghana, we were so unified by this son of
Africa that we did not ask him to tell us what the real purpose of his
visit to Ghana was, and how his new plan was different from that of his
predecessors.

In a roundup of reactions by African bloggers and others, Global Voices Online, there were calls for Obama to support specific policies such as changing banking laws to make it easier to identify frraudent international transactions.

Abd AllAfrica.com commentator Charles Cobb wanted to know whether Obama's plledge to help African farmers will be backed by action:

"[D]espite pledging to make it easier for Africans to grow the food it needs and export it, there was no plan offered for the U.S. to abandon the protection of its farmers, which prevents Africans from reaping the benefits of the free trade the West preaches."

 

 Related:

African Roots of War - a prescient analysis of the impact of the scramble for African resources, first published in 1915.

EbonyJet.com Big Ideas blog - posting about Ghanaians' anticipation of the Obama visit. Inclludes an interview with Rita Marley, widow of Bob Marley.

When does a "subject" become a "citizen" -- a case study of Tanzania's effort to transition during the 1960s from a racially-stratified colonial political and economic structure to one that created opportunities for all of its people. The writer discusses how former president Julius Nyerere balanced the need to create opportunities for the countries black majority while trying to hold on to the country's small white and Asian elite -- the people who had been accorded the education and training to make the country run.

One family of Ghanaian-American entrepreneurs capitalized on Obama's popularity in Africa by naming a hotel after him:

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