Obama in Ghana: The world is what you make of it
President Barack Obama’s engagement with Ghana was not only warm
but showed promise of deepening the debate about what Africa needs to
In the tradition of the Asante court, a lone horn barked out a succession of riffs at the back of the conference centre in Accra just as US President Barack Obama stepped up to the podium. “I like this, thank you. I think Congress needs one of those horns. That sounds pretty good. Sounds like Louis Armstrong back there.”
After a night in Accra and a quick tour of the city, Obama was already at home in Ghana on his first official trip to Sub-Saharan Africa on 10-11 July. Even before he had started speaking in Accra, Obama had the crowd on his side, many sporting their finest kente cloth and chanting: “Yes we can!” Against the backdrop of the spruced-up conference centre, replete with bunting in the red, gold and green of Ghana’s flag, more than 2,000 people had crammed in to see the first US president who was also a son of the African soil. Along the back wall was a multi-colour banner with the words “Yes, together we can” bordered by the American and Ghanaian flags.
Ghana’s President John Atta Mills had frequently used the Obama change mantra in his own successful election campaign last year. This time, for the presidential visit, officials had posted dramatic billboards in central Accra depicting a beaming Mills alongside Obama with the bold headline “A partnership for change!”
Obama’s “Akwaaba” moment in Ghana was always going to be more than the usual US presidential swing through Africa. Firstly, Obama wanted to make a strong policy statement about Africa early in his administration in an African country that exemplified his arguments.
A stormy relationship
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Secondly, Obama wanted to visit just one African country to make clear his point that: “I see Africa as a fundamental part of our interconnected world.” The message was that Africa policy – on human rights, climate change, trade and energy – will be part of Washington’s global policy. “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.” Starting with the premise that “Africa’s future is up to Africans” Obama continued: “I have the blood of Africa within me and my family’s own story encompasses both the triumphs and tragedies of the larger African story.” Obama’s grandfather was imprisoned by the British colonial authorities in Kenya. His father started life as a goatherd in Kenya before winning a scholarship to Harvard, but his political career back home was stymied by ethnic discrimination under the newly-independent government of Jomo Kenyatta.
That informed Obama’s view that Africa’s problems go back to colonialism and also to poor governance after independence. “Just as it is important to emerge from the control of another nation, it is even more important to build one’s own.” Obama’s conclusion – “Development depends on good governance” – is hardly new to Africa but he gave it a new resonance. Running through the four pillars of US policy – democracy, opportunity, public health and the peaceful resolution of conflicts, Obama was similarly blunt about the failures of the continent’s autocrats, putschists and proselytisers of ethnic and religious hatred. It was a speech about values and ideas. He referred just once to oil and terrorism – two key themes of Africa policy under his predecessor, George W. Bush.
It was Obama’s personal identification with Africa that made the speech work in Accra and on television broadcasts across the continent. Within hours, African leaders such as Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga were lauding the speech as opening a new era of straight talking in US-Africa relations.
Ghanaian talk-show host Kweku Sekyi Addo neatly summed up Obama’s message: “Ask not what America can do for you … but what you can do for Africa.” Beyond the popular adulation of Obama – his visit dominated Ghanaian talk radio and newspaper headlines – Ghanaian activists, politicians and intellectuals differed on the policy message.
The message and the medium
The Accra-based socialist activist Kwesi Pratt was the most sceptical, arguing that Obama’s speech was effectively continuing the policy of George Bush. Economist and policy director for Christian Aid, Charles Abugre, had wanted Obama to dispel publicly the rumour that Ghana’s former President John Kufuor had struck a secret deal with Bush for the US to set up its Africa Command (Africom) in Ghana. The furthest Obama went was his assurance that Africom “was not focused on establishing a foothold on the continent but on confronting common challenges to advance the security of America, Africa and the world”.
Ghana’s former President Jerry Rawlings claimed that Obama was bringing morality back into politics after the Bush era but urged Obama to look critically at the track records of some African leaders. Cadman Atta Mills, a member of the government’s Economic Advisory Council and a brother of President Mills, said the Obama visit was more about diplomacy and “personal and sentimental ties” than business. The bulk of Ghana’s trade is with the EU, Mills pointed out, while its fastest growing trade is with China and India. That said, there is tremendous scope to expand trade with the US, Mills said, and US firms could help with Ghana’s push to expand farm production and develop agro-industrial projects.
The immediate reaction to Obama’s Accra speech would be less important than the reverberations it set off around Africa, according to David Axelrod, a top White House advisor. Axelrod, who managed strategy in Obama’s election campaign, encouraged tens of thousands of Africans to send text messages and call a special phone line in Washington, to talk about policy ideas for Africa.
A leading American political scientist and former Africa advisor to Obama, Richard Joseph, travelled to Accra for the Obama visit, calling it “a sublime moment”. “The speech sets out the four policy themes this administration is committed to,” Joseph told The Africa Report. “It was the culmination of 18 months of work, it’s a commitment to stand up for democracy and developmental governance.” Along with Obama’s speech in Cairo in June, in which he tried both to lay out a policy agenda and repair US relations with the Islamic world, Joseph argues that the Accra speech is the beginning of a new doctrine, a “pragmatic progressivism” which emphasises “tolerance, transparency and government that rests on consent rather than coercion and doesn’t steal from the people.”?
Incentives and cold hearts?
At the very least, it is the start of a new debate. Ugandan civic activist and writer, Andrew Mwenda argued Obama’s prescriptions raised more questions than answers: “He assumes that African countries have been mismanaged because leaders on the continent are bad men who make cold-hearted choices… Yet it is not the behaviour of Africa’s rulers that demands our closest attention. It is the structure of incentives that those leaders confront.”
Others such as Natty B. Davis, Liberia’s reconstruction minister, hope Obama’s speech will trigger reforms in US aid policy with more emphasis on “building government capacity and institutions directly”. Secretary of state Hillary Clinton has already announced a four-yearly review to streamline Washington’s aid bureaucracy against the administration’s changes in national security and foreign policy. The US assistant secretary of state for Africa, Johnnie Carson, says that the US Agency for International Development (USAID) has been undermined over the past decade with the loss of personnel and expertise. The plan, he says, is to appoint a new USAID administrator and boost its budget to focus on education, agriculture and public health.
Obama spoke of a $63bn public health programme for developing countries and some $3.5bn for food security and agricultural research. Such plans will be approached cautiously, given that the US budget deficit was running at over a trillion dollars as Obama was speaking. However hard the crisis bites, and even if much of the policy detail is still to be worked out, Africa now has its strongest ever advocate in the White House.
It was during the Obamas’ visit to the old slaving castle at Cape Coast that the President’s identification with Africa became clearest. Explaining his “moving experience” he said: “As painful as it is, I think it helps to teach all of us that we have to do what we can to fight against the kinds of evils that, sadly, still exist in our world, not just in the continent but in every corner of the globe.”