From July 10 to 11, 2009, President Barack Obama will be in the west African country of Ghana, assessed by the U.S government as “one of our most trusted partners in sub-Saharan Africa.” The additional goals of the visit, according to the Obama White House, will be “to highlight the critical role that sound governance and civil society play in promoting lasting development.”
Obama becomes America’s third president to visit Ghana since 1998, and this his second official trip to the African continent. The geo-demographic fact is that his first trip was to Egypt on June 4, 2009, where he spoke about Islam and democracy, rights of women in Islam and modern society, extremist variants of Islamic theologies and the challenge of peaceful co-existence. As Obama spoke carefully to the wider issues in the Middle East at the Cairo University, the same problems are faced in raw, stark and unvarnished reality by millions of Africa’s christians and traditional religionists who are on the frontline and receiving end of fascistic, Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism.
Beyond the diplomatese, what will be the practical, key issues for Obama as he visits Ghana and speaks to the entire continent? What does it mean for Africans and Americans?
First and foremost, for many African-born citizens of America such as myself and millions of continental African professionals, Barack Hussein Obama is not only the 44th President of the United States of America, he’s an outstanding son of Africa who on November 4, 2008, achieved the previously unthinkable: one of our own being voted in to lead the most powerful country in the world!
On January 20, 2009 in Washington DC, after the historic events of Obama’s inauguration, I chatted with one of Obama’s Africa advisers who said “Obama has witnessed the downside of one-party rule in Africa and he’s not for that. He means change and more openness.”
Signally, Obama’s White House chose the small west African country of only 23 million peoples, spurning Ghana’s neighbor, the “giant of Africa” Nigeria with its 125 million citizens and the largest economic demographic clout, questionable political leadership, endemic corruption, ethnic and religious violence, environmental destruction of its Niger Delta and creeks, political assassinations and kidnappings, epileptic electricity supply, and a list enough to fill the Galveston bay.
In this regard, Nobel Prize winner from Nigeria Wole Soyinka is quoted on USAfricaonline.com as saying: “If Obama decides to grace Nigeria with his presence, I will stone him. The message he is sending by going to Ghana is so obvious, is so brilliant, that he must not render it flawed by coming to Nigeria any time soon.”
Second, Obama is in Ghana principally for America’s core strategic interests: Oil. I know that oil and stable access to oil are vital parts of U.S national security interest across the west African Gulf of Guinea region. Ghana recently discovered billions of barrels of oil reserves. U.S corporations, especially Exxon Mobil and Chevron are also investing heavily in the area. Operationally, the U.S has re-fueling hubs in Ghana. Also, worthy of note is the US National Intelligence Council (NIC) estimates that by 2015, 25 percent of American oil imports will be derived from west Africa. It is roughly 14 to 16 percent to date, amidst massive disruptions in Nigeria’s Niger Delta. Ghana is stable while the Middle East and parts of Nigeria are increasingly dicey for America’s hard-nosed, long-term interests. Ghana is certainly valuable to the U.S convergence of interests on the arenas of military, oil and democratic credentials.
Third, the bilateral and bi-continental issue of fighting or containing al-Qaeda and its advances into Africa’s “failed states” and actual threats to multi-religious and democratizing countries in the continent remain obligations of the Obama presidency. I have argued previously on this page that a police-law-enforcement approach to al-Qaeda in Africa will be inadequate. A bold, thorough-going draining of the swamp of radical, fundamentalist theologies which feed and fuel terrorism is necessary. Already the U.S and Ghana hold joint exercises at the funnily-named Jungle Warfare School (JWS) at Achiase in eastern Ghana.
Fourth, Obama has to speak to a “new foundation” for Africa’s future amidst commendable deregulation in many parts of the continent. He has to speak to the strategic imperatives of creating a more viable structure of free market economies in Africa accommodating the realistic roles of government in the core issues of healthcare, education, security and such core, critical projects.
Africa’s economies have made some bold structural changes but the political clutches of the ruling parties also stifle the ventilation of ideas and expansion of opportunities necessary to compete in this digital age. Internet access is the poorest and lowest in the world, except South Africa, Botswana and increasingly Nigeria and Kenya.
Fifth, Obama whose father is an indigenous scholarly Kenyan and mother is a resourceful White woman from Kansas will deal with the critical, clashing issue of aid or trade between the U.S and Africa. In my view, it should be both; it’s not a choice of one over the other.
Africa development specialists, Obama and those before him agree that the wise words “Give a man a fish; you have fed him for today. Teach a man to fish; and you have fed him for a lifetime” applies to Africa’s crises and transformation; moreso today.
The U.S reasonably propelled the the AGOA (Africa Growth and Opportunity Act) to enhance trade. I covered its historic signing ceremony in South Africa as championed by South Africa’s former president Nelson Mandela and U.S former President Bill Clinton. Fair and equitable trade is good. AGOA reportedly increased the value of African garment exports to the U.S from US$580 million in 1999 to US$1.4 billion in 2003.
Sixth, I expect that on Saturday July 11, 2009, Obama will live up to the historical context of his being the first U.S President of African-American heritage by visiting the slave castles by the Cape Coast of Ghana. Ghana is pivotal to the ancestral origins of hundreds of thousands of enslaved Blacks whose heritage drew directly from that Cape, northern and central regions of Ghana. Similar historical, demographic facts exist for the south eastern Igbos of Nigeria, African-Americans and Afri-Caribbeans.
Overall, Obama’s presidency should continue to support Africa’s increasing coalition of democracy activists and pressurize the remnants of Africa’s rulership to responsibly embrace and respect the value of fair, peaceful and free elections as opposed to the charade of self-perpetuation in office, choking indolence posing as mandate and selections masquerading as elections.
As Africans celebrate America’s Obama, we look forward to our home-grown Obamas in Africa. Yes, we can!