Ghana's hype over Obama, beyond race
Ghanaians take a special pride in the fact that neither they nor Obama are descended from slaves, but they know that his visit has more practical reasons, too.
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He also wants oil, other Ghanaians emphasize. The recent discovery of large offshore oil reserves here has whetted the energy-hungry appetite of the United States, which already derives 16 percent of its petroleum imports from West Africa. By 2015, the US National Intelligence Council estimates that fraction will rise to 25 percent. Obama seems to want to make sure the US gains access to Ghanaian oil before China, which has its own enormous energy needs – and its own designs on West African petroleum.Skip to next paragraph
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The two interpretations aren't inconsistent, of course. By celebrating and assisting democracy in Ghana, the US can ensure a favorable environment for the oil trade and other forms of economic development.
And if you think you can have economic progress without democratic institutions, take a look at Nigeria. Despite its own huge oil reserves – or, some say, because of them – Nigeria is a swamp of poverty and corruption. Ditto for Kenya, Obama's ancestral home, which has been wracked by internal conflict since he visited there last in 2006.
So, the argument goes, Obama decided to reward Ghana – the little democracy that could – over larger but less enviable African nations. No less a figure than Nigerian Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka endorsed this view last week, warning that an Obama visit to Nigeria would bolster its crooked, oppressive rulers.
"If Obama decides to grace Nigeria with his presence, I will stone him," declared Mr. Soyinka, with characteristic bluntness. "The message he is sending to Ghana is so obvious, is so brilliant that he must not render it flawed by coming to Nigeria any time soon."
Then there's the question of kente . Bill Clinton was given this cloth in 1998, during his own visit to Ghana, but he wore it over his suit. George W. Bush visited twice but never donned kente. Will Obama wear kente in the traditional African fashion, with only a T-shirt underneath?
"Bush is purely American," one Ghanaian clothing designer told a newspaper last week, urging Obama to go the traditional route. "Obama has blood of an African in him."
Indeed, he does. And next week, we'll start to understand what that means: for Obama, for Africa, and for the world.
Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor of history and education at New York University, is teaching this summer at the university's study-abroad program in Accra, Ghana. His book, "Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory," was published last month.