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Obama in Africa: Why he chose Ghana

The visit is seen as a reward for Ghana's commitment to good governance and democracy. There's also newfound oil and a photo-op at a former slave fort.

By Drew HinshawContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / July 11, 2009



Accra, Ghana

President Obama makes his first major policy speech on Africa today to a host nation that is far from the continent's most economically or politically powerful.

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Even among Ghanaians, the choice of location has aroused curiosity. "What we are all wondering," says Theodora Agyeman, a headmistress, "is why he has chosen to come to Ghana."

Analysts say the setting itself sends a non-verbal acknowledgment of Ghana's democratic successes – and a non-confrontational scolding of the third-term presidents and corrupt dictators that preside elsewhere in Africa.

"It seems to me he chose Ghana for its symbolism," says Steven Ekovich, a policy analyst at the American University of Paris. "He's making his first visit to a country that has had successful democratic transitions where the opposition won. That's a very powerful message to other African populations, and to other African leaders."

Ghana – associated afar with Kente cloth, African liberation, and ruined slave dungeons like the one Obama will visit – finds itself at the center of African intrigue, after five consecutive elections, including a major upset last December.

"If he visited, say, [Zimbabwean President Robert] Mugabe, he would feel obliged to at least indirectly hector Mugabe about his human rights abuses," Ekovich said. "Since he doesn't like to do that, he can come to a country where the country itself is taking that road to human rights and democracy. He doesn't have to say anything."

'Trusted partner'

The State Department calls Ghana "one of our most trusted partners in sub-Saharan Africa" – a compliment matched by the size of its one-acre, four-story Accra embassy, and returned by the number of restaurants Ghanaians have named after Obama, some scattered along Accra's George W. Bush Motorway.

For recent US presidents – each ever more focused on democratizing Africa – Ghana has been a natural port of call. Presidents Bill Clinton and Bush visited, the latter several times.

"Ghana is this poster child for democratic reform," said Director Larry Diamond of Stanford's Center of Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law.

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