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 , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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"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.

Will Obama revitalize US involvment in Africa?

For Obama, the trip offers a chance to revitalize America's plethora of aid programs with his own celebrity. Obama's smiling face adorns batik fabrics, posters, banners, the back windows of buses, and billboards.

Already, his visit has provoked soul-searching from Africans living in bigger, more powerful countries with a worse track record on democratic reform. In Kenya, the Ghana trip is widely viewed as a judgment on Kenya's troubled power-sharing agreement.

In Nigeria, complaints that Obama bypassed West Africa's powerhouse country encouraged a reaction from its famous playwright, Wole Soyinka.

"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," the Nobel Laureate said, praising Ghana's democratic progress, and lamenting Nigeria's lack thereof.

Is Ghana really worthy of such praise?

Ghanaian analysts, however, wonder if their caricature as Africa's exception is entirely warranted – especially during a contentious exchange of government, marked by dismissals and investigations perceived as excessive.

"It's actually quite ironic that Obama is coming here because of our democracy, because in a way, our democracy is not doing well as advertised," says Victor Brobbey, a research fellow at Ghana's Center for Democratic Development, a think tank. "The president has far too much power. Capturing the presidency gives you the state, you have all these resources, you get all this patronage. As a result, it makes elections this winner-take-all game, which raises the stakes and the tension."

There's also oil, a potential military base ...

Quietly, some Ghanaians wonder whether Obama is after Ghana's newfound oil, or a place to park Africom, Bush's proposed anti-terrorism base – or maybe, trying to accommodate his wife, Michelle, who Ghanaians widely, if questionably, believe has Ghanaian ancestry.

"Personally, I think we very much underestimate the influence of Michelle Obama in all of this," says Amos Anyimadu, administrator for Africa Next!, a governance think tank.

... and a photo-op at a former slave fort

"Eighty percent of the explanation of this visit lies in America," says Anyimadu. "Obama will be standing on a slave fort, talking directly to African-Americans."

"The only reason we managed to get Clinton to come," says Anyimadu, describing most presidential visits as symbolic, "was to provide a platform for the Clintons to talk to African-Americans."

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