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Obama in Africa: Big on inspiration, short on specifics

The day after President Obama's historic trip to Ghana, analysts find few concrete details about future policy shifts.

By Drew HinshawContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / July 12, 2009

President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama (2nd l.) and their daughter Sasha (l.) take part in a departure ceremony at the airport in Accra Saturday.

Jim Young/Reuters

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Accra, Ghana

In a 24-hour visit to Ghana, Saturday, President Obama made his first major speech on Africa, in which he called on Africans to be better stewards of their governments.

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"Development depends on good governance," he said, addressing Ghana's parliament. "That's the change that can unlock Africa's potential. And that is a responsibility that can only be met by Africans."

Mr. Obama's maiden presidential voyage south of the Sahara was keenly watched across Africa as the first test of how this son of the soil will wield his star power on the continent. With but a single Saturday to spare, Obama toured a maternity ward, held bilateral talks, and visited a slave dungeon where centuries of captives were imprisoned before their final voyage by sea to the new world.

Speaking before parliament, the president outlined the four basic themes of his Africa policy – spreading democracy, diversifying single-product economies, extending public health, and mediating ethnic conflict. For some analysts, however, Obama's speech was a tad short on concrete policy details.

"It was an important speech and it's by far the most comprehensive statement he's made on Africa, but it still leaves a lot to the imagination," David Shinn, former ambassador to Ethiopia, said. "He didn't really give a very good picture as to what the US is going to do in the Congo, or Somalia, or Sudan."

Short on details?

Obama reiterated his commitment to Africom, a proposed US-Africa military base, but said little as to where or why his administration would build it. He spoke to issues of conflict management, but not to US troop involvement in Africa.

His only comment on the violence in Darfur – "when there is genocide in Darfur or terrorists in Somalia, these are not simply African problems" – eluded the loaded question of whether he currently believes that genocide is happening in Darfur.

A new turn in US-Africa relations?

For Ghanaians, however, and for many Africans, the speech was welcomed as a new turn in US relations, toward a more equal, less patriarchal partnership.

In Ghana's capital, Accra, spectators spoke of the speech as instantly historic.

"It was a speech as needed for our time as Dr. [Martin Luther] King [Jr.]'s was for his," says Akordy Adingya, a Ghana businessman.

Ghana, the only nation Obama visited on his first African tour was both the first in a wave of African nations to break away from colonialism, and a historic center for the transatlantic slave trade.

Visit to a slave dungeon

In the visit that Obama and his family made to the slave dungeon, Cape Coast Castle, Obama compared the site to the Buchenwald concentration camp. It was yet another reminder, he said, "to fight against the kinds of evils that, sadly, still exist in our world, not just on this continent but in every corner of the globe."

Throughout the visit, he drew on the stories of average Africans and his own goatherd father, and encouraged common citizens to organize, seek opportunity, and build democracies from the bottom up.

"Africa doesn't need strong men, it needs strong institutions," he said – a point that analysts say was twice reinforced by the setting of his speech in Ghana, a democratic bastion in its region.

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