Ghana: Global discussion of Obama's visit to Ghana

The diversity of voices participating in the global discussion concerning President Obama’s visit to Ghana and the speech made on Saturday 11th of July in Accra almost universally share a common thread irrespective of the arguments, views and opinions otherwise expressed: sincere hope for Africa and Africans. And bloggers have been asking: Why Ghana? Why not Kenya, the President’s ancestral home, or Nigeria, the self-professed “super-power”? And why now? Is it about oil or democracy?

Firstly, the use of new media for which the President’s administration has become renowned has allowed ordinary citizens globally to interact with the President during his visit. Metaplace explained that they will hold a “global conversation” during and after his speech:

On Saturday, July 11, a global conversation will push definitions of citizenship by demonstrating how new technologies enable global civic participation. Citizens from numerous countries will meet together in virtual worlds to collectively watch a speech from President Obama, view Twitter feedback on his talk, and a join in discussion with musician and activist D.N.A. (Derrick Ashong), Ambassador Kenton Keith and African historian Professor Tim Burke.

President Obama will speak to a live audience in Ghana, Africa. The White House is using a Twitter feed which will enable individuals from around the world to participate in the conversation and share their thoughts with President Obama.

This event provides a public sphere for people to come together as citizens sharing independent views which in turn shape the political institutions of society. These conversations, literally hosted in a virtual physical space, are essential for the marketplace of ideas in our globalizing society.

Second Life Africa also discussed the Obama administration’s use of new technology:

Since entering the White House in January, the Obama administration has made use of a myriad of social networking and Internet communications tools, such as blogs, the YouTube video service and Twitter, to interact with the public. Come Saturday, you can add a virtual world appearance to the list.

Vanguard NGR explained the White House’s invitation to SMS President Obama during his visit.

The White House has set up SMS codes to allow people across Africa to send “words of welcome” via text message to Obama during his visit. Obama has already received thousands of messages, and plans to answer several of the questions sent to him, the British Broadcasting Corporation reported yesterday.

Second Life explained that Uthango Social Investments members took up the invitation to SMS the President shortly before his visit:

Uthango team members participated in the text message invitation and sent the following question to the President on the 8th of July – “Mr. President, What role could African civil society organisations play to further investment and responsible development?” implying that ‘Africans are responsible for Africa’. A day later, his comments ahead of the Ghana visit were therefore music to our ears: ‘Ultimately, I’m a big believer that Africans are responsible for Africa. I think part of what’s hampered advancement in Africa is that for many years we’ve made excuses about corruption or poor governance, that this was somehow the consequence of neo-colonialism, or the West has been oppressive, or racism – I’m not a big believer in excuses.

Naturally, “Why Ghana?” dominated bloggers’ discussions. Kukah suggested that Ghana was simply being used to further US interests across Africa:

I am not downplaying the significance of this momentous event. However, I believe that this visit is for Africa and President Obama will not only speak to Ghanaians but merely use Ghana as a platform to address Africa by laying down where he wishes to take the US.

Jamii Forums quoted White House spokesman Robert Gibbs on the purpose:

This is both a special and an important visit for him personally as president but also for our country to articulate a vision for Africa.

Kukah suggested that the US ought to hold its own players in Africa to account much as the President would expect African leaders to account to their people:

I expect that President Obama will politely but firmly speak directly to the leaders of Africa, calling for an end to corruption and the need for an equitable distribution and allocation of the continent's resources. He will call for an end to violence and the need for Africans to hold their leaders accountable and responsible. These may be nice sound bites. The real challenge is that, as he may realize, Africans have heard all this before. What they are yet to see is a clear signal from the US and the international community that they are truly committed to helping Africa. For, to do this, they must be ready to expose their multinational corporations and other corporate crooks (e.g. Halliburton), the sponsors of strife and violence in Africa in the course of the exploitation of mineral resources and the need to energise and support civil society groups…

And what happened?

At Huffington Post, Larry Diamond described the content, significance and tone of President Obama’s speech in Accra:

In his historic speech to Ghana’s parliament today, President Barack Obama put democracy and good governance at the front and center of Africa’s future and America’s hope for it. That is just where it needs to be. Obama could not have been more eloquent or forthright in identifying bad governance—corruption, lawlessness, abuse of human rights, and purely superficial deference to democratic norms—as the bane of Africa’s quest for development and dignity.

Of course, the point was forcefully made from the start in Obama’s choice of Ghana in his visit to sub-Saharan Africa as president. Ghana is not immune from the ills of corruption and misuse of power that plague the continent, but among the continent’s sizeable countries, it has gone the furthest in achieiving a reasonably liberal democracy, with repeated free and fair elections, media freedom, a pluralistic civil society, and responsible governance. And it has generated significant new flows of international development assistance (and to some extent investment) as a result.

The Accra speech was historic in a number of respects. No American president has ever spoken so candidly on African soil about the real roots of Africa’s development malaise, which lie in the “big man” syndrome of patronage-drenched ethnic politics, contempt for the role of law, and wanton abuse of human rights. Perhaps only an American president whose African grandfather felt the brunt of racist European imperialsm could say to Africa as frankly as Obama did that—more than half a century after decolonization—the core problem is not the colonial legacy but what Africans themselves have done and filed to do with thye hopes and dreams they carried into depdenence.

At Political Articles blog Prof. Richard Joseph clearly explained why Ghana was the perfect platform from which to champion good governance:

The country has witnessed five successive elections since its return to multiparty democracy in 1992. In 2006 the United States rewarded Ghana for its progress with a $547 million Millennium Challenge Account grant for capacity building — an initiative of the administration of President George W. Bush

The December 2008 national elections were hotly contested and ended in a confusion of lawsuits, the boycott of a run-off vote in one constituency and accusations of fraud and other irregularities. But when the defeated presidential candidate, Nana Akufo-Addo of the governing New Patriotic Party, conceded to John Atta Mills of the National Democratic Congress after losing by a sliver (0.46 percent) of the popular vote, Ghana was spared the trauma of the post-election upheavals we have seen in recent years in Kenya, Nigeria and Zimbabwe.

He noted that, while enjoying almost two decades of political stability, Ghana still faces challenges on electoral and governance fronts:

In last December’s election, the virulence of party campaigns, deepening ethnic-bloc voting and the mobilization of vigilantes showed that Ghana has not yet crossed the frontier to intimidation-free electoral politics.

In government, a bloated executive dominates and marginalizes parliament and the judiciary, and financial self-dealing among governing elites is again rampant. The prospect of oil revenue highlights the urgent need for improved and transparent systems of economic management.

As expected, the speculation over “Why not Nigeria or Kenya? And why now?” raged around the world, particularly across Africa:

Of the decision to visit Ghana and not Kenya, The Ethiopian Review blog quoted Jonathan Clayton and Tristan McConnell of the Times Online who put it bluntly:

…he is not letting emotions rule his head.”

The Kenyan Government and its notoriously corrupt and quarrelsome ministers are not happy. On the other side of the continent in West Africa, however, Ghanaians are jubilant that America’s first black President has chosen their country for what they see as his first real visit to Africa, dismissing his recent speech in Cairo as a staged event for the Middle East.

Kenya has been left to ponder what might have been. Kenya’s elite whispered of preferential trade and investment deals, increased business opportunities and an image-boosting first visit to their country by an incumbent US president. Instead, relations have deteriorated, with Kenya receiving regular dressing-downs for its failure to follow reforms recommended by an international inquiry into a flawed poll in 2007, which led to the deaths of about 1,500 people in post-election violence.

The article continues:

He will be the third consecutive US President to visit Ghana, which has just had a peaceful transfer of power after a close presidential election. In contrast, the Kenyan crisis has its roots in decades of high-level graft, mismanagement and exploitation of tribal tensions. President Obama has made it clear that historical ties count for little compared with his aim of encouraging political reform and rewarding good governance, democracy and accountability.

Kenyan citizen and chef by trade, Mr Charles Analo, expressed his feelings in the same post:

Everyone expected him to come to Kenya first. Now our politicians are feeling ashamed that he is not coming.

At The National Post Blog Araminta Wordsworth quoted various sources and the reactions including The Nation Daily in Kenya which suggests that this rebuff is not unexpected:

It is the view of every Kenyan, who is appalled by the inertia in government. Few things have been done to redress the past wrongs’” the paper said, suggesting that Kenya’s uneasy coalition government deserved the rebuff after post-election unrest last year.

Safari notes asks if Kenyan leaders are listening:

By not coming to Kenya, Obama is simply trying to send a message and get Kenyan leaders to move their country in the right direction. And the message is for all of Africa: the continent needs clean leaders and good governance. “…..if you talk to people on the ground in Africa, certainly in Kenya, they will say that part of the issue here is the institutions aren’t working for ordinary people and so governance is a vital concern that has to be addressed.” Are Kenyan leaders listening?

On why not Nigeria:

When the White House announced two months ago that President Obama would visit Ghana this week, Nigerians read a different, glaring message between the lines: The American leader was not going to their country …

That Obama also is not visiting about 50 other African nations seems beside the point. Here in Africa’s self-enthroned behemoth, Obama’s sojourn to small but stable Ghana has spawned an outpouring of soul-searching and self-flagellation about Nigeria’s image and dubious democracy.

Why would Obama want to come to Nigeria? To lend credence to the putrefying edifice that the nation has largely become?’ one writer asked in the Guardian newspaper. Wole Soyinka, a Nobel prize-winning writer, said he would ‘stone’ Obama if he legitimized Nigeria by visiting.

Kukah discusses the Nigerians’ reactions:

Since the news of President Barack Obama's planned trip to Ghana en route from Russia became public, some Nigerians have been acting like a jilted wife on the matrimonial calendar in a polygamous household.

As a measure of the seriousness of those who hold these views, which other country has reacted in the rather garrulous manner that some Nigerians have reacted to a routine state visit such as this? Are the Kenyans who can lay claim to Mr. Obama sulking, whining and pinning in the way these Nigerians are doing that he did not come home first? They had bad elections and a near civil war, but are they wallowing in self pity? If President Obama had chosen to visit Nigeria, would Ghanaians have shown this narrow mindedness or jealousy in their interpretation of his motive? Is President Obama the world's electoral Pope who is going around rewarding and punishing election defaulters?

Davis Ajao counters, from several angles, the common argument among Nigerians that their nation ought to have been President Obama’s first stop in sub-Saharan Africa:

Some Nigerians hold the view that Nigeria deserves to be the first sub-Saharan African country Obama visits as President. Such views are anchored on the illusion that Nigeria is presently Africa’s super-power. A Nigerian interviewed by the BBC World Service consoled himself by saying: “When it’s time to visit a super-power, he will… Now is the time to visit a sub-power and that’s why he is visiting a sub-power”.  The cheek of it!

Oil: Oil is strategic to the US economy. Some believe Nigeria being a major exporter of oil to the USA, should be considered above Ghana. Last time I checked, Angola had become the largest exporter of oil from sub-saharan Africa. That implies that Angola can easily take over from Nigeria with the US oil business.

Economy: Nigeria’s economy is a major one in Africa, but it is not the largest. If the size of economy was what mattered most, South Africa should be making the loudest noise but I have not heard a complaint from South Africa.

Super power: I ask myself, “What super power?” I grew up hearing a certain cliché about Nigeria being “the giant of Africa”. I believe that was in the past. If there was any African super power, it would be South Africa. Aside it large economy, military might, technology and better general living conditions, South Africa is globally recognised as one of the emerging countries in the same league as Brazil, Mexico, India and China.

African support: Some one interviewed by the BBC about this issue made a point about the amount of moral support from Nigerians during the American elections in 2008. This is mainly an emotional point. If any country would qualify using this criteria, it would Kenya! The world media descended on Kenya during the US Presidential elections and were there to cover the jubilation when Obama was declared winner since Barack Obama’s father was Kenyan.

The bottom line is simple: The President of  the United States is at liberty to decide which countries to visit or not to visit, and in what order he visits them.

Araminta Wordsworth quotes the President of the Ivory Coast, Laurent Gbagbo, on the choice of Ghana:

President Laurent Gbagbo [paid] tribute to Ghana, with the former Gold Coast sometimes seen as a regional English-speaking ‘twin’ of the Francophone country, because of its geography and economy. ‘It’s not just chance’ that Obama chose Ghana, which has come through tests to be “stable and democratic,’ said Gbagbo, whose nation is still seeking the way out of a civil war that split the nation in two from October 2002.

And there is the question of oil and transparency. Jonathan Wallace explained what Ghana has been doing to avoid the “tired and tragic narrative” that plagues other developing, oil-producing nations:

Ghana's discovery of oil in 2007 in the large Jubilee field in the Gulf of Guinea, has raised concerns that this well-governed though still fairly undeveloped country may follow the same tragic path as Angola, Chad, and Nigeria. Oil wealth in these states has led to corruption, increased poverty, violence, the desertion of indigenous industry outside of energy, and declining living standard for all but a few well-connected elites.

Ghana is well aware of this trap and has been looking to set up institutions to avoid the so-called “resource curse.” Impressively, these efforts span presidential administrations and political parties in Ghana, but there is much more to be done.

Obama was right to choose Ghana for his first true African visit. Instead of visiting his father's native Kenya, or oil behemoth Nigeria, President Obama will recognize that good governance can flourish in Africa and be a model for other nations. Hopefully, he will remind the Ghanaian policy makers that transparency is the best method to ensure broadly shared prosperity, and that it becomes especially important with the added blessing and burden of oil wealth.

Mr Stephane Bollang of Afrik quotes CEO of Gold Star Resources (Canada), Mr Patrick Morris as saying,

U.S. President Barack Obama’s trip to Ghana on July 10th-11th is a subtle White House oil strategy to secure another source of energy on the continent of Africa

Mr Bollang explains that the choice to visit Ghana is related to oil and other resources. The US intends to increase its consumption of oil from the western part of Africa, as a percentage of total consumption from Africa, by 10% from the current level of 15% to 25% by 2020:

The Energy department’s forecasts on oil supply, according to some, prove this point. By 2020, the United States would need an annual import of 770 million barrels of oil fom Africa, 25% of which is expected to come from the western region of the continent as against a current 15%. Others disagree with this as a motive for his choice of Ghana, saying that Angola, Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea would fit the bill better as they would continue to produce, relatively, more oil than Ghana. Nana Yaw Osei, a Ghanaian student believes that “Ghana stands to benefit from its oil exports as long as it deals with partners who are willing to do business in a transparent way.

A reserve of about 600 million barrels of oil was discovered in Ghana in 2007. Commercial operations are expected to begin next year with a daily production of 120, 000 barrels. This is not all. Ghana is the second largest producer of cocoa in the world, producing over 20% of the world’s cocoa beans. The western African country is also the second largest producer of gold (its former name was Gold Coast) and has huge deposits of industrial diamonds and bauxite (aluminum).

Permanent Red blog quotes Ann Garrison of SF Energy Policy Examiner who asks how Obama will advance mutually beneficial trade policies with Ghana and other African countries:

Ninety percent of U.S. Africa trade is in oil, gas, and mining industries. Much of the trade in these extractive industries has been exploit¬ative, bringing little value to those on whose land the resources lie. Ghana has discovered oil just in 2008. How will the Obama administration advance trade policy with Ghana and other African countries that are mutually beneficial?

A writer at BN Village asked:

Is this the real intention of Obama's visit to Ghana. To secure a military home in Afrika for the muderous American military to stir violence and wars on the continent and to puff their chest out at China and Russia who are all trying to secure the natural wealth of Afrika ?

Why do Ghanians not take a suspicious standpoint and instead see him as some God who would in some magical way improve the lives of Ghanians just because he is the American president whose father was Afrikan.

Kenyan blogger Gukira contemplates the multiple affiliations and identities being demanded of President Obama in his visit to Africa as the US President and someone who “embodies newly diasporic Africans”:

I wonder about that “we” that surrounds and haunts Obama’s trip to Ghana. The “we” with which we keep insisting he’s African. The “we” that creates a line between Ghana and the United States, that implicates him in Atlantic slave histories. The “we” that wants a kind of affect to overcome or intercede between differential structural positions—the “we” that wants him to forget he is the U.S. president on an official visit to Africa.

I also wonder about the “we” that Obama will construct and deploy while in Ghana. The “we” that will anticipate and negotiate the multiple “wes” being thrown at him. The “we” that will allow him to the implicit and explicit demands that he be pan-African, which has, in some incarnations, been highly critical of U.S. policies and politics. He will be asked to negotiate a “we” that demands he be “one of the people,” and that has specific demands on presence and etiquette (one man on TV already complained that Obama will not spend enough time in Ghana).

Obama will be navigating pasts and presents while forging presents and futures. If, as friends and I have been discussing, he embodies newly diasporic Africans, his trip also represents a set of ongoing navigations that will continue to affect Africa in ongoing, unfolding futures.

Finally, Kukah looks beyond the symbolism and ask:

Perhaps a more important question is, beyond the emotional and symbolic value, what difference will a Presidential visit make in the lives of ordinary people in the country?

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