The politics behind Obama's Ghana visit

ANTHONY GALLOWAY
(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

ACCRA, GHANA - The last stop on President Barack Obama's week-long trip may prove to be his most historic and newsworthy. Just one day before Mr. Obama arrives in Ghana, the significance of his trip is the topic of conversation among most Ghanaians. In this country, even though Mr. Obama's father hailed from Kenya, the president is "from the soil," a man with an African bloodline returning home as leader of the free world. But even as Ghana waits expectantly, many here wonder why President Obama chose this republic for his first visit to sub-Saharan Africa

"Part of the reason is because Ghana has now undergone a couple of successful elections in which power was transferred peacefully, even a very close election," Mr. Obama said in an interview last week with reporters for the news website allAfrica.com.

"Countries that are governed well, that are stable, where the leadership recognizes that they are accountable to the people and that institutions are stronger than any one person have a track record of producing results for the people. And we want to highlight that."

Asked if he would like to see a lot more countries like Ghana in Africa, the president replied, "Absolutely."

If you turn on the radio or television here, you don't have to wait long to find news presenters and radio personalities discussing Mr. Obama's visit. And despite general African excitement, many ask if there is a stronger reason - a strategic importance - that moves beyond the public relations of the first African-American president's visit to so-called black Africa.

Last year a huge reserve of oil was discovered off Ghana's coast. It is anticipated that pumping will begin in 2010 and may generate between one and three billion dollars annually for the Ghanaian government.

There is also a gas pipeline, more than 400 miles long stretching from Nigeria to Ghana, 59-percent owned by U.S.-based Chevron.

"The Americans know what they want from Ghana. But does Ghana know what it wants from America," Asare Otchere-Darko, executive director of the Accra think tank Danquah Institute asked in a recent editorial in the Ghanaian Chronicle. "The question is: has the Ghanaian government taken a considered, sober decision on the price to be paid and the prize to be gained for being considered as the serene oasis at the heart of the 'New Gulf'?"

Mr. Otchere-Darko says the United States' interests in Ghana go beyond oil, to include a potential regional military command "with a homeport situated on the African continent to protect their interests. West Africa is its natural home."

In his recent interview, President Obama confirmed the overall importance of Ghana and the continent but did not specifically reference oil or a revised military command structure.

"There are strategic, national security, economic, environmental reasons why we think this region is important," the president said. "Africa is directly connected to our entire foreign policy approach."

But for those who say oil is a primary reason for Mr. Obama's visit to Ghana, the country's deputy minister of tourism said dissenters should not be so cynical.

"You cannot rule that out," Deputy Minister Kwabena Akyeampong told NBC Nightly News correspondent Mara Schiavocampo this week in an interview at Cape Coast Castle. "Of course everyone knows that the U.S. always has interests where they can find some of these things. But I look at the broader picture. I think it is genuine when you want to meet someone because they are doing something right. Ghana is getting it right and I think that is the main thing."

And as workers in Accra put the finishing touches on a city eager for the American president's arrival, most Ghanaians are preparing to celebrate and revel in the two-day "homecoming" of one of their own. They hope his memories will be longstanding and his nation's policies mutually beneficial.

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