US President Barack Obama is scheduled to head to Ghana next week, on the continent where his father was born, for his first trip as president to sub-Saharan Africa.
Why is Obama going to Africa?
Africa has not been high on Obama’s foreign policy agenda in his first six months in office as he wrestles with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and nuclear standoffs with Iran and North Korea. As an African-American whose father was born in Kenya, Obama was anxious not to be seen as exaggerating the importance of Africa in US foreign policy.
“He has not yet put his stamp on Africa. His visit to Ghana will be the start,” said Whitney Schneidman, a former Africa policy adviser to Obama during his presidential campaign.
Obama has been outspoken, however, about the humanitarian crisis in Darfur, and one of his first acts as president was to appoint his friend, General Scott Gration, as his envoy to Sudan. He has also held talks with Zimbabwean Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai on the economic crisis in that country.
This will not be his first trip to sub-Saharan Africa. In 2006, he visited Kenya, Chad, Ethiopia, South Africa and Djibouti as a US senator.
What signal is he trying to send by choosing Ghana?
Ghana, a former British colony that was the first African nation to win independence in 1957, held a closely contested presidential election that saw power peacefully transferred to former opposition leader President John Atta Mills in January.
The Obama administration is keen to hold up Ghana as a model for the rest of Africa, where coups are not uncommon and elections are often marred by charges of vote-rigging and sometimes violence.
“Democracy and good governance are high up on his agenda, so he is rewarding Ghana,” said Richard Dowden, director of the Royal African Society in London.
What could he say?
US officials say Obama will deliver a major speech in the Ghanaian parliament that emphasizes good governance and the importance of democratic institutions.
Africa experts say Obama may use the speech to lay out a more comprehensive vision of his policy on Africa, in particular the importance of dramatically improving food security on a continent where millions are starving. Fighting corruption and expanding Bush administration initiatives to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS and malaria also could be featured.
Why not go to Kenya, the birthplace of his father?
“If Obama were to come to Kenya as the first country in Africa, it would send some very wrong signals that he is coming here merely because of some organic relationship that he has with this country,” Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga said.
Obama’s single stop in Ghana rather than the multi-country trip US presidents traditionally undertake to Africa has been choreographed to emphasize that the continent is on his radar but it is just one area on a packed foreign policy agenda.
“What he is saying to Africa is: ‘You are important to me, but be patient. I have other things on my plate and our relationship will have to unfold over time,’” said Steven McDonald, director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center’s Africa program in Washington.
What are his plans to foster economic growth in Africa?
Africa has been affected by the global economic crisis with steep rises in fuel, food and fertilizer costs and swings in commodity prices. Falling demand internationally has also reduced demand for African exports.
The Obama administration has said it wants to improve food security in Africa and is focusing on increasing agricultural production to help the continent feed itself.
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