On July 10, 2009, President Obama and his family paid a visit to Ghana as part of a week-long tour that included visits to Russia and to Italy for the G-8 Summit. This trip marked Obama’s first visit to sub-Saharan Africa as the first African American president. Although the trip lasted less than 24 hours, its global and local impact was tremendous, both in its anticipation and its occurrence. Many Africans and people with African roots around the globe shared in Ghana’s excitement regarding the significance of President Obama’s trip to Ghana.
This was not the first time Ghana was visited by a U.S. president, however. President Obama’s trip followed previous trips by Presidents Bill Clinton (1998) and more recently, George W. Bush less than 2 years ago.
Reasons for Going on the Trip
Pres. Obama had several motives for visiting Ghana, a nation just smaller than the state of Oregon, located in Western Africa and bordered by Burkina Faso, Togo, and Côte d’Ivoire. Obama wished to highlight the functioning democracy of Ghana considering its location on a continent in which several countries have been plagued by political turmoil. The President discussed Ghana’s impressive electoral track record, including the recent December elections in which power was peacefully transferred across party lines. In his speech Obama also praised Ghanaians for their growing economy and for having a president who is serious about reducing turmoil. For these reasons one can speculate that Ghana was chosen above other African nations, particularly the nation of Kenya, where Obama has his heritage and where political turmoil lies currently.
On his brief visit to Ghana, the President and his family stopped by the Cape Coast Castle. Located in Cape Coast, in the Central Region of Ghana (75 miles west of Accra) this former slave port became one of the largest slave trading posts in the world. It was at that very location that slaves were taken to from various points around the region and shipped off to become slaves in different places around the world. Some highlights of the current tourist spot include the male quarters and the female quarters, where many slaves were packed and held in anticipation of the arrival of slave trading ships. Another was the Door of No Return which was the last place slaves would pass through while still on their home soil, never to come back again.
As the President watched, his daughters walked back and forth through the doorway; the place held a special significance for him. Obama mentioned later that “I'll never forget the image of my daughters walking through those doors of no return but then walking back through them. Hopefully one of the things imparted to them was a sense of obligation to fight oppression and cruelty where it appears.” Obama and family also visited La General Hospital where he said that they saw “women and children finally getting the treatment they need to get a good start in life.” In the capital of Ghana, Accra, President Obama made his speech and addressed the Ghanaian parliament.
Being in the Middle of It All
“President Obama Craze” hit Ghana like a storm, and despite Obama’s Kenyan roots, he is accepted and embraced as a ‘son’ or ‘brother.’ Michelle Obama’s roots are believed to have originated from West Africa.
There was evidence all around Ghana that depicted the excitement of a nation. The American flag was draped right next to the Ghanaian one. Faces of the current Ghanaian president John Atta Mills next to the face of President Obama covered billboards, t-shirts, and posters across the nation. The sound of drums seemed to follow the president wherever he went. Every form of paraphernalia imaginable was decorated and sold to celebrate Obama’s arrival. Stores had to keep restocking items, particularly the t-shirts. There was even a special television campaign created by the Ghanaian government that welcomed the ‘distinguished son of Africa’ to Ghana. There was no question that ‘Obama fever’ had hit Ghana.
Obama’s Praise to the Nation
In Obama’s speech made in the capital, Accra, to the parliament he was received very well, despite offering praise as well as a fair share of criticism toward the African continent. Obama’s intention was to send a message to Africa through Ghana. Considered a role model to other African nations, White House correspondent Jack Tapper described it as, ‘a shining beacon of democracy’. Tapper also emphasized that Obama wanted to send a message to the world, that “Africa is not just a continent full of tragedy, war and famine…some good things are accomplished here.”
In addressing Ghana, Obama said, “Here in Ghana, you show us a face of Africa that is too often overlooked by a world that sees only tragedy or the need for charity. The people of Ghana have worked hard to put democracy on a firmer footing, with peaceful transfers of power even in the wake of closely contested elections. And with improved governance and an emerging civil society, Ghana's economy has shown impressive rates of growth.”
Obama’s Demand for Africa as a Whole (‘tough love’)
Obama continued his speech offering some criticism to the African continent. Obama stated that “development depends upon good governance. …That is the change that can unlock Africa's potential. And that is a responsibility that can only be met by Africans.” The President mentions that this assistance is dependent upon the partnership of African nations, such as Ghana.
Obama mentioned “four areas that are critical to the future of Africa and the entire developing world: democracy; opportunity; health; and the peaceful resolution of conflict.” Within the realm of democracy, he charged Africans with the responsibility of maintaining stable governments. In order to create opportunity for Africans, Obama encouraged African nations to partner with countries like the U.S. to turn crisis into opportunity, by having better governance, investing and using energy resources more efficiently. In terms of health, Obama called for more incentives for local health professionals to remain in Ghana and address public health in order to combat diseases such as malaria.
Obama’s promise to Ghana and Africa
Obama and his administration have committed to a substantial increase in foreign assistance, $63 million mainly targeted towards healthcare. The money can go to causes that help provide care and research funds towards diseases plaguing Africa such as AIDS/HIV, malaria, tuberculosis, etc. President Bush previously contributed significant amounts of money towards these causes. (Bush pledged $17 million to fight malaria in Ghana and $350 million to fight tropical diseases in the area upon his visit to Ghana, which was well-received).
Obama ended his speech and historic visit with the familiar ‘Yes We Can’ mantra, providing Africans with a renewed sense of hope, which will hopefully lead to a prosperous future. Worldwide people are watching to see if Obama will be able to spark the change in Africa that previous leaders have not because of his relational ties to the African continent.
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/07/11/obama-ghana-speech-full-t_n_230009.html (Obama’s speech full text)
CIA world factbook: Ghana