Obama plans no big public appearances in Africa visit

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 10, 2009 

ACCRA, Ghana — President Barack Obama isn't descended from slaves; his father was from Kenya, his mother from Kansas.

However, his visit to Ghana, a place where slaves once were captured and shipped to America, could be an emotional trek, particularly for first lady Michelle Obama, who like many African-Americans is a descendant of slaves and doesn't know for sure where her ancestors are from.

Obama hopes to visit one historic site, the Cape Castle, where chain-bound slaves were pushed through a "door of no return" on their way to bondage.

Obama, accompanied by the first lady and his two daughters, arrived in Ghana shortly after 9 p.m. local time (5 p.m. in Washington) Friday after a flight from Rome. He was greeted by Ghanaian officials at the airport, and television images showed both him, in dark suit, and Michelle Obama, in a black sleeveless dress and pearls chatting with a crowd of dignitaries. Rhythmic chants and drums could be heard in the background.

Television is as close as most Ghanaians will be able to get to Obama during his short visit here. Obama hasn't scheduled any large outdoor rallies that would allow the public to see and hear him in person.

When former President Bill Clinton did that in 1998, he drew hundreds of thousands of people, a frenzied crowd that pressed forward so hard that people were pinned against barricades and a red-faced Clinton had to yell "Get back . . . back off."

White House planners only recently agreed to a larger departure ceremony at the airport Saturday afternoon to allow more people to see him. However, that remained an invitation-only audience, and aides hoped to satisfy demand with watch parties and streaming video.

"I do not believe that there is a way in which we could ever fulfill or assuage the desires of those in Ghana or on the continent on one stop with a public stop," said Press Secretary Robert Gibbs.

That means the White House has been stressing the importance of Obama's speech Saturday before Ghana's parliament in which he'll emphasize that the keys to a prosperous future for all of Africa include honest democratic government and self reliance — particularly the ability to grow its own food rather than blaming the U.S. and others for its problems and waiting for handouts.

"The president has chosen to visit Ghana because it's such an admirable example of strong, democratic governance, vibrant civil society," said Michelle Gavin, a top Obama adviser on Africa.

"They've made tremendous development progress over the past decade, as well. There's much to admire and to sort of hold up something of a counter to what one often hears about Africa, sort of a litany of crises and conflict. It's certainly not the case in Ghana."

Hoping to emphasize an example of the peaceful transfer of power, Obama will meet with President John Atta Mills, who was inaugurated in January after two run-offs of November's election.

"Ghana has now undergone a couple of successful elections in which power was transferred peacefully, even a very close election," Obama said before leaving on the three-country trip that also included stops in Russia and Italy.

Beyond democracy, Obama will preach the value of good government, particularly to businesses that might want to build or grow and don't want to have to pay bribes.

"You're not going to get investment without good governance," he said in a pre-trip interview with the Web site AllAfrica.com. "This is a very practical, hard-headed approach to how we're going to see improvements in the daily lives of the peoples of Africa. If government officials are asking for 10, 15, 25 percent off the top, businesses don't want to invest there."

Obama will use his personal story to stress those points as he did at a summit in Italy. Friday morning, he told leaders that he has a cousin in Kenya who can't get a job without paying a bribe.

He'll also use his personal ties to Africa to tell the continent that it can't prosper as long as it blames today's woes on past oppression from other countries.

"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 believer in excuses," he said.

Given his background, he said, he's "probably as knowledgeable about African history as anybody who's occupied my office." He said he knew all about how colonial powers treated the continent poorly.

"Yet the fact is we're in 2009," he said. "The West and the United States has not been responsible for what's happened to Zimbabwe's economy over the last 15 or 20 years. It hasn't been responsible for some of the disastrous policies that we've seen elsewhere in Africa. And I think that it's very important for African leadership to take responsibility and be held accountable."

He'll push a new food security initiative designed to improve agriculture. He and other world leaders on Friday pledged $20 billion over three years to help improve agriculture, with $3.5 billion of that coming from the U.S.

(Thomma reported from Rome. Kokutse, a McClatchy special correspondent, reported from Accra, Ghana.)

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Video of Bill Clinton in Ghana crowd in 1998

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