Posted on Sat, Jul. 11, 2009
last updated: July 11, 2009 04:42:00 PM
ACCRA, Ghana — From taxi drivers to politicians, Ghanaians reveled Saturday in the first visit of an African-American president to sub-Saharan Africa.
Barack Obama is the third American president in a row to visit Ghana, following Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, and like them he praised the democracy that's taken root here and urged the rest of Africa to take heed.
But he was the first president who looked like them, whose father came from Kenya and whose wife descended from slaves from Africa. And he used that personal connection — noting that his father was once a goat herder, and that his grandfather cooked for the colonial British and was called "boy" well into adulthood — for added credibility when he spoke at times toughly about Africa.
Obama's message, in a speech to Parliament and repeated throughout the visit, was to urge Africans to stop looking backward or to blame other countries for their woes but instead to become self-reliant, to adopt open and honest government as a key to growth, and to stand up against violence.
"We must start from the simple premise that Africa's future is up to Africans," Obama said in his speech.
"I say this knowing full well the tragic past that has sometimes haunted this part of the world. I have the blood of Africa within me, and my family's own story encompasses both the tragedies and triumphs of the larger African story."
Obama and his family also toured the Cape Coast Castle, once a place where black Africans were shipped in slavery to America.
"As painful as it is, I think that it helps to teach all of us that we have to do what we can to fight against the kinds of evils that sadly still exist in our world, not just on this continent but in every corner of the globe," Obama said at the end of the tour.
"There's a special sense that on the one hand this place was a place of profound sadness," he told reporters. "On the other hand, it is here where the journey of much of the African-American experience began."
Ghanaians were ecstatic to have him in their home, almost as if a distant relative were returning home in triumph.
"Ghana Adores You," said a billboard along his motorcade route featuring a picture of both Barack and Michelle Obama. "Welcome President Obama," said a banner covering several floors of an apartment building.
"I am proud to be a Ghanaian today because President Obama has made us proud," said Kojo Sakyi, a taxi driver in the capital city of Accra.
"I have heard the news that Nigerians and Kenyans are angry that he has chosen to come to Ghana. Well, the message for them is they should do what Ghanaians are doing so that they would attract U.S. Presidents like we have done so far."
"l am wearing my Obama T-Shirt to show how proud l am to be living in a country that President Obama has chosen to visit," said Juliana Owusu, an Accra retailer. "l feel like l am a sister to him."
Later in Cape Coast, throngs of Ghanaians crowded the motorcade route as Obama made his way with his family to tour the Cape Coast Castle, once a portal on the slave trade route.
President John Atta Mills, whose election in January after two close run-offs signaled the kind of peaceful transfer of power that draws Obama's praise, got caught up in the celebration as well.
"This encourages us also to sustain the gains that we have made in our democratic processes," Mills told Obama. "I can say without any fear of contradiction that all Ghanaians want to see you. I wish it was possible for me to send you to every home in Ghana."
White House aides never considered the kind of huge outdoor rally that Clinton held in 1998, when hundreds of thousands showed up and so many rushed toward Clinton that they threatened to crush people trapped at barriers.
"The President wanted to use this visit to shine a light on Ghana and on what it is doing so successfully rather than on him," said White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs.
Still, the White House organized a communications effort to make sure Obama was seen and heard not only in Ghana but across Africa. The U.S. embassy set up parties so Ghanaians could watch Obama's speech to the Parliament.
Also, the White House collected questions about the Obama visit from Africans through African newspapers, Facebook, SMS and Twitter, then gave them to three reporters from Kenya, Senegal and South Africa, who chose questions for Obama to answer. The White House plans to post videotaped answers from the president on Monday.
With Ghana as an example of a working democracy, Obama urged not just free and fair elections, but open and honest government as critical to economic growth.
"No business wants to invest in a place where the government skims 20 percent off the top, or the head of the Port Authority is corrupt," he told the parliament. "No person wants to live in a society where the rule of law gives way to the rule of brutality and bribery. That is not democracy, that is tyranny, and now is the time for it to end."
He urged self reliance across the continent and offered help getting started. He noted that his administration has pledged $3.5 billion to help improve farming in Africa. "Aid is not an end in itself," he said. "The purpose of foreign assistance must be creating the conditions where it is no longer needed."
Yet he also warned Ghana that the country could grow too dependent on a single export — recently discovered oil_ at the expense of developing a broader economic engine for growth.
Finally, he said that while Africa is not the "crude caricature of a continent at war," it suffers from brutality.
"For far too many Africans, conflict is a part of life, as constant as the sun...These conflicts are a millstone around Africa's neck," he said.
"It is the death sentence of a society to force children to kill in wars. It is the ultimate mark of criminality and cowardice to condemn women to relentless and systematic rape. We must bear witness to the value of every child in Darfur and the dignity of every woman in Congo."
(Kokutse, a McClatchy special correspondent, reported from Ghana; Thomma reported from Germany)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY:
a href="http://www.mcclatchydc.com/homepage/story/71598.html">Obama, Benedict disagreed on bioethics during audience/a>
a href="http://www.mcclatchydc.com/homepage/story/71656.html">Obama plans no big public appearances in Africa visit/a>
a href="http://www.mcclatchydc.com/226/story/71651.html?storylink=omni_popular">Saudi casting call: one kiss and it's over for women/a>
For more McClatchy politics coverage visit a href="http://washingtonbureau.typepad.com/washington/">Planet Washington/a>
McClatchy Newspapers 2009