Reactions from Ghana on Obama visit

ACCRA, Ghana -- Nearly one week after President Barack Obama’s visit to Ghana, a sense of excitement and expectation remains in the air here.

This past Monday, July 13, a day after Obama’s weekend visit, the main national newspaper, The Daily Graphic, featured the front page headline “Hail Obama!”

Obama’s face is visible everywhere on the streets of Ghana’s capital. Travelers to this West African country are greeted at the airport with huge billboards featuring the smiles of Obama and Ghana’s President J. A. Mills above the text “Partners in Change.” All over this booming city, Obama merchandise, ranging from t-shirts to posters to traditional-style cloth is sold by hawkers standing in traffic. And Ghanaians welcome Americans as “brothers” and “sisters” with shouts of “Obama!” and questions about his popularity back home and his plans for helping Africa.

Radio call-in shows, the main venue for debate and wildly popular, are still focused on the meaning of Obama’s visit to Ghana and the rest of the continent.

Although Ghanaians of all political and ethnic backgrounds are proud that Ghana was selected for Obama’s first trip to Africa as President, and many praise the Ghanaian government for the nearly flawless arrangements and security, some have expressed disappointment that his visit may not result in any meaningful support for one of the continent’s most stable, democratic and developing countries.

And a smaller minority has voiced outright cynicism about Obama’s visit, regarding it merely as an opportunity for symbolic propaganda for use by the American administration. As the radical newspaper, The Insight, argued in its Monday editorial: “The point needs to be made that Obama came to Accra to pursue the interests of the United States of America and those interests remain imperialist in essence.”

While Ghanaians enthusiastically crowded the streets hoping to catch a glimpse of the American president last weekend and followed his every move and word on television, there has been some disappointment over the tone of his speech before Ghana’s parliament. Some resented his argument that is up to Africans to solve Africa’s problem, a position which denies the historic and economic causes of underdevelopment on the continent today.

In fact, Obama’s speech in many ways reflects a fashionable and reactionary perspective which ignores capitalist exploitation of Africa and places the blame for Africa’s problems on Africans themselves. A popular example of this position is the much-touted recent book entitled “Dead Aid” by a so-called development specialist which argues Western aid impoverishes Africa and should be ended.

Ghanaians were hoping Obama would announce new American trade and aid agreements to reward the country for its embrace of all the political and economic reforms demanded by Washington and its allies. Instead, many felt they were merely offered preachy words by Obama instead of substantive deals. Despite this regret, most discussions on the streets and in “chop bars” and on the radio are focused on the historic nature of Obama’s visit and its significance for their country. Ghanaians were proud to welcome America’s first black president and many believe First Lady Michelle Obama has Ghanaian roots. The family’s visit to the infamous Cape Coast slave fort, therefore, had special meaning to Ghanaians and Africans in the diaspora, not only because Ghana was one of the major sources of slaves in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade but more recently has been a center of Pan-Africanism.

Obama also toured a maternity ward at one of Accra’s hospitals, greeting mothers and babies like any good politician, and held a breakfast meeting with Mills and two former Ghanaian Presidents along with their wives. The latter especially was symbolic of the strength and maturity of Ghana’s democracy, as former political opponents were invited by Ghana’s president to join him in welcoming Obama. Like the American president, Mills was elected late last year and faces enormous challenges in the midst of the global economic crisis. The one bright star on the horizon is the recent discovery of vast oil reserves off Ghana’s coast, which many hope will result in significant revenue used towards the country’s development.

Besides Ghana itself, the biggest beneficiary of the goodwill generated by Obama’s visit is the ruling National Democratic Congress (NDC), a social democratic party that embraced Obama’s “Yes We Can” slogan in its campaign last year. The NDC resumed power in January defeating a right-wing party closely allied with former US President George Bush which is held responsible by many Ghanaians for the country’s current economic mess and crime problem. Indeed Mills and former President J. J. Rawlings feel vindicated by Obama’s visit, as American recognition of Ghana’s accomplishments is rooted in the political and economic policies enacted by the NDC leaders in the 1990s. Indeed, it was Rawlings who hosted former US President Bill Clinton in Ghana ten years ago.

So, Mills and his party took full advantage of Obama’s trip to shore up support for its policies and to further strengthen the stability of Ghana. On the day after Obama’s departure, Mills emphasized the value of Obama’s visit in unifying Ghanaians regardless of background, a crucial factor in Ghana’s success especially in comparison with its neighbors where ethnic divisions and political differences are pronounced and exploited by capitalist rulers and their western advisors.

Now Ghanaians wait to see if Obama’s visit will result in economic change they can believe in.