Prodigal son returns to Africa

Ghana is going crazy over President Barack Obama. The markets are overflowing with Obama T-shirts and mugs, belt buckles, watches and wooden bowls; his portrait clings to billboards and is plastered on posters across Accra and down to Cape Coast.

On Saturday the first African-American president will visit a slave-trading fortress in Ghana, where Africans were once crowded into dungeons before being shipped to the New World.

The images will have powerful appeal for African-Americans: Obama with his wife Michelle and their two daughters, Sasha and Malia, the descendants of slaves.

But analysts said this week that it is time to rein in expectations of a massive United States policy shift.

“We have to tone down the level of ambition just because of his genetic lineage, particularly given the full menu on his foreign policy plate,” said Garth le Pere, executive director of the Institute for Global Dialogue. “He’s the president of the US, not of Africa.”

The reality is that more of the same is on the horizon. Analysts agreed that programmes including former president Bush’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief, Bill Clinton’s trade law, the African Growth and Opportunity Act, and the US’s controversial military arm, Africom, will continue to drive this administration.

Although Obama may try to increase funding and capacity, it is his approach—and the goodwill from the continent—that will be different.

“It’s more about style than change,” said Tom Wheeler, a research associate at the South African Institute of International Affairs at Wits University. “A large part of this presidency is about style, a more human, more engaged approach. The visit is symbolic. Substance isn’t terribly important.”

In a recent interview with the news website, AllAfrica, Obama adopted a different tone on Africa from his predecessors.

“Part of what’s hampered advancement in Africa is that for many years we’ve made excuses for corruption or poor governance—that it was a consequence of neo-colonialism or the West has been oppressive or racism,” he said.

“I’m not a believer in excuses. I’m as knowledgeable about Africa as anyone that’s occupied this office and I can give you chapter and verse on why the colonial maps that were drawn helped to spur on conflict.

“And yet the fact is we are in 2009 and the West and the US are not responsible for what happened to Zimbabwe and other African countries over the past 15 or 20 years.”

That is why Obama chose Ghana, snubbing the US’s oil-rich trade partner Nigeria and his ancestral Kenya in favour of a nation on the heels of yet another successful democratic election. “They’ve shown that you can have a change of president without violence—unlike Kenya,” said Wheeler. “The message is that Kenya couldn’t get its act together, so they don’t get a visit.”

Other commentators point to what may be a new factor in American foreign policy calculations: Ghana’s coming oil boom.

The brevity of Obama’s trip seems to underline its symbolic nature. “Surely, he should have planned another tour that would include several countries where the signal and message is that he takes Africa seriously,” said Le Pere.

“Here, he visits Ghana for 24 hours and goes home.”

He said, however, that the Ghana visit could be a prelude to a major continental tour in 2010. Recent press reports suggest Obama could visit the Fifa World Cup next year and one of his top African advisers has drafted a plan for a US-Africa summit in early 2010.

Added to this is Obama’s appointment of Donald Gips as American ambassador to South Africa. Gips, director for presidential personnel and the man who led Obama’s presidential transition team, is expected to be confirmed by the US Senate in the next few weeks.

“He comes out of Obama’s inner circle,” said Wheeler.

“He can pick up the phone and talk to him; a career official doesn’t have that kind of access.”

Any move to deepen US engagement with Africa would, however, run into the continuing hostility of certain African leaders, most notably Robert Mugabe. Mugabe and most of his entourage remain the target of US “smart” sanctions, which have frozen their assets and curtailed their travel rights.

Mugabe recently branded the administration’s top African adviser, Johnnie Carson—a respected career diplomat who has served as ambassador to Zimbabwe, Kenya and Uganda—“an idiot” with a condescending attitude.

Tanya Pampalone

Tanya Pampalone

Tanya Pampalone is the executive editor of the Mail & Guardian, where she oversees print and digital enterprise and narrative journalism projects including eBooks and special editions, such as the popular end of year and annual religion issues. Tanya occasionally lectures on media ethics and editorial independence at the Sol Plaatjie Institute at Rhodes University in Grahamstown. In 2012, she won South Africa's top journalism award, the Sikuvile, for creative writing and was a finalist in the feature writing category. In 2013, Tanya was selected as the Menell Media Fellow at Duke University's Sanford School of Public Policy in the United States. Currently, she is on the editorial board of the Menell Media Xchange.Tanya has more than 20 years experience living and working as a writer, columnist and editor for magazines, newspapers and online publications in the United States, the Czech Republic and South Africa. She has a BA in journalism from San Diego State University and a master's in writing from the University of San Francisco. Her work has appeared in Chimurenga's Power Money Sex, Cityscapes, Empire, Food and Home, Los Angeles Reader, Mail & Guardian, Maverick, Newsweek, Prognosis, San Francisco Examiner and, among others. Read more from Tanya Pampalone

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