Barack Obama, creating history on his first visit to sub-Saharan Africa as US president, said visiting the slave fortress of Cape Coast Castle on Saturday reminded him of the capacity of human beings to commit great evil.
After a stirring speech urging the ushering in of a new era of politics delivered to a packed convention hall in the Ghanaian capital Accra, Obama and his family toured the white-walled slave fortress to the sound of beating drums and chanting from a huge crowd outside. They walked through the maze of rooms and dungeons in which slaves had been kept captive and saw the famed “door of no return” through which tens of thousands passed on their way to a life of bondage in the New World.
Later, on a spot overlooking the ocean, Obama spoke of being deeply moved by the experience that reminded him of visiting Nazi concentration camps. “It is reminiscent of the trip that I took to Buchenwald. It reminds us of the capacity of human beings to commit great evil,” he said, adding that he had been especially struck by the seeemingly incongruous presence of a church near the slave dungeons. “Sometimes we can tolerate and stand by great evil even as we think we are doing good,” he said.
The moment has immense symbolism for both Africans and black Americans, so many of whom can trace their ancestors back to the slave trade.
Though Obama himself is not descended from slaves, his wife and two daughters are. “It is particularly important for Malia and Sasha who are growing up in such a blessed way [to know] that history can take very cruel turns,” he said.
In his speech earlier, he delivered a rallying call to end corruption and warfare. Obama lectured a crowd of assembled dignitaries — and an entire continent watching on television — to break from their troubled history. “At this moment history is on the move … America will be with you every step of the way as a partner, as a friend,” he said.
At times his speech resembled the tenor of his campaign oratory of last year, rising and falling in tempo and employing lofty language to speak hard truths. It was an impression furthered by a huge banner draped in the hall that echoed Obama’s most famous campaign slogan by declaring: “Yes, together we can!”
Obama’s speech ran the gamut of the modern African experience, condemning war, corruption and dictatorships and urging Africans to take responsibility for solving their own problems even as he acknowledged the role outside powers had too often taken in meddling in African affairs. He cited countries from Congo to Sudan and Zimbabwe as having failed their people. “For far too many Africans conflict is a part of life … these conflicts are a millstone around Africa’s neck,” he said.
Obama was also brutally honest about corruption and dictatorship. “No country is going to create wealth if its leaders exploit the economy to enrich themselves or the police can be bought off by drug traffickers. No business wants to invest in a place where the government skims 20% off the top… That is not democracy. That is tyranny even if you sprinkle an election in it,” he chided. “Africa does not need strong men, it needs strong institutions,” he said.
That Obama was able to deploy such frank language is also a sign of the enormous regard in which he is held on the continent where his own father was born. Obama’s visit has captured excitement all over Africa and especially in Ghana. Though he is only in the country for less than 24 hours, the streets have been packed with well-wishers waving flags, carrying posters and dancing in the streets. Obama had been scheduled to speak in the Ghanaian Parliament building but the venue was moved to fit in more people.
Obama, through his Kenyan father and his search for his own ancestors, is the first president to have such a personal connection with the continent, a fact acknowledged in his speech when he talked about his Kenyan family. “I have the blood of Africa within me … my family’s story encompasses both the tragedies and triumphs of the larger African story,” he said. – guardian.co.uk