Africa still on back-burner for Obama

Ghana ObamaNever mind that Barack Obama has never set foot in Ghana before. This country has a message for the American leader when he makes his first trip to sub-Saharan Africa as president this weekend: “Welcome Home.”

The posters and banners bearing the warm greeting across Ghana’s verdant tropical capital are borne from hope the world’s most powerful man will help lift his late father’s impoverished continent from the depths of crushing conflict and poverty.

But so far at least, Africa is getting no special treatment: it remains on the back-burner of U.S. foreign policy, aid levels are roughly unchanged from the Bush years, and Obama’s message is clear: Africans must take responsibility for curing their own ills.

“Expectations are quite high because Obama has roots here,” said Wafula Okumu, a Kenyan analyst at South Africa’s Institute for Security Studies in Johannesburg. “But it’s unrealistic to think he’s going to open the flood gates of aid or change anything overnight. In fact, we’ve yet to see any significant change in policy.”

While in Ghana, Obama is likely to spell out his administration’s strategy for the continent.

The brief trip comes at the tail end of high-powered stopovers in Russia and Italy for Thursday’s Group of Eight summit. After arriving in Accra late Friday, Obama holds talks Saturday with Ghana President John Atta Mills, makes a speech to parliament, then helicopters to a former coastal slave fort before jetting out the same afternoon.

Obama told the news Web site ahead of his trip that he chose Ghana to highlight the country’s history of good governance. He said he hoped other African nations would emulate the country’s example.

Ghana was the first in Africa to declare independence from colonial rule in 1957, but it went on to endure a quarter century of coups and dictatorship before holding five successful democratic ballots, the last a tense December nail-biter decided by a rerun in a single district.

Good governance is not an “abstract notion that we’re trying to impose on Africa,” Obama said. “If government officials are asking for 10, 15, 25 percent off the top, businesses don’t want to invest there.”

That Ghana was selected over other sub-Saharan African nations has spurred “why not us” soul-searching by regional powerhouses like Nigeria, which held controversial 2007 elections and is considered one of the most corrupt places on earth. Obama pointedly avoided his late father’s native Kenya, where hundreds of civilians were killed when ethnic clashes broke out following a disputed 2007 vote. The president said he was concerned political parties there “do not seem to be moving into a permanent reconciliation.”

Another reason to visit Ghana: the country is expected to start pumping oil in commercial quantities in 2010, boosting the region’s growing strategic importance.

Oil and gas from Africa accounted for 19 percent of U.S. imports in 2008, surpassing the Persian Gulf’s 18 percent, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Recognizing the value of such resources, former President George W. Bush two years ago created Africom, the U.S. military command for Africa, which U.S. officials say is aimed at helping partner nations fight terror and criminal networks within their borders.

American officials are especially concerned about nascent terror networks operating in Somalia and Algeria. Al-Qaida’s North Africa branch claimed responsibility last month for the shooting death on an American in Mauritania’s capital and has been making inroads into Mali. But critics say such the U.S. goals are self-centered.

“America’s policies in Africa are being defined by the war on terror,” Okumu said. “Yes, it’s there, but terrorism is not a high threat to Africans. We have many other problems, and these should be understood from an African perspective, not a one-policy-terror-centered approach.”

For now, Obama appears simply to be continuing the legacy of Bush, who was regarded by many as having done more for Africa than any other U.S. president in history. During his tenure, U.S. development aid to the continent tripled, with major drives launched against malaria and HIV.

“They should be applauded for maintaining the Bush programs, but the nitty gritty of engaging in political leadership, of laying out strategy, they have yet to show their metal,” said Peter Pham, an Africa expert at James Madison University in Virginia.

Pham criticized Obama for failing to appoint an ambassador to the African Union half a year into his term. And Jerry Fowler, president of the Save Darfur Coalition, told The Associated Press the Obama administration “still has not settled on a coherent and comprehensive strategy” for one of the continent’s most pressing crises ? the war in Sudan’s war-wracked west.

To be sure, Obama has been consumed by higher priorities ? the global financial meltdown, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and turmoil from Iran to Honduras. But hope for an American president considered a native son abounds in Ghana, from the T-shirts bearing his image to the ubiquitous billboards proudly portraying him beside Ghana’s president and the words: “Partnership for Change.”

Coretta Owusu, an American whose father is Ghanaian, said her family renamed their 18-room lodge “Hotel Obama” months ago to celebrate his historic electoral win.

Owusu says she has no illusions Obama will bring sweeping change to the continent, but his rise has “inspired Africans to achieve whatever they want,” she said. “They realize now that nothing can stop them.”

Obama told that he was “a big believer that Africans are responsible for Africa.”

“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 neocolonialism, or the West has been oppressive, or racism,” Obama said. “I’m not a believer in excuses.”

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.