Ghana: Obama Visits a Hopeful Nation on a Troubled Continent

Richard Joseph
Richard Joseph
Richard Joseph Professor Emeritus - Northwestern University, Former Brookings Expert

July 8, 2009

Editor’s Note: Ghanaians welcomed President Obama’s visit in July, making it the only African stop after his European trip. Ghana, regarded as a “beacon of democracy” in Africa, still has room for growth with 40 percent of its people living in poverty. Richard Joseph argues that Ghana could lead a new wave of accelerated and sustainable development and that Obama’s support could inspire a transformation across the continent.

There is perhaps no region in the world in which there is a greater gap between the high expectations of an Obama presidency and knowledge of his administration’s intended policies than in sub-Saharan Africa. That gap should narrow when President Obama makes a fleeting visit to Ghana on July 10 and 11.

Unlike Kenya and Nigeria – the countries he might have been expected to visit first in his presidency, but whose reputations are clouded by corruption, electoral misconduct, insecurity and other woes – Ghana is now regarded as a “beacon of democracy” after two decades of political progress and renewed economic growth.

The country has witnessed five successive elections since its return to multiparty democracy in 1992. In 2006 the United States rewarded Ghana for its progress with a $547 million Millennium Challenge Account grant for capacity building — an initiative of the administration of President George W. Bush.

The December 2008 national elections were hotly contested and ended in a confusion of lawsuits, the boycott of a run-off vote in one constituency and accusations of fraud and other irregularities. But when the defeated presidential candidate, Nana Akufo-Addo of the governing New Patriotic Party, conceded to John Atta Mills of the National Democratic Congress after losing by a sliver (0.46 percent) of the popular vote, Ghana was spared the trauma of the post-election upheavals we have seen in recent years in Kenya, Nigeria and Zimbabwe.

On the economic front, revenues will soon begin flowing from the export of petroleum, a result of the discovery of oil off Ghana’s west coast several years ago.

Nevertheless, the country faces substantial challenges. In last December’s election, the virulence of party campaigns, deepening ethnic-bloc voting and the mobilization of vigilantes showed that Ghana has not yet crossed the frontier to intimidation-free electoral politics.

In government, a bloated executive dominates and marginalizes parliament and the judiciary, and financial self-dealing among governing elites is again rampant. The prospect of oil revenue highlights the urgent need for improved and transparent systems of economic management.

Forty percent of Ghanaians still live in poverty and thousands leave annually to seek a better life elsewhere. Pervasive unemployment among youths, as throughout Africa, is one of the tragic consequences of high fertility rates and low economic productivity.

Yet Ghana could lead a new wave of accelerated and sustainable development in agriculture, industry and services.

In August 2006, while visiting Nairobi as a U.S. Senator, Barack Obama highlighted the failure of Kenya, and other countries in Africa, “to create a government that is transparent and accountable, one that serves its people and is free from corruption.”

On his first visit to Africa during his presidency – to Cairo last month – President Obama challenged government leaders to “place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party.” His summons applies acutely to Ghana.

There are buds of an Obama doctrine, seen in both the Nairobi and Cairo addresses, which can sprout in Africa. It emphasizes tolerance, transparency, the rule of law, government that rests on consent rather than coercion and “doesn’t steal from the people.” It urges political leaders to respect democratic rights and institutions while they are “in power” as they did “out of power.” In his recent July 3 interview with AllAfrica, he reiterated his understanding of “the direct correlation between governance and prosperity” and the need to stop making “excuses about corruption or poor governance on Africa”.

During his campaign for the presidency, Obama promised to double foreign aid once elected into office. But much more important for Africa is the need to spur enterprise-led growth and support the new generation of entrepreneurs and professionals who are fed up with aid-fueled and corruption-plagued politics.

There are important initiatives of his predecessors that the Obama administration can build upon. President Bill Clinton’s most important contribution to Africa was the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) that lowered barriers to African export products to the United States. While the Bush administration extended the scope of AGOA, a real breakthrough for Africa on trade issues crumbled with the collapse of the Doha Round of talks on a comprehensive deal on trade.

The establishment of the Millennium Challenge Account was one of the notable achievements of the Bush administration and one which President Obama can expand and extend to sub-national entities. Such an action is relevant to countries such as Nigeria with dynamic governments emerging at the state level.

The scope for the U.S. government and American companies to pursue agricultural, infrastructural, and other investment opportunities in Africa is vast. Sub-Saharan Africa now provides almost 20 percent of U.S. oil imports while its gas imports have jumped nearly ten-fold since 2000.

On Saturday, President Obama and his entourage will visit the Cape Coast Castle from which many Africans were dispatched to chattel slavery in the Americas. He will then address the Ghanaian Parliament and a great multitude in the capital city of Accra. To the thousands who will gather to hear him, 750 million sub-Saharan Africans will follow his remarks closely, thanks to independent media and telecommunication services that now flourish in the continent.

His anticipated message of hope, audacity, responsibility and “pragmatic progressivism” will reverberate long after he leaves. It will be a sublime and potentially transformative moment for Africa and those who have who have long argued for the United States to stand up boldly for democracy and developmental governance in the continent.