Obama Speech in Ghana Praises Good Governance, Calls for Community Outreach

Pres. Barack Obama praised African community values and called Africans to transcend conflict and promote government from the ground up and peaceful transfers of power, democratic values and international cooperation, in his first presidential visit to subsaharan Africa. Addressing Ghana’s parliament in Accra, Obama outlined US policy toward Africa and said endemic conflict was holding back African development.

The US president said he had called for $63 billion in US spending for health initiatives across the continent, including money to fight malaria, polio, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS. Disease and conflict have devastated the population of Africa, reducing life-expectancy in many countries to under 40 years. Of the 27 nations with life-expectancy under 50 years, 26 of them are in Africa (Afghanistan is the other). Life-expectancy in Ghana is just under 60, a fact which underscores the positive quality-of-life gains that can emerge from peace and rule of law.

Many observers, including across Africa, have questioned why Pres. Obama chose Ghana for his first presidential visit to subsaharan Africa, especially given his close family ties to Kenya. Ghana’s record of multiple consecutive peaceful transfers of power has been cited as the most likely explanation for the choice: Ghana is seen by Obama and by other leaders as an example of good governance, the rule of law and democracy, in a region troubled by bloody sectarian conflict, ethnic cleansing and relentless threats of coups and armed takeovers.

Obama will also visit one of the final points of embarkation used by ships engaged in the centuries’ long atrocity of the transatlantic slave trade, which brought millions of Africans to the Americas. That visit promises to be somber and bracing, as the US president confronts the most shameful aspect of his nation’s heritage, and seeks to highlight the need to establish the universal moral basis for human rights and democratic freedoms. As reported by VOA:

Mr. Obama and his wife, Michelle, will visit former slave trading center Cape Coast Castle where African slaves were shipped across the Atlantic for almost 300 years. Mrs. Obama is a descendant of African slaves.

Pres. Obama is using new media to reach out to people across Africa, to ask for their input and to hear their concerns and questions. Twitter, Facebook and other social networking sites, as well as online media with continental reach, like AllAfrica.com, are being used to interact with and voice concerns to the president of the United States, in what could be called the first continent-wide online town-hall meeting in Africa.

Macon Phillips, Obama’s director of new media operations, told the Voice of America that “I think that it’s less about trying to market the President in a positive way, but it’s more about having a conversation and real engagement with people that hasn’t happened before”. Phillips also explained that in Africa, the focus of new media outreach involves mobile phones, due to their widespread usage and the relatively cheap cost of text messaging.

Phillips explained that Africans can contact the president directly via sms, to expand the scope of the conversation on Africa policy: “If you’re in Africa and you want to send a message to the president, you want to ask him a question, welcome him to Africa, or just comment on things in general, you can use the following short codes… If you’re in Ghana the short code is 1731?. The short codes for other African nations include: Nigeria (32969), South Africa (31958) and Kenya (5683). For messages from across Africa, the following numbers can be used: 614-186-01934 or 456-099-10343.”

The AFP reported today that over 5,000 Africans had sent text messages to Obama, taking advantage of the opportunity to communicate their concerns and observations to the president of the United States. Observers, including African politicians, historians and political scientists, say the selection of Ghana, seen as one of the few “established” democracies in Africa, is meant to send a message to powerful politicians in other states, like Kenya, where despite a tradition of democratic processes, violence continues to spring up after elections and corruption is a threat to long-term stability and openness.

The president stressed community-building efforts, civics and volunteerism. He sought to offer a message of hope and possibility, but warned that Africans’ own actions would be the key to achieving success:

To realize that promise, we must first recognize a fundamental truth that you have given life to in Ghana: development depends upon good governance. That is the ingredient which has been missing in far too many places, for far too long. That is the change that can unlock Africa’s potential. And that is a responsibility that can only be met by Africans.

Obama sought to highlight ways in which a lack of reliable government or rule of law, and the marginalization of the views of the public in public policy, were hampering development and leading to large territories having to survive without sustainable infrastructure or even healthcare facilities. Women, in particular, have been hard hit by a lack of reliable distribution of medical training, facilities and supplies. As this publication reported in May 2009:

The World Health Organization has found that 1,500 women are dying every day across Africa from pregnancy-related complications or during childbirth. The figure has not improved over the last decade, largely due to the lack of adequate medical facilities. An extremely high rate of maternal mortality, as many as 1,000 per 100,000 live births (fully 1% of women giving birth), makes the situation an extreme threat to women’s health.

Speaking of the crisis of global climate destabilization, and fresh from a Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate, which he had convened, Obama noted that though Africa was less responsible for greenhouse gas emissions than any other part of the world, it would be most severely affected by the ravages of climate change. He highlighted the risks to African nations from dwindling food supplies and the depletion of already scarce fresh water resources.

He also said that the need to cooperate internationally to confront the climate crisis and reform energy-producing practices the world over could lead to an unprecedented opportunity for growth and innovation in Africa, including new developments that would slow climate destabilization and protect Africa’s food supply. Obama told Ghana’s parliamentarians:

One area that holds out both undeniable peril and extraordinary promise is energy. Africa gives off less greenhouse gas than any other part of the world, but it is the most threatened by climate change. A warming planet will spread disease, shrink water resources, and deplete crops, creating conditions that produce more famine and conflict. All of us – particularly the developed world – have a responsibility to slow these trends – through mitigation, and by changing the way that we use energy. But we can also work with Africans to turn this crisis into opportunity.

Obama cited specific examples from Ghana’s history that make the west African nation an example of commitment to good governance:

Time and again, Ghanaians have chosen Constitutional rule over autocracy, and shown a democratic spirit that allows the energy of your people to break through. We see that in leaders who accept defeat graciously, and victors who resist calls to wield power against the opposition. We see that spirit in courageous journalists like Anas Aremeyaw Anas, who risked his life to report the truth. We see it in police like Patience Quaye, who helped prosecute the first human trafficker in Ghana. We see it in the young people who are speaking up against patronage, and participating in the political process.

Across Africa, we have seen countless examples of people taking control of their destiny, and making change from the bottom up. We saw it in Kenya, where civil society and business came together to help stop post-election violence. We saw it in South Africa, where over three quarters of the country voted in the recent election – the fourth since the end of Apartheid. We saw it in Zimbabwe, where the Election Support Network braved brutal repression to stand up for the principle that a person’s vote is their sacred right.

He said that “history is on the side” of those people who stand up in the face of dark forces and seek to establish and defend democratic systems and sideline autocrats and put aside violent repression in favor of open government and participatory democracy. He also praised Ghana’s last president, who turned over power peacefully to a rival party and its new president, John Atta Mills, whom he said is “serious about reducing corruption”. More Africa news and comment:

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Originally published July 11, 2009, at CafeSentido.com

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