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Opinions of Monday, 17 August 2009

Columnist: African Spectrum

A Fitting Recognition For Ghana

Defying all the speculation about the itinerary for his first trip to Africa as president, Barack Obama paid a one-day visit to Ghana as part of his overseas tour last month, bypassing Kenya, the one country on the continent that most people had thought would be highly unlikely for him to miss as a destination because of his ancestral ties to it. Nigeria, which was also high on nearly everyone’s list as a possible stop for the new American president due to its strategic importance to the U.S. as a source for oil, was skipped as well. Another country that was on the short list of probable stops for Mr. Obama but didn’t make it was South Africa, Africa’s economic power house.

Mr. Obama chose to visit Ghana exclusively instead of the most obvious destinations he could have picked as a gesture of recognition of the West African nation’s commitment to the democratic system of government which guarantees, among other things, the rule of law and the right of citizens to choose and dismiss their governments, values shared by the U.S. and every other civilized society in the world.

With fraudulent and violence-plagued elections commonplace in much of the continent; with the absence of press freedom and t he persecution of journalists that has resulted in numerous murders of reporters and other media personnel within the past few years; with lifetime presidencies; with hereditary successions even where there are no monarchies; and, finally, with governments run by soldiers who, like bandits, seize power at gunpoint, often from democratically elected leaders, few African countries make the grade as true democracies. Mr. Obama, a principled man who has no desire to legitimize illegitimate rulers with his presence, wisely stayed away. Had he gone to any of these countries, many of which have some of the worst human rights records in the world and shared the spotlight with the despots who rule them, it might have been viewed in the same negative light as some past American presidents cozying up to the likes Pinochet, the late ruthless Chilean military dictator.

The decision not to visit any other country apart from Ghana wasn’t without controversy, however. A Nigerian official, obviously upset about Mr. Obama’s failure to include Africa’s most populous nation in his itinerary, reportedly fumed that snubbing Nigeria wouldn’t bring about change there. That may be true – if snobbery was, indeed, Mr. Obama’s intent; but neither would a 24-hour American presidential stopover.

On the other hand, change could come to Nigeria, Kenya, and the rest o f the countries in Africa where democracy is struggling to gain a foothold if the rulers would change their whole way of thinking about politics and government. This would require them to understand that political power is not for keeps for any individual or a clique; that the mandate to wield that power must come from the will of the people expressed in free and fair elections; that being in government doesn’t constitute a license to amass wealth at the expense of the people; and that the primary responsibility of any government is to improve the quality of life for its citizens.

As a person of African descent, President Obama is naturally interested in the welfare of Africa, perhaps more so than many of his predecessors, and he seems genuinely concerned about the problems associated with national leadership listed above that are largely responsible for all the continent’s ills – ills that run the gamut from poverty to disease to starvation to civil wars. The choice of Ghana, arguably the only functioning democracy in Africa, was clearly meant to underline this concern by subtly but powerfully reminding all the bad actors on the continent that they can only win the friendship and support of the most powerful nation on earth - as Ghana has done- by following Ghana’s refreshing example of government based on democratic principles and sound, free market economic policies.

&nb sp; The Obama visit to Ghana does more than try to put the psychological pressure on Africa’s autocratic rulers to get them to change their ways. It also challenges both the Ghanaian leadership and the citizenry to pull all the stops to ensure that democracy endures in Ghana. It would be a mistake for anyone to assume that every politician or political leader in Ghana is a dedicated disciple of the Jeffersonian principles of government. Some merely pay lip service to the idea of democracy and would just as soon drop the pretense and try to derail the democratic experiment when things do not go their way. The rank and file in Ghana should therefore jealously protect the democratic system because they wouldn’t like the alternative, which they already know what it looks like. They lived through it all before.

But there is another compelling reason why democracy cannot be allowed to fail in Ghana. The country that spearheaded Africa’s struggle for independence has an obligation to continue to inspire other African countries as they embark on a new round of struggle, which happens to be the quest for good governance and a better way of life for their citizens. President Obama’s brief visit to Accra was a vote of confidence and Ghana should work even harder to justify it.