Use Obama’s visit to Reclaim Leadership Role in Africa

The impending visit of U.S. President Barack Obama to Ghana on July 10-11 this year is a remarkable development and is historic for our country. Mr. Obama’s choice of Ghana as his only stop in his maiden trip to sub-Saharan Africa since assuming the American presidency has touched off a row in the region; and has been interpreted as a snub by regional heavy weights like Nigeria and even his father’s native Kenya. But Mr. Obama’s choice of Ghana is not a diplomatic snub; it is rather a recognition of Ghana’s role as the continent’s most mature democracy and the political standard bearer in Africa. Mr. Obama’s visit offers us an opportunity to reclaim our leadership role in Africa and regain our voice on the world stage.

But the visit is fraught with several perils. Obama’s intention to “discuss a range of bilateral and regional issues” with President Mills could become an excuse to focus narrowly on programs such as the Millennium Challenge Account (MCA),the President’s Malaria Initiative(PMI), the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act(AGOA) and other programs. These programs are important and have been at the center of U.S. engagement with Africa for the last decade. But we should resist the temptation to focus exclusively on them during Obama’s visit. We should also avoid the temptation to get mired in the debate about Darfur, human rights and, corruption. That is not to say that these issues are not important. They are. But they are not our most pressing challenges.

Our most pressing challenge remains under-development and poverty. The cause of this poverty is mostly structural. The devastating impact of the current global economic crisis on the economies of Africa—including on promising ones like Ghana and South Africa—is a reminder of the fragility of our economic systems and models. What we need to highlight therefore are the systemic issues that inhibit growth in the long-term; issues we have agonized over for decades: the imbalances in world trade; the issue of agricultural subsidies-an issue the West has repeatedly refused to budge on ; the Doha round of talks; the crippling conditionalities of the IMF and the World Bank; the West’s insistence on a rigid-take-it-or- leave- it- market economy model that leaves no space for innovation and creativity; and trade tariffs-an issue so critical to the survival of Africa’s industrial base—that if things don’t change—it would collapse completely.

Unlike other analysts, I don’t believe that Obama would push Africom on Ghana. Obama is a hard-nosed realist when it comes to foreign policy; and his foreign policy team is one of the most seasoned in recent times. They have read the tea-leaves; and they are aware of the intense debate around the issue in Ghana. They also know of Ghana’s history of resistance to anything remotely imperialist in appearance. They know it’s a dead end. Ghana’s answer to Africom is a big No!

Obama’s reason for coming to Africa this early in his term is strategic. It is to counter China’s increasingly strong influence in the region. During the presidential campaign last year, Mr.Obama often spoke of how surprised he was of the large foothold China was gaining in Africa by virtue of infrastructural projects, when he visited in 2006. Mr. Obama also spoke during the campaign of what he called “ungoverned spaces” in Africa—places with no functioning governments—where terrorism could thrive. Mr. Obama is using this visit to test the waters. The trip to Ghana is likely to influence his thinking and his Africa policy. Let us take advantage of it.

Let us not give the American press the narrative they want from this visit; and what they have ready for print: the first African-American U.S. President receives a tumultuous welcome in Africa, in a visit, rich with symbolism.

Africa has had enough of symbolism. We love Obama and are proud of him; but what we need is substance. We don’t need pity from the West, nor do we need a lecture. What we need is a dialogue and not a monologue. We need an adult conversation. We are tired of initiatives, summits and campaigns against hunger and disease. We are tired of photo-ops and being invited to G8 meetings only to end up as spectators while the Big Boys talk business. We want to feed our children. We want the dignity that comes from taking care of our own. We want to break free from the cycle of dependency. We want to achieve economic sufficiency. We want to cease from being “the scar on the conscience of the world.”

What Africa needs from the West is honesty and reciprocity. Don’t just preach; practice what you preach. If you insist that Africa must embrace a rigid take-it-or-leave-it market economy model; then, correct the imbalances in world trade. Make world trade fair. Don’t tell Africa to eliminate subsidies for agriculture; and then turn around and give generous subsidies to your farmers.

Ghana is in a unique position to deliver this message. Ours is the continent’s most mature democracy. It was in our country that the idea of self-determination, of independence, was born in Africa. We have been timid on the world stage for the last two decades or so because of the uncertainty surrounding our experiment with democracy. But that must change now. Our country has come of age. The hopes of the continent once again rest on our shoulders. Let us seize the moment and lead. God bless our homeland Ghana and make our nation great and strong.

Written by
Leonard Quarshie
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