When Air Force One touches down in Ghana on Friday evening, it's sure to be another goosebump moment of the Obama presidency. The rich symbolism in Barack Obama, the son of a Kenyan immigrant, visiting Africa as the President of the United States, and Michelle Obama, the descendent of enslaved Africans, going as the First Lady, holds significant weight for Black people around the world. Amid the anticipated media narrative, however, of Ghana excitedly welcoming the first Black President on his first trip to sub-Saharan Africa, many are also wondering about the substance.
"People make a mistake and think just his going to Africa and being on the ground is sufficient," says Nicole Lee, Executive Director of TransAfrica Forum, a foreign policy organization focused on Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America. "There's also a notion that because Obama is an African-American President that he will have a natural affinity toward the people of Africa. That may be true, but the question is: Will that natural affinity be demonstrated through real concrete policy changes?"
While President Obama has revealed little about his Africa policy to date, his choice to visit Ghana--a country that has undergone peaceful democratic elections, even with razor-thin margins in its last presidential contest--gives us some indication. Calling himself "a big believer that Africans are responsible for Africa" in a recent interview with AllAfrica.com, he said he wants to highlight democracy, good governance and strong accountable institutions as being the key to development.
Josh Ruxin, a Columbia University assistant professor and the director of the Access Project, which develops public health programs in Africa, applauds this policy direction. "He's sending a signal that his administration is going to focus on transparency and democracy over image or patrimony," he said, continuing that Ghanaians want to break the cycle of dependency on foreign aid and reach economic sufficiency. "Ghanaians have been boisterous supporters of 'trade not aid.'"
Although former President George W. Bush tripled humanitarian aid to Africa, with a strong focus on fighting HIV/AIDS, his approach to foreign assistance has also been criticized for being too narrow and for independently setting priorities for Africa. "We need to have a full engagement in Africa, based on partnership and trust and not our own short-term goals and objectives," said Lee of TransAfrica Forum.
That said, humanitarianism and development issues are expected to come up in the President's talks with Ghanaian President John Atta Mills, particularly concerning the country's high rate of infant and maternal mortality, as well as food security and agricultural growth. But the Obama administration has stressed that talks will focus on the people of Ghana driving their country forward, and incorporating African voices in foreign policy, rather than the United States assuming the driver's seat.
"The fact that President Obama will be going to the slave castles is symbolic, and I think it's important for African-Americans to see that symbol," Lee says on the public affairs side of the President's trip, which will include a powerful visit to Cape Coast Castle, where enslaved Africans were once held before being loaded into ships and traded in the Americas. "But that's not the whole story. Just as Africa lives in the imagination of African-Americans, it is also a real place with real issues and concerns. Part of those concerns have been U.S. policy towards Africa, and African nations are looking for that policy change."