As President Obama and his family head for Africa, the choice of Ghana as the first sub-Saharan African nation to play host to the first African American president has many asking -- "Why Ghana?" It's perhaps on the surface not a remarkable choice: a place far from flashpoints and, although poor, peaceful and beginning to thrive. But, to me, the symbolism of Ghana is bold, and the message it sends to African leaders is an unusually strong one.
When I last visited Ghana, I met an enthusiastically democratic people, openly debating and discussing politics. Ghana was the first independent sub-Saharan African nation, and democracy isn't window dressing there: it is a vital and important feature of life. That may be greeted with skepticism, but here's the proof: leadership has shifted back and forth to the opposition twice -- no small feat for any country, and nothing short of exceptional for a relatively poor nation in Africa.
Ghana should also serve as a symbol of the strengths African countries possess and the challenges they face. The entrepreneurial spirit of the people that I met, and their vigorous pace of business impressed me and should have the same affect on investors looking to place capital in Africa. The recent news that Ghana may be sitting on substantial oil wealth is a strength, but also a challenge; in other sub-Saharan African nations, the exploitation of oil (or any sub-soil wealth for that matter) has resulted in a widening gulf between the haves and the have-nots. But, if any nation is poised to meet that challenge, Ghana is -- due to its strong representative government.
Other challenges remain. Democracy is thriving in Ghana, but the people are still quite poor. Health statistics and basic human development indicators have made relatively little progress over the last two decades. 10% of all kids die before reaching the age of five. Walking through health centers in the country, I was surprised to see the low level of their services against a backdrop of national growth. The country is booming, but not everyone is benefiting yet.
When it comes to Africa, President Obama may actually have a tough act to follow. The Bush Administration was committed through PEPFAR (the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) and additional programs to providing aid, a policy that made "Republicans" of many Africans. Ghana is one of the few recipients of Millennium Challenge Corporation funds, a US-financed agency that rewards countries committed to political and economic freedom with cash. Its half billion in Ghana for boosting smallholder farm income while improving governance and infrastructure seems to have been wisely placed.
With this visit, President Obama is staking out important, new ground. President Obama's choice of Ghana as his first stop in Sub-saharan Africa therefore takes on a larger dimension. Rather than picking one from the host of candidates, the president chose to visit a nation that embraces democratic ideals in which corruption is low and good, transparent government predominates. Part of his message is most assuredly that US assistance, heretofore strong and -- at times -- unquestioning, may in the future be linked to a compelling proof of democracy, openness and good governance. This should serve to remind African leaders what we value most in the U.S.