Barack Obama and his family will touch down in Accra, Ghana this weekend, and while it's significant that Obama comes to Africa as the first American president of African descent, the trip will have none of that Return-to-the-Motherland feel, in part because he’s already done that (see Dreams from My Father). Nor will it produce any of the Big-Man-on-Safari atmospherics that we have seen with other American presidents.
It is not, for example, the 12-country vacation Bill Clinton took in 1998. Michelle Gavin, senior White House director for African Affairs, speaking in advance of Obama’s trip, stressed that the stop in Ghana is about more than snapshots at the slave museum. “African voices are an important part of global discussions on key global issues,” she said, including many of those discussed during the G-8 meetings held in Italy just before Obama’s arrival in Ghana. “Africa is a part of the grand foreign policy vision,” she added; “it's not some separate sphere that one engages in and then hops out and has no relationship to the rest of the foreign policy agenda.”
In Ghana, Obama will make a major speech on development and “the importance of governance for progress, the importance of governance for stability,” Gavin added. The White House has pointed to Ghana’s free, fair and relatively close recent presidential election as a model for what should be happening all over Africa. It was an orderly democratic transfer of power that did not—unlike Kenya in 2007, Zimbabwe in 2008 and, last month, Iran—turn violent.
In an interview with AllAfrica.com just before he touched down on African soil, Obama again emphasized the “direct correlation between governance and prosperity.” He praised Ghana’s new president, John Mills, who, like Obama, took office peacefully in January 2009. “President Mills has shown himself committed to the rule of law, to the kinds of democratic commitments that ensure stability in a country,” Obama said. “Countries that are governed well, that are stable, where the leadership recognizes that they are accountable to the people and that [has] institutions [that] are stronger than any one person, have a track record of producing results for the people.”
With that in mind, it’s worth taking a look at a few of the leaders who have met the Obama standard, and a lot more who have fallen short. The sad reality is that corruption and poor management of resources has handicapped dozens of countries on the continent. If Obama wants to tackle the important issues of the 21st century—climate change, terrorism and disease—he will need this group of military dictators, greedy politicians and overweening fundamentalists to turn over a new leaf.
Watch the All Africa video here:
And click here to view our gallery of sub-Saharan big wigs.
Dayo Olopade is Washington Reporter for The Root.
Covers the White House and Washington for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.