President Obama’s poll numbers may be slipping in the US, but he’s certainly popular in Accra. I missed the chaos of his visit, but have been enjoying the aftermath – countless billboards featuring the President, his family, Obama and Ghanaian President Atta Mills together. At the beautiful new Accra Mall, the bookshop was filled with Obama-focused titles, and a special gave you a signed CD by a local artist with any purchase of an Obama book.
One newspaper was attempting to stir up controversy with the allegations that the President didn’t cry when visiting Cape Coast Castle. Another featured a reclining woman wearing traditional dress, captioned “I was waiting for Obama” – to me, the headline and picture suggested a hint of scandal. Had the Government of Ghana filled his suite at the Holiday Inn with attractive women in traditional dress, lounging on various soft surfaces? Alas. The “story” inside offered the breaking news that a businesswoman from Takoradi had hoped to meet with Obama and discovered that it wasn’t possible given his schedule… which gives her something in common with roughly every I saw in Ghana, including my friends who work in the US embassy or in the Government of Ghana.
(The one exception is my dear friend Bernard, featured in the header of this blog. He was invited by the US embassy to teach Michele, Sasha and Malia how to play drums and xylophones during a brief cultural visit they had within the Holiday Inn. So now I can claim that I’ve studied music with the same teacher as our First Lady.)
While approximately no one got time with the US President, approximately everyone has an opinion about the real rationale for his visit. One theory offers that it was a Michele visit, based on a deep desire to see Cape Coast Castle and confront the legacy of slavery – in this theory, Ghana’s politics are almost an afterthought to a presidential family roots tour. Another theory posits that the visit is purely economic, an attempt to ensure that US companies will be the lead investors in Ghana’s newly developing oilfields. While some forum posters hint that the Obama visit is a sinister plot to ensure a US military base in West Africa, that idea carries basically no weight with the people I’ve visited with – even with increasing violence in Mali and the emergence of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, US strategic interests on the continent are a lot closer to Somalia and Sudan and pretty far from the Gold Coast.
While there’s no shortage of pride over the Obama visit, there’s a darker tone as well to many of these conversations. This is the third US presidential visit to Ghana, and while Obama is a rock star to an extent that George W. Bush never was, there’s a sense of inevitability to some of these visits. Some friends have reflected, “Where else can he go?”, noting that many stable states on the continent are functionally one-party states. If the visit is a gift offered to Ghana to congratulate it for stable, multiparty democracy with a dual alternation of power, some Ghanaian insiders wonder whether the wider world knows of all the accusations (in both directions) of vote rigging, or the contained but disturbing violence that affected some party activists. In other words, if this is the best we’ve got, we’ve got larger African problems that demand addressing.
E. Gyimah-Boadi, the executive director of the Ghana Center for Democratic Development, offers this sort of cautionary response to the Obama visit in a piece titled: “The Best Worst Country In Africa”. While he avoids the election fraud theories that I’ve been hearing the past few days, he makes a solid case that Ghana’s democratic institutions aren’t as strong as we might want them to be, especially inasmuch as power is still overly concentrated in the executive, a legacy of the “big man” past of the country, when it was ruled by a coup government which devolved to democratic leadership.
“President Musugu Babazonga”, the creation of a Ghanaian satirist, is concerned about Obama’s distinction between strong men and strong institutions. In an editorial offering his reactions as “Musugu Babazonga – President-for-Life of the Coconut Republic of Tonga in the Gulf of Guinea”, he notes:
I have been democratically elected several times and have handed over peacefully – to myself. I have been in power for 30 years, so we have stability too. Isn’t that important for development? Obama doesn’t know what he is talking about.
He said this: “Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions.” He must be smoking something again. Who is going to build the strong institutions? It takes strong leaders to build strong institutions, stupid.
Ugandan journalist Andrew Mwenda is almost as angry about Obama’s speech as President Babazonga, but I think Mwenda’s not writing parody… though I admit I find his argument both hard to follow and to swallow. He suggests that Obama should “Stop telling Africa what to do. Lectures are part of the problem.” But the heart of his argument appears to be a criticism of the American model of democratic governance combined with economic growth. He suggests that authoritarian Rwanda is doing a better job of eliminating corruption than democratic Uganda and wonders whether we should be promoting African Singapores rather than democracies. Possible, but what do we do when the former continental Singapores – Zimbabwe, for instance – can’t recover from systematic authoritarian mismanagement?
My friends at Global Voices feature dozens of posts weighing in from Africa and the diaspora with opinion, speculation and celebration of the visit. It’s hard to map their overall trajectory beyond a sense that an Obama visit is helping bring some of the most difficult and challenging conversations we have about Africa to the forefront of discussion, which can only be a good thing.