x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Ghanaians roll out red carpet for Obama visit

The first African-American president of the United States makes his first official visit to sub-Saharan Africa today.

ACCRA // The streets of Ghana's capital have been swept clean and plenty of American flags line the main roads as Barack Obama, the first African-American president of the United States, makes his first official visit to sub-Saharan Africa today. Mr Obama, fresh from a G8 summit in Italy that focused in part on African development, will make a brief stop in Ghana on his way back to Washington. He will meet the recently elected president of Ghana, give a speech in which he is expected to outline his policy for Africa and tour a castle that housed slaves bound for the Americas.

Ghana and the US have strong ties that go back to the country's independence from Britain in 1957. In December, Ghana held elections that many praised as free and fair - a rarity for a continent plagued by vote rigging and coups. John Atta Mills, the former opposition leader, was elected in a peaceful poll. "By travelling to Ghana, we hope to highlight the effective governance they have in place," Mr Obama said last week in an interview with the website AllAfrica.com.

Mr Obama will hold talks with Mr Mills and meet local leaders before delivering a speech to the Ghanaian parliament, according to White House officials. Ghana, which has been a key trading partner with the US, recently discovered offshore oil reserves and is expected to start exporting oil as early as next year, an issue that could feature in the two leaders' discussions. As Ghana basks in the warm glow of its third American presidential visit, countries such as Nigeria and Kenya are feeling left out. Analysts say Mr Obama's choice of Ghana sends a message to other African countries where democracy has met serious stumbling blocks.

"[Obama] believes strongly in the rule of law, democratic constitutional rule and the principles that underpin it," Johnnie Carson, the US assistant secretary of state for African affairs, told reporters during a visit to Kenya last week. "We hope that his support for democracy in Ghana will be a catalyst for others to also adopt democratic norms that are equally as strong." Nigeria is plagued by corruption and has recently had military dictatorships. Kenya, the homeland of Mr Obama's father, erupted into violence after last year's presidential election was marred by fraud.

But activists here warn that the praise heaped on Ghana's leaders could make the country complacent with their successful, though fledgling democracy. "The country and leaders do deserve commendation, but I think there's plenty of work to do," said Emmanuel Gyimah-Boadi, the director of the Ghana Centre for Democratic Development. "It would be a mistake for anybody to think we have reached anything close to maturity."

Mr Obama's visage is plastered all over Accra. Large billboards show Mr Obama and Mr Mills and say "Akwaaba," the word for "Welcome" in Akan, Ghana's main tribal language. Vendors sell flags, T-shirts and pieces of fabric adorned with Mr Obama's smiling face. "This visit is good for business," said Alex Owiredu, 33, a T-shirt salesman. "Obama is our brother. When he comes here, the Ghanaian people will be excited and they will show it."

Authorities in Accra say they will deploy more than 10,000 police officers to boost security for the 24-hour visit. Ghanaians, though, say they will still try and get close to the American president. "Of course I will try and see him," said Joseph Lamptey, 43, a carpenter. "I'm sure that when he comes, he will see what problems we are facing and I'm sure he will try to help us." Besides Accra, Mr Obama and his wife, Michelle Obama, will tour a local hospital and visit Cape Coast Castle, a former British slave fort. The castle, a haunting reminder of slavery's cruel past, is also a powerful symbol for African-Americans whose ancestors, like Mrs Obama's, may have passed through its doors.

Some Ghanaians are hoping that Mr Obama comes with open pockets. "I hope he can bring us money," said Lago Quarcoopome, 50, who has been making decorative coffins for 30 years. "Our financial problems are so bad." mbrown@thenational.ae