Obama tells Africa: “Yes, you can”

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ACCRA, Ghana — Even to untrained ears, its not hard to tell what the talking drums pattering at Kotoko International airport, or the spinning, chanting dervishes on the tarmac, or the local language broadcasts in the capital are saying: The Obamas have left.

Less than 24 hours after the United States’ first family seized the rapt attention of Ghana’s public, landing in Accra for President Barack Obama’s maiden presidential trip to sub-Saharan Africa, they left, wrapping up a visit that analysts say was just long enough for America’s first black president to deliver his special brand of inspirational messages to Africa.

Through the magnifying glass coverage of Ghana’s local media, the president’s visit at times had the look of a family road trip: The family toured a historic slave dungeon, and a maternity ward. Dad stepped aside for bilateral talks and a major speech to Ghana’s parliament.

At parliament, in his first significant pronouncement on Africa, the president outlined his aspirations for the continent, but offered few specifics and painted only broad-brush policy, analysts said.

Obama called for widespread reassessment of Africa’s governing structures, and for an economic transformation away from single-product economies.

If it was a message of “Change,” however, it wasn’t exactly a change of message for the president, who stressed before this African audience many of the same themes he introduced during his presidential campaign.

Obama spoke of the power of community service and grassroots organizing, of the importance of mending ethnic and religious differences, of the power of democracy, and the allure of hope.

Most of all, he called for a strengthening of Africa’s civil society institutions, and for a 21st century determined not by strong, strident leadership, but by common citizens more like his goatherd turned economist father, or the policewoman and the journalist he commended in his remarks.

“We’ve learned that it will not be giants like [Kwame] Nkrumah and [Jomo] Kenyatta that will determine Africa’s future,” the president said, referencing the commanding founding fathers of Ghana and Kenya, respectively. “Instead, it will be you — the men and women in Ghana’s parliament — the people you represent. It will be the young people brimming with talent and energy and hope who can claim the future that so many in previous generations never realized.”

For many in Accra, the president’s words echoed through a generational prism – at moments in the speech the president specifically called on the young to organize, a compelling message in this country where seniority and respect for elders pervade the political culture.

“Obama is 47,” said Eric Angel Corbenu, a professional political commentator. “How many 47-years-old Ghanaians would be given the opportunity to reach the high office like Obama in Ghana? Most people of 47 years are still seen as young people, that wisdom only resides in the heads of the aged. And I don’t believe in that.”

In his speech, Obama noted that “in places like Ghana, young people make up over half the population.”

“You have the power to hold your leaders accountable, and to build institutions that serve the people,” he added.

“I was looking at that hall on the TV and wondering how many young people were even invited,” said Samuel Bartel, a radio host who recently resigned his position. “It’s just still the old political establishment, and the old political club who are in the elite. It doesn’t reflect that wind of change.”

If Obama’s speech was partially an appeal to the young, it was also an appeal to the new, to an Africa increasingly wired around cell phones and the occasional internet connection.

The president asked for — and received — thousands of text messages from Africans across the world, wondering whether he’d intervene in Darfur or why he hadn’t stopped in Nigeria.

A week before his visit, he did his first major Africa interview with AllAfrica.com, one of Africa’s few but flourishing online-only news sources.

Ghana, the first sub-Saharan Africa to break free of the colonial yoke, has lately been a natural port of call for presidents hoping to highlight its impressive democratic gains since the country returned to constitutional rule in 1992.

In 1998, after the country’s second credible election, President Bill Clinton arrived in Accra, mounted a grandstand hand-in-hand with then-President Jerry Rawlings, and wowed an audience of 500,000.

During his own two terms, President George W. Bush visited Accra and hosted then-President John Agyekum Kufuor in Washington several times, holding press conferences and state dinners at Ghana’s presidential castle or the White House.

Obama’s speech, delivered symbolically before Ghana’s legislative body, offered a contrast in focus and in tone. He announced no aid commitments, and simply diagnosed in nuanced paragraphs the source of Africa’s woes.

“He was a more serious person,” Akordy Adingya, a businessman, said of Obama. “Initially people’s expectations were sort of like if Obama comes to Ghana, everything will change in one day. But I’m happy that Obama himself made it clear that it’s not going to be easy, and if Africa is going to move forward, no one can do it but us. And that his position in Ghana is to be a friend and partner to support Ghanaians.”

For weeks, Obama’s visit was the preoccupation not just of the media — but of the vendors who sold Obama paraphernalia, and the women who wore dresses in Obama cloth, and in the reggae artists and rappers who composed hit tunes to praise his name.

Now that Obama has left, some are assessing what lasting impact the trip will have.

“It has fired up people but what I want to know is how long is that fire going to be on,” Adingya said. “Now we know that the whole world is watching us. So we will be on our toes.”

More GlobalPost dispatches from Ghana:

The politics of Ghana’s iconic kente cloth

Ghana’s illicit trade in discarded electronics

Nigerians fight bad reps in Ghana

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