Obama’s direct line to the heart of Africa

You need only read the heartrending Africa chapters of Dreams from My Father to realise that Barack Obama gets Africa. He struggles with his own feuding Kenyan family, where poorer members scrounge off richer ones, and he agonises over why this continent, full of smart, energetic people and rich in resources cannot get its act together. His own catchphrase, “Yes We Can”, seems to be answered by Africa’s, “But We Don’t”.

On becoming US President, Mr Obama could have done many things to put Africa high on his agenda: he could have made it his first overseas trip, arranged a dramatic appointment as head of the Africa bureau, or taken a sentimental journey to Kenya. Instead, he chose to do none of these things. The new head of the Africa bureau, Johnnie Carson, a steady career diplomat with a lot of Africa experience, was one of Mr Obama’s last appointments, made 106 days after his inauguration.

Maybe it was a defensive move; because Mr Obama is half-African, he did not want to make any special gesture to Africa or to African America. Or maybe it reflected the power of Mr Obama’s unique position. He can do something no other Western leader can do. He can pick up the phone to an African president and talk to him straight — as an African, without fear that he can be accused of neo-colonialism or racism, the weak but poisonous defence against Western pressure by many African rulers. As one Ghanaian put it to me yesterday: “If a foreigner tells you to clean up your mess, it is regarded as an insult. If your brother tells you, it is good advice.”

Today Mr Obama makes his first visit to Africa proper (his Cairo trip being directed at the Middle East). And Ghana is his chosen country, rather than Kenya, South Africa or Nigeria.

The positive answer to “why Ghana?” is that it has avoided disaster and become stable and quite successful. Ghana also sees itself as a natural leader of the continent because it was the first country in sub-Saharan Africa to gain independence from colonial rule. Its most illustrious son is Kofi Annan, who is a not untypical member of Ghana’s relatively large and growing professional middle class, much of which has international experience.

The negative answer to the question is: “Where else could he go?” If he went to Kenya, he might cause a civil war. After the disastrous election at the end of 2007, when politicians played on ethnic fears and paid tribal gangs to attack their rivals, parts of the country exploded in violence. Mr Obama’s father’s own Luo people were in the thick of this fighting. His presence might well inspire them to have another go.

Nigeria’s rulers are furious that Mr Obama has snubbed their country, but their “election” in 2007 was riddled with violence and fraud, and they are still a byword for corruption and bad governance on the continent. While South Africa’s election was clean, the new President, Jacob Zuma, has question marks over his character. An Obama visit at this stage might be seen as a premature endorsement.

Ghana’s stability and political maturity is being rewarded, especially because good governance is the main thrust of Mr Obama’s Africa policy; get the politics right and development will follow. Obvious, you might think, but this approach is fundamentally different from the charity-driven rock star approach of Bush, Blair and Brown. President Bush threw money at Africa, promising that the US would double aid to Africa by 2010. This was mainly a bid for a legacy, but he also believed Africa’s poverty made it a breeding ground or haven for terrorism. He created Africom, a strategic US force to be based in Africa as part of the War on Terror.

For once, a united Africa pushed back and refused to have its headquarters on African soil. Today it consists of several small training programmes for African armies and a force of about 2,000 troops based in Djibouti.

Mr Bush’s fundraising for Africa meant Mr Obama has had an easy ride with Congress. He has proposed an 8 per cent increase for next year, bringing all US aid to $8.8 billion (£5.5 billion) with a 10 per cent increase for Africa. And he has promised to double foreign assistance again by 2015. The caveat is that much of that aid is bilateral and tied to American goods and services. ONE, the aid advocacy organisation, ranks it second to last for aid effectiveness among the G7 donors.

Mr Obama’s Africa team is rich in expertise. Besides Carson there is Susan Rice, who was Bill Clinton’s Assistant Secretary of State for Africa and is now Ambassador to the UN, and Gayle Smith and Michelle Gavin at the National Security Council.

There is much talk of establishing partnerships to deal with the continent’s problems and working with the African Union and the UN. There is no mention of threats of Islamic terrorism, American oil interests, or the growing economic engagement and political influence of China in Africa. The priority list is familiar but sensible: promote democracy, good governance and the rule of law, address Africa’s conflicts and encourage long-term growth. There are no magic bullets.

One area in which we will not see any change is in subsidies for US agriculture, worth $31.6 billion in 2007. Cotton subsidies, for example, lower the international price, impoverishing cotton-growing countries such as Benin, Côte d’Ivoire and Mali. For a Democrat President in hard economic times, dismantling those subsidies is not an option.

But the most profound impact of all that Mr Obama may have is that he is an African. That will boost Africa’s self-belief. It has been growing for some time but now it really is cool to be African.

Richard Dowden, director of the Royal African Society and author of Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles.