BERKELEY – On July 10, one very important descendant of black Africa will make a triumphant return to the motherland.
Scholars speak of “the empire striking back,” referring to former colonized peoples, such as immigrants from Africa and India, settling in Europe and North America and then challenging norms of race and identity. In his first official trip to Africa, US President Barack Obama is striking back in a novel way. His visit to Ghana highlights the desirability of prominent people from the diaspora making a positive contribution to African affairs.
But Obama’s visit, while heavy on symbolism, reveals the limits of his power. Burdened by economic problems in America and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he can’t act boldly in Africa or make big promises.
Indeed, six months into his presidency, he has already undercut expectations. He has approached with great caution the task of settling the region’s violent conflicts – in Darfur, eastern Congo, and Somalia. He has also kept a safe distance from Africa’s political failures, notably in Zimbabwe, where he has resisted calls to assist in the removal of Robert Mugabe.
Obama’s caution is reasonable. He doesn’t want to be pigeon-holed, after all, as “the president of Africa.” But, in choosing restraint over intervention, he has disappointed ordinary Africans and international activists alike.
Like his predecessors, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, Obama wants to avoid messy entanglements in Africa’s internal politics. Bush did nothing to stop the killings in Darfur or hasten Mugabe’s exit from power. Clinton, meanwhile, shamefully abandoned Somalia after the deaths of American soldiers in Mogadishu – and did nothing in the face of Rwanda’s genocide.
For Obama, Africa so far chiefly remains a backdrop against which he defines his American identity. As he explained in his memoir Dreams from My Father , visiting his father’s native Kenya for the first time made him feel more American – and less African – than ever.
In deciding to visit Ghana, a former British colony and a leading node in the global slave trade of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Obama bypassed the Kenya of his father. Kenya is embroiled in bitter tribal disputes, and saddled with a brazenly corrupt government.
By contrast, Ghana represents the sunny side Africa. The country recently completed a well-run election in which the opposition took power. Its economy is growing. Ethnic relations in this highly diverse nation are as good as they are anywhere in the world.
Obama will be on African soil for a mere two days, during which time he is expected to emphasize America’s role in promoting good governance and non-violence in Africa – goals long high on America’s public agenda. Obama’s one new priority – to expand US support for African farmers – reflects a shrewd appreciation of how the expansion of agriculture can quickly lift many rural Africans out of poverty.
“The administration plans over a number of years to put a substantial amount of money into agricultural development,” Obama’s choice for Secretary of State for African Affairs, Johnnie Carson, said in advance of the president’s trip.
Don’t expect Obama to confront the most controversial aspect of US relations with Africa: the American military’s new African command. Bush, who created the command, gave the US Department of Defense new powers to work on civilian issues in Africa and to expand its military partnerships with governments in the region.
Obama isn’t likely to say whether he’ll scale back the US military role in the region, or whether America’s growing reliance on African oil is the real reason – not Obama’s heritage – for wooing Africans. Obama’s lack of candor won’t hurt him in the US, where domestic political calculations take precedence. In truth, his visit to Africa is a reward to his stalwart African-American supporters, who voted overwhelmingly for him in the November election and who remain one pillar of his base.
For African-Americans, Ghana has special meaning. The country played an important role in the push for civil rights in America, for instance. In 1957, when legal segregation seemed entrenched in the US, Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah, used the occasion of his country’s independence from Britain to highlight the injustices experienced daily by black Americans. He invited Martin Luther King, Jr. to his inauguration, giving the Atlanta-based civil rights leader a global platform for the first time.
Malcolm X, the black nationalist leader, visited Ghana two years later, and again in 1964. Nkrumah invited W.E.B. Du Bois, the most important black intellectual of the twentieth century, to Ghana in 1961. Du Bois became a citizen and lived in Ghana until his death. Hundreds of African-Americans live year round in Ghana today, some within a short walk of Cape Coast Castle, the slaving fort that shipped human cargo until Britain halted the trade in 1807.
Learned and deeply reflective, Obama knows that black Americans will view his visit to Ghana very differently than white Americans will. His tendency to view Africa through an American lens is thus both understandable and inevitable. Yet his African roots give him a unique capacity to transform American relations with Africa, elevating the importance of African self-reliance and achievement, while striving to make American aid more intelligent and effective.