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President Obama’s Trip to Ghana: Opportunity for New U.S. Approach to Africa

July 9th, 2009

africa_240_wide_webThe President of the United States, Barack Obama, makes his first presidential visit to Sub-Saharan Africa when he travels to Ghana, West Africa on July 10 and 11. President Obama will hold bilateral talks with host President John Atta Mills and will address Ghana’s parliament where he will deliver a major speech on Democracy and Food Security. 

President Obama has chosen to visit Ghana, the first African country to gain independence in 1957 from Britain, disappointing critics who had hoped that Obama’s first trip to Africa would target Kenya (his father’s country), or Nigeria or South Africa – the economic giants in Africa. Ghana is likely to have been chosen to highlight the new Obama Administration’s interest in championing democracy in Africa. Ghana is not like other nations that have had to deal with coups such as Madagascar and Mauritania, fraudulent elections as in Kenya and Nigeria, armed conflicts as in Central Africa and the Horn of Africa or repressive regimes as in Zimbabwe and Niger. Ghana serves as a model for good governance in Africa and has held peaceful elections and several transitions of democratically elected governments. In January 2009, Opposition leader John Atta Mills became Ghana’s third democratically-elected President after defeating a ruling government which had held power for two terms.

The Obama Administration has inherited the Africa Policy of the Administration of the former President George W. Bush. This focused on three initiatives, namely: the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) which gives U.S. Aid in the form of grants to poor countries that adopt economic and political reforms; the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR); and AFRICOM, the U.S. Africa Military Command. The Obama Administration must sustain the gains made in the MCC and PEPFAR initiatives, but overall there is a need to review and clarify the mandates of these three major U.S. initiatives towards Africa.

The United States is expanding its military engagement in Africa, by creating a United States Military Command (AFRICOM). The Obama Administration, adopting the Bush policy on Africa, has requested increases in funding in Fiscal Year 2010 for AFRICOM and U.S military security assistance programs in Africa. The mandate and oversight of AFRICOM remains unclear and there is strong opposition to it from African nations. AFRICOM threatens to replace the traditional US approach of diplomacy and development with a strong military engagement in Africa. Groups concerned about Africa hope that President Obama will stop the militarization of U.S. policy in the region and will decide instead to support multilateral peacekeeping initiatives with the African Union, regional bodies such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), and the United Nations.

As the President travels to Ghana, he will likely encounter the successful legacy of the Bush Administration which put millions of Africans on life-saving AIDS treatment through the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). The treatment gains of PEPFAR must be sustained, but there is also a need to expand the U.S. HIV/AIDS programs to TB and Malaria, the two leading causes of death in Africa. In addition, prevention should be given a high priority in the fight against AIDS in Africa, something the PEPFAR has not done well. A new U.S. approach to Africa must be accompanied by the Obama Administration fulfilling the commitment to fund the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria which is currently facing a deficit. Finally, expanding access to low cost, high quality life saving medicines by increasing generic production in Africa is critically important and something the Administration should support vigorously.

Africa is a resource-rich continent that attracts major companies from the United States. These U.S. companies operating in Africa become the first glimpse of America for many people there. While U.S. diplomats stay mainly in capital cities, American oil and mining companies – due their large scale operations – are visible in rural as well as urban areas of Africa. The Obama Administration can effectively support Africa by promoting adherence to the OECD Multi-National Enterprise guidelines governing corporate behavior, while at the same time working to make these guidelines more robust and enforceable.

In 2008, Ghana officially announced oil discoveries after exploration by two oil drilling companies, UK Tullow Oil and Dallas-based Energy Kosmos. Following this announcement, Ghana has been caught up in “Oil fever” which has generated a lot of interest from U.S. oil and gas companies. It has been estimated that Ghana’s oil potential can generate $20 billion over the next 18 years. Ghana is hoping to use the oil revenues to invest in health, education and fighting poverty amongst its people. It hopes to avoid the resource conflicts which countries like Nigeria, Congo D.R. have experienced. The US is one of the world’s  largest oil importers, hence good U.S. bilateral relationships with Ghana and other African oil producers are important to insure oil supplies, especially in the light of Middle East instability.

The Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) gives aid through the Millennium Challenge Account (MCA) to poor nations that meet eligibility criteria including good government, economic freedom, and investment in health and education. Unfortunately, countries which are eligible and have received MCA support such as Kenya and Madagascar have experienced fraudulent elections and are tainted by corruption. This runs counter to the basic principles for MCA eligibility. The Obama Administration must review MCC funding in Africa.

The Obama Administration can also empower African nations by banning U.S. companies from engaging in predatory Vulture fund activity. Vulture Funds purchase a poor country’s debt on the secondary market, hoping for a multilateral debt relief deal that has the inadvertent result of increasing the value of the country’s remaining debt paper. Several countries have found themselves the prey of these vulture funds, which have successfully sued in Court for payment based on the increased value of the debt that they hold. Scarce resources are thus diverted within the country, preventing much needed investments in health and education.

While these challenges may not be solved or even referred to in the one major speech in Ghana that is planned, President Obama’s visit to the continent of Africa will likely be an emotional one. Millions of people across the continent will be celebrating with joy and pride as an American president with family ties to Kenya touches down on African soil.

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