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Obama praises, scolds Africa

2009-07-11 15:50

Accra - An American president who has "the blood of Africa within me" praised and scolded the continent of his ancestors on Saturday, asserting that forces of tyranny and corruption must yield if Africa is to achieve its promise.

"Yes you can," Barack Obama declared, brushing off his campaign slogan and adapting it for his foreign audience. Speaking to the Ghanaian Parliament, he called upon African societies to seize opportunities for peace, democracy and prosperity.

"This is a new moment of promise," he said. "To realise that promise, we must first recognise a fundamental truth that you have given life to in Ghana: Development depends upon good governance.

"That is the ingredient which has been missing in far too many places, for far too long. That is the change that can unlock Africa's potential."

Straightforward speech

The son of a white woman from Kansas and a black goat herder-turned-academic from Kenya, Obama delivered an unsentimental account of squandered opportunities in postcolonial Africa.

"No country is going to create wealth if its leaders exploit the economy to enrich themselves, or police can be bought off by drug traffickers," he said.

"No business wants to invest in a place where the government skims 20% off the top, or the head of the Port Authority is corrupt.

"No person wants to live in a society where the rule of law gives way to the rule of brutality and bribery. That is not democracy, that is tyranny, and now is the time for it to end.

"Africa doesn't need strongmen, it needs strong institutions."

Obama was on a 21-hour visit to the West African nation to highlight that country's democratic tradition and engagement with the West. His visit was greeted as a "spiritual reunion" on Saturday by Ghanian legislators.

'Ghana loves you'

People lined the streets, many waving at every vehicle of Obama's motorcade as it headed toward a meeting at Osu Castle, the coastline presidential state house, before his speech to Parliament. "Ghana loves you," said a billboard.

He was also visiting a hospital and a one-time slave trading post, joined by his wife, Michelle, a great-great granddaughter of slaves.

The Obama administration sought a wide African audience for the president's speech, inviting people to watch it at embassies and cultural centres across the continent.

The address was in part a splash of cold water for Africans who blame colonialism for their problems.

Obama spoke of the indignities visited upon Africans from the era of European rule. He said his grandfather, a cook for the British in Kenya, was called "boy" by his employers for much of his life despite his being a respected village elder. He said it was a time of artificial borders and unfair trade.

But he said the West is not to blame "for the destruction of the Zimbabwean economy over the last decade, or wars in which children are enlisted as combatants."

Nor for the corruption that is a daily fact of life for many, he said.

Wars over land, resources

"Africa is not the crude caricature of a continent at war," he said. "But for far too many Africans, conflict is a part of life, as constant as the sun. There are wars over land and wars over resources.

"And it is still far too easy for those without conscience to manipulate whole communities into fighting among faiths and tribes.

"These conflicts are a millstone around Africa's neck."

Obama started his day with typical calm. Wearing a gray T-shirt and gym pants, he walked through the lobby of his hotel almost unnoticed at 07:30 local time on his way to the downstairs gym for a workout.

A short time later, his motorcade left the hotel, passed under hovering military helicopters and arrived for a delayed welcome ceremony with Ghanaian President John Atta Mills.

"I can say without any fear of contradiction that all Ghanaians want to see you," Mills said. "I wish it were possible for me to send you to every home in Ghana."

Castle visit

Before the flight home, Obama planned to tour Cape Coast Castle, a seaside fortress converted to the slave trade by the British in the 17th century. In its dungeons, thousands of shackled Africans huddled in squalor before being herded onto ships bound for America.

The castle visit mirrored those paid by Clinton and George W Bush to the slave-trading post of Goree Island, Senegal - with the added impact of Obama's mixed-race background and history-making election.

In Ghana too, Obama followed in Clinton's footsteps. In 1998, a surging crowd cheered Clinton in Accra's Independence Square and toppled barricades after his speech. Clinton shouted, "Back up! Back up!", his Secret Service detail clearly frantic.

Obama avoided scheduling large public events, wishing to keep emotions in check in a singular moment in African-American diplomacy.

Obama flew to Ghana after the G-8 summit in L'Aquila, Italy, approved a new $20bn food security plan.

It aims to help poor nations in Africa and elsewhere to avert mass starvation during the global recession.