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President Obama Heads to Ghana on First Official Trip to Sub-Saharan Africa

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President Obama arrives in Ghana today on his first official trip to Sub-Saharan Africa since becoming president. He is expected to meet Ghana’s President John Atta Mills today and speak to the country’s parliament on Saturday, in what is expected to be a major policy address outlining US policy on Africa. Why Ghana? Some say it has to do with the recent discovery of oil in Ghana. A quarter of US oil imports are expected to come from West Africa by 2015, according to estimates by the National Intelligence Council. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: President Obama arrives in Ghana today on his first official trip to Sub-Saharan Africa since becoming president. He is expected to meet Ghana’s President John Atta Mills today and to speak to the country’s parliament on Saturday, in what is expected to be a major policy address outlining US policy on Africa.

As thousands in Ghana prepare for the arrival of the first African American president of the United States, people across the continent are asking why Obama chose to visit Ghana and not, for example, his father’s homeland of Kenya. When the trip was announced in May, the White House described Ghana as a, quote, “trusted partner” and praised its sound governance and lasting development. Some commentators concur, pointing to Ghana’s relative stability and democratic development. Others say it has more to do with the recent discovery of oil in Ghana and note that a quarter of US oil [imports] are expected to come from West Africa by 2015, according to estimates by the National Intelligence Council.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, today we host a discussion on President Obama’s visit to Ghana and his administration’s Africa policy with two leading analysts.

Kwesi Pratt is a veteran Ghanaian journalist, editor of Insight newspaper, joining us on the line from the capital city of Accra in Ghana.

And from Washington, DC, we’re joined by independent Africa policy analyst and former executive director of Africa Action, Nii Akuetteh, who also hails from Ghana.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Let’s begin with Kwesi Pratt in Accra. Can you talk about the preparations for and the expectations for the Obama family’s visit to Ghana?

KWESI PRATT: Well, first of all, the expectations are very high. There are many people on the streets who believe that the Obama visit will resolve all the economic, social and political problems of Ghana.

The preparation is quite intense. Ten thousand policemen and -women have been mobilized to provide protection to Obama. And many of these merchants that line the route from the airport to where he’s likely to stay and perform functions have been closed down until Sunday.

So there’s a lot of enthusiasm, and the expectation is very high, and the security preparations are unprecedented.

AMY GOODMAN: And why do you think, and why are people saying in Ghana, that President Obama chose Ghana as the first Sub-Saharan African nation to visit as the first African American president?

KWESI PRATT: Well, the official reason has been given as Ghana’s fledgling democracy, that the United States of America has a lot of confidence in Ghana’s fledgling democracy.

But all of us know that the main interest is oil. If you read the Cheney report, the Cheney report states very clearly that by 2015 American oil imports will move from 11 percent to 25 percent. The Cheney report also makes a recommendation for the establishment of military bases in order to protect American interest in American oil. And, for me, these are the two key reasons why the United States and Obama are interested in this visit. It’s got nothing to do with democracy, but the preservation of American interest.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Kwesi Pratt, just before President Obama was elected in November, the Bush administration finally created or established AFRICOM, the center — military command center for Africa of the United States military. But most of the countries in Africa refused to allow the US to set it up in Africa itself. Only Liberia indicated a willingness to do so. Could you talk about what’s been the reaction to the United States government, especially during the Bush administration, beginning to establish a military command in the continent?

KWESI PRATT: Well, I think that the reaction has been largely negative. In Ghana, being part of the campaign against the establishment of any US facility in Ghana, in any part of Ghana — you do know that the Nigerian government has said that it would not allow the establishment of any US military facility in Nigeria and anywhere in West Africa. I think that as a result of these agitations, that US administrations, including the Bush administration, have had to go easy on the drive to establish some military presence in Africa. In Ghana, I don’t think that there’s any possibility of establishing such a presence, because it will be resisted, and the resistance will be massive.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Nii Akuetteh, I wanted to get your response to President Obama’s choice as Ghana. You have lived in the United States for decades, but you were born in Ghana.

NII AKUETTEH: Yes. Thank you very much for inviting me. And Kwesi, it’s good to hear you.

Yes, I think that, you know, President Obama, it seems to me, that he picked Ghana for a number of different motives. I take Kwesi’s point that the oil that has been discovered in Ghana is an attraction and the fact that the US will be importing a lot more oil from West Africa within the next few years, that there are any number of studies saying that the United States should make sure that it protects that oil. Currently, a lot of the oil comes from Nigeria, and we know that in southeastern Nigeria, where the oil is, there is a lot of agitation, even including some violence, because oil companies, from Shell to Chevron, have been behaving in a predatory manner. And therefore, the oil is an issue, and the establishment of AFRICOM, where twisting arms of African governments to agree to host AFRICOM has also been going on. And I do support Kwesi. He’s been leading the fight in Ghana to make sure that it doesn’t come.

But I would say that the democracy issue was also part of the calculation. And given my particular bias as an activist in Washington trying to make sure that the United States does the right thing in Africa — I mean, of course, we need a lot of allies, including media outlets like Democracy Now! So I think the democracy factor is one small factor, and it’s up to us in Washington and around the United States to make sure that it becomes bigger in the calculations of Mr. Obama. So it’s up to us to push him. And because he himself has said it, and his staff in the White House also did say, that democracy and governance in Ghana is the reason they chose Ghana, our strategy here in Washington is that, OK, we will hold them to their words. We will make sure that any agreements they sign, US policy, US aid projects, put the priority on democracy and strengthening civil society.

The President gave a very good speech, I thought, in Moscow a couple of days ago, and he talked about democracy as an instrument whereby countries can make progress, whereby they can make their imperfections work on those. He pointed out that the United States itself, you know, when it was started, black people did not have any rights. And he couldn’t have been elected. But democracy made it easier for him to have been elected. So, we are going to hold him to his words. We are going to push him. As much as we think he has potential as an American president, it is our job, it is civil society’s job, to make sure that his policies on Africa are driven by democratic ideals and that the US — long US habit of supporting dictatorships across Africa, that he would not do that.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And, Nii Akuetteh, what do you think are the prospects for Ghana being able to avoid the worst aspects of what happened with the oil boom in Nigeria — the huge disparities in wealth, the endemic corruption that Nigeria is so noted for? Do you see the current government in Ghana making any steps to avoid those kinds of problems?

NII AKUETTEH: I do see a few signs, but it is nowhere near what we need.

And you are right: that is such a grave danger. I mean, I have friends — Kwesi, among them, and others — who point out that the problem with Nigeria is not so much that Nigerians are that different from Ghanaians, but the fact that when there is a lot of wealth, then you get greed surfacing. And so, Ghana, compared to Nigeria, has been relatively poor. Now that we are told that we have oil, our hope is that civil society will hold the government accountable. And the fact that Ghana has begun a tradition of peaceful, democratic transition, it’s a good sign. But it is not sufficient.

So we have to work to strengthen civil society, to strengthen democracy, because, you know, a number of experts keep saying that when third world countries find oil and other natural resources, it’s a resource case. I don’t buy it. I think that’s bunk. The problem is, if the country has strong democracy, then you can have all the wealth it has and still be able to handle it. I mean, the United States is fantastically endowed with a lot of resources, from gold to oil, you name it. But because the democracy here, while not perfect, it is pretty strong, and there is strong civil society in the US. They make sure that the abuses connected with resource extraction are held down. So the problem is not that the resources occurs; the problem is that we need to strengthen democracy, and politicians don’t want to strengthen democracy, because they like the power they enjoy.

It’s up to journalists, it’s up to civil society, it’s up to activists to strengthen it. And frankly, the fact that you have courageous people, no matter how much they are abused, like Kwesi, who will keep fighting the good fight, for me, it’s a good sign, but we need more of them. And, of course, the African diaspora here in the US and in the West and in Europe also have a big responsibility to make sure that their governments and corporations that are based in the West do not behave badly in Africa. It’s our job to make sure oil does not become a curse in Ghana.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back. I want to get the full schedule of President Obama in Ghana — he’ll be addressing the Ghanaian parliament tomorrow — and also talk about US’s rival for African natural resources. Number two, France has been replaced by China. We’ll talk about Beijing’s expansion in Africa. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: Kwesi Pratt, speaking to you in the Ghanaian capital of Accra, which is preparing for the first African American president of the United States on his first trip to Sub-Saharan Africa, what is his schedule for this weekend?

KWESI PRATT: Well, he will be arriving today in the evening, and he’ll be having a short discussion with the President of Ghana, Professor J.E. Atta Mills. Tomorrow morning, he will have breakfast with the president of Ghana and three former presidents and vice presidents in the castle, Osu. And then, from there, he will go to a local clinic with his wife for an inspection. He will then fly by helicopter to the central regional capital, Cape Coast, and meet with the chiefs and people of Cape Coast. And then he will spend some time inspecting the slave castle at Cape Coast. He is also scheduled to deliver an important foreign policy speech focused entirely on Africa in International Conference Center in Accra. So, basically these are the things that he’ll be doing in Accra.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Kwesi Pratt, I’d like to ask you, on another matter, in the G8 summit, one of the things that President Obama was able to get the European leaders to agree on was increasing sharply food aid or agricultural aid to less-developed countries. Any sense on your part whether this is going to have any major impact on Ghana or other countries in Africa?

KWESI PRATT: Well, it’s more about what we need in Africa and throughout the developing world. It’s not gifts, and it’s not aid. What we need must be fair trade. And if we get equitable prices for our products and so on, we can make it on our own. In fact, if the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund stopped insisting on the withdrawal of subsidies in agriculture and so on, we can then make it.

The problem with African agriculture, and agriculture generally within the third world, is that while the developing countries, through their institutions, insist that we must withdraw subsidies. they keep subsidizing their products. The end result is that our products are priced much higher than products from Europe and North America and so on. So, I think what we need to look at are institutional changes to change the global trading system to remove the conditionalities that are imposed by the World Bank and the IMF, and if that is done, we can stand on our own.

There is no reason for the poverty we experience in Africa. Africa is one of the most resourceful continents of the continents. In fact, some estimates say that Africa has about 40 percent of the entire world’s resources. And therefore there’s no reason why Africa should continue to be poor.

AMY GOODMAN: Nii Akuetteh, let’s put the question of G8 summit to you, particularly the leaders pledging $12 billion for this Food Security Initiative?

NII AKUETTEH: I think that this is a case where the cliché, “the devil is in the details,” is really important, because agricultural trade, as Kwesi hinted, has been really detrimental for Africa. We know that the Western countries subsidize their agriculture and dump the under-priced resources in Africa under the guise of food aid. So, whenever we hear food aid, our ears should perk up, we should become more vigilant. So we have to read very carefully what it is that is in this package, what it is that is being promised.

The other problem with any promises from the G8 is that there are all kinds of shenanigans. Sometimes they repackage old money and call it new money. But whether it’s old or new, they hardly deliver what it is they promise. They just read out fancy announcements for the sake of, Amy, people like you, the press, to say, oh, we are doing so much to help Africa. When it comes to actually delivering what they promise, that’s a problem.

The third problem is that there is the question of genetically modified food and whether multinational corporations are going to control things like seed that African farmers plant.

So, I think it is important to take that agreement from the G8, to put it under the microscope to examine it very, very carefully, and to have a lot of strong dialogue about changes that it would need. And finally, I also understand that what they promise is less than what Africa needs. I understand that it is $3 billion short. So, what we have there, you cannot really pronounce on it until you look at all the details. If the details are not right, it could do more harm than good.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Kwesi Pratt, we want to thank you for joining us from Accra. We will continue to cover the President’s trip next week on Democracy Now! Kwesi Pratt is the editor of The Insight newspaper in Accra, Ghana. And, Nii, we’d like to ask you to stay with us, as we turn to the issue of China’s economic expansion across Africa.

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