Ghana greets Obama warmly

Throngs of Ghanaians dance in streets, hoping to catch a glimpse of the first family



ACCRA, Ghana -- President Barack Obama arrived here last night for the first visit of the first black American president in sub-Saharan Africa, an event Ghanaians described as an historic and symbolic moment.

Air Force One touched down at Accra's Kotoka International Airport at 9:10 pm, where Mr. Obama, first lady Michelle Obama and their daughters, Sasha and Malia, were received in a ceremony by Ghanaian President John Evans Atta Mills and other dignitaries.

Throngs of Ghanaians, Togolese, Nigerians, Ivorians and Africans from across the continent danced in the streets outside the airport, waiting to catch a glimpse of the American first family. But if they were hoping for a slow-moving motorcade with Mr. Obama gaily waving at them, they didn't get that. Because of security concerns, Mr. Obama's motorcade wasn't seen by many lining the streets.

Nonetheless, for Ghanaians -- who have been pounded by unrelenting heavy rains flooding the city for weeks as well as a petroleum shortage that has all but brought this city and country to a standstill -- the euphoria of the visit seemingly suspended all their worries, if only for a moment. They sang, danced, cheered and pounded their drums. Accra was engulfed in all-out excitement -- on the streets, in the bars and in its business districts.

Singing and dancing in a caravan of Nigerians who traveled to Accra from that country's eastern region, known as Biafra, was A. Chidi-Chidi, one of the hundreds of West Africans who came to Ghana to celebrate Mr. Obama's visit. "History is being made today," he said. "Obama is a warrior for freedom everywhere, and we are here today, as Biafrans, to say 'welcome home.' "

The mostly Ibo people of mineral- and oil-rich Biafra, one of seven Nigerian states, have been fighting for their self-determination, seeking to break away from Nigeria since the 1960s, Mr. Chidi-Chidi said. "As Biafrans, we have been marginalized for years," he said, "and now that President Obama is in Africa, we are here to say, stand up for us, Mr. President."

From the airport, Mr. Obama and Mr. Mills traveled to Christianborg Castle, in center-city Accra, where they held bilateral talks on a range of issues. The castle, built by the Swedes on Accra's oceanfront in 1652, was once a focal point for the slave trade operations in West Africa but now is used as Ghana's seat of government.

Today, the Obamas are expected to have tea with Mr. Mills, and then Mrs. Obama is to visit La Polyclinic, an Accra outpatient medical clinic. Mr. Obama will address a session of Ghana's Parliament, joined by other dignitaries and civil society leaders in Accra International Conference Center.

In his speech, Mr. Obama is expected to lay out his administration's agenda and U.S. policy priorities for Africa, touching on issues of good governance and democracy in Ghana and the rest of the continent.

In choosing to visit Ghana as his first sub-Saharan African stop, Mr. Obama said he wanted to highlight the significant steps it has taken to open up its political system. Ghana achieved that, Mr. Obama said in an earlier White House interview, by successfully transferring power in a very free and fair election last December, in which Mr. Mills won by 40,000 votes.

The American president's speech is also expected to touch on issues of sustainable development, African government corruption and funding for HIV/AIDS treatment.

One issue Mr. Obama may focus on is Africa's ability to feed itself. At the just-concluded Group of Eight summit in Italy, he was one of the outspoken leaders on the summit's pledge to raise $20 billion as agricultural development aid to help impoverished countries, especially those in Africa. In Ghana, the ability of farmers to grow crops, harvest and then store them has long been hampered by their lack of resources to freeze excess food products, which often rot even as the country is experiencing food shortages.

Mr. Obama is the third sitting U.S. president to land in Accra. In 1998, then-President Bill Clinton spent an afternoon in Accra, and last year, then-President George W. Bush and first lady Laura Bush visited the country for three days.

This time, many Ghanaians said they were disappointed that all they are likely to see of Mr. Obama may be a quick glimpse as his motorcade moves through Accra's traffic-restricted streets. Ghanaians had hoped that the president, who previously has given major speeches before very large audiences, would do the same in Accra's Black Star Square in the city center. The square and Independence Arch were built to honor the leaders who ushered Ghana to independence.

But Foreign Minister Alhaji Muhammad Mumuni yesterday said Mr. Obama's speech was moved indoors because July is the peak of Ghana's rainy season. So most Ghanaians hoping to see Mr. Obama -- other than on television -- will have to line the streets this morning as his motorcade glides through town, before he flies on to Cape Coast. There, he and his family will visit Cape Coast Castle, the historic slave dungeon, before flying back to Accra and leaving for home this evening.


Karamagi Rujumba can be reached at krujumba@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1719. First Published July 11, 2009 4:00 AM


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