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Opportunities abound for Obama, in the continent where America has many admirers
LONDON, ACCRA, NAIROBI — Crowds line a busy street in Ghana waving the Stars and Stripes as President George W. Bush pays a state visit.
Up the West African coast in Liberia, awe-struck hawkers cheer a convoy of camouflaged U.S. Humvees delivering medical supplies as part of a "soft power" operation.
Kenya's government declares a national holiday after the U.S. elects its new, black, president.
Everywhere across Africa young men listen to 50 Cent and dream of winning the green card lottery.
Americans seeking a warm welcome should head to sub-Saharan Africa. A worldwide public opinion survey published in December 2008 showed the U.S. to be popular in Africa, but nowhere else.
"Only in sub-Saharan Africa does America score uniformly favorable marks," stated the survey by the Washington-based Pew Global Attitudes Project.
Only six countries in the world thought that the spread of American ideas and customs was a good thing – four were in Africa. The top 10 list of where America has a positive image is dominated by African nations.
America's popularity abroad has plummeted, of course, amid wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as a world recession that many blame on the U.S.
"A lot of the downturn in America's image is tied to opposition to its foreign policy," said Richard Wike, associate director of the Pew Global Attitudes Project. "In Africa those policies aren't as salient, there are a lot of other priorities that people are focusing on."
Those other priorities — alleviating poverty, stopping corruption, fighting disease and ending war — were addressed by Bush. With a half-African president, America's image will improve further. "Without even doing anything Obama's election has advanced the image of the U.S. immeasurably," said Francis Kornegay, senior researcher at Johannesburg's Centre for Policy Studies.
Whether Africans remain pro-U.S. depends on the record that Barack Obama builds.
The last Democrat administration in the U.S. is remembered for running away from Somalia, turning its back on the Rwandan genocide and bombing a pill factory outside Khartoum in a misplaced strike against al-Qaida.
Bush, meanwhile, is the leader who poured billions of dollars into programs to fight disease and met more African heads of states than any other U.S. president.
"The level and depth of the engagement pursued by the Bush Administration was unprecedented," said Tom Cargill, assistant head of the Africa program at Chatham House, a London-based think tank. The President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief gives anti-retrovirals to millions, the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act gives access to American markets, the Millennium Challenge Account rewards good governance with investment.
But in Africa, Bush is also held responsible for the failure to halt the ongoing rape and slaughter in Darfur and for a creeping post-9/11 militarization of foreign policy. The U.S. Africa Command, or Africom — which was launched last year — has been received with suspicion and hostility by most African governments.
There is no doubting Obama's personal popularity in Africa: On election night jubilant celebrations erupted across the continent. "Obama is of African descent and that is hugely empowering for Africa's self-image and hugely inspiring," said Josephine Osikena,
program director for democracy and development at the Foreign Policy Centre in London.
Once the euphoria of a black man becoming the world's most powerful leader subsides the reality is that little is expected to change in America's relations with Africa. "Very quickly African people will realize that he's the US president and will serve the interests of the U.S.," Osikena points out.
In late September one of Obama's key Africa advisors, Witney Schneidman, said the new president's policy on Africa would be to accelerate the continent's integration into the global economy, enhance peace and security and promote democracy and accountability. None of this marks a departure from previous U.S. policy. Kornegay called the policy "basically boilerplate."
Security will still dominate, seen through the dual prism of fighting Islamic terrorism and protecting oil supplies, more than a fifth of which now come from Africa.
Obama has spoken of increasing aid — although the world recession may well hinder such plans. He also has an eyes-wide-open view of climate change, which is hitting arid parts of Africa hardest and exacerbating tensions between communities struggling to survive. There is also mounting pressure for action, not just words, on Darfur.
"If the expectations for the Obama presidency are high in general, they are even more so within African countries," Cargill said.
In Nairobi in 2006 Obama concluded a rousing speech to Kenyan students with a pledge: "I want you to know that as your ally, your friend, and your brother, I will be there to help in any way I can."
Africans across the continent are waiting to see if President Obama delivers what Senator Obama promised.