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Ghanaians welcome Obama

US president's visit highlights success of country's democracy

Shirts depicting the likeness of U.S. President Barack Obama hang alongside Ghana national football team replica jerseys at a street-side kiosk in Ghana's capital, Accra on July 7, 2009. (Finbarr O'Reilly/Reuters)

ACCRA, Ghana — When Barack Obama arrived here Friday evening, on his first presidential visit to sub-Saharan Africa, he would have found his name displayed across this bustling capital city.

Local restaurants, drinking spots, intersections, a huge reggae hit, even a hotel — all have been named or renamed after Obama. His face is prominent on colorful print fabrics that are worn as clothing and that decorate shop stalls.

Obama, the third sitting U.S. president to visit Ghana — Bill Clinton and George W. Bush both ducked away from grueling second-term scandals to enjoy the tropical hospitality — will make his first major pronouncement on Africa to Ghana’s parliament.

Then he and Michelle will tour one of the slave forts the country’s Atlantic coast is famous for — dank, ruined dungeons where slaves spent their final weeks on African soil before being shipped to the Caribbean.

Ghanaians are celebrating because the visit is confirmation that 50 difficult years after Ghana became sub-Saharan Africa’s first independent country, the nation has reclaimed its leadership role on the continent.

The former Gold Coast achieved independence in 1957 on lofty ideals of African unity and anti-colonialism and then spent most of its history swapping military governments for short-lived civilian ventures. Its once prosperous economy declined precipitously.

Eventually, in 1992, the nation’s military leaders allowed a vote, and since then every four years Ghana has held elections that are widely considered free and fair.

Meanwhile the country has struck oil, posted economic gains, sent an eye-catching national football team to the World Cup, and a favorite son, Kofi Annan, to the U.N. Secretary General’s desk.

Last fall, while American voters were making their own history, Ghanaian voters wowed international observers by peacefully electing the opposition into power.

Ghana's gains are particularly noteworthy compared to other countries in West Africa such as  Cote D’Ivoire — which had violence-plagued elections that were ultimately rescheduled — Togo — which had an attempted coup — and Guinea — which had a successful coup.

Nigeria, a nearby country whose history of British colonization and post-independence coups mirrors Ghana's, has held elections widely mocked at home and abroad for evidence of widespread ballot-stuffing.