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.
For Ghana and West Africa's other struggling democracies, Obama's visit is a potent symbol.
“Obama shows us you cannot subvert the will of the people,” said Ben Ephson, Ghana’s top political pollster.
Of all the Ghanaians Obama is likely to meet during his visit, his biggest fan might just be Ghanaian President John Evans Atta Mills — an aging economics professor turned three-time presidential candidate who finally secured the presidency by cribbing Obama's campaign slogan urging “change.”
Days after Obama’s victory, Mills’ party unveiled a new campaign: billboards of Mills and Obama gazing out over the slogan “A Change We Need,” paired with home-printed signs that urged “Change, for a Better Ghana.”
“They just changed the Obama signs from blue to green,” said Samuel Bartel, who recently resigned his job as a political radio show host.
Where Obama had “Yes, we can,” Mills supporters seized the rallying cry “Yes-uh-sim,” — which in the local Twi language means “We are making a change.”
Mills' running mate scored further with a popular nickname: John Dramani “Obama, Obama” Mahama.
And in Accra's markets, the newest Mills biography appeared: “Odyssey of Hope,” sold alongside the occasional imported copy of Obama’s “Audacity of Hope.”
“The point is not just that Obama is black, although that's part of it,” wrote Jonathan Zimmerman, in the International Herald Tribune, explaining Ghana's election-time fascination with Obama. “Mostly, Obama symbolizes democracy itself. Elected to the White House on themes of optimism and change, he has become international shorthand for hope.”
So, too, in a way, has Ghana.
“Having the third U.S. president in a row coming to visit us shows that we’re doing something right, and even though most of what you see of Africa on the news is the negative, we are happy we can show ourselves to be a part of the positive,” said Hannah Tetteh, minister of trade and energy.
For many in Accra, the honor of hosting Obama is its own reward — an acknowledgement that Ghana aims to be more than another charity case in Washington’s Millennium Development Account, but a respected and viable place to do business.
“This is a symbolic visit,” said Paa Kwesi Holbrook-Smith, an event producer. “We’re not looking for grants and aid and money that is doled our for us being — oh, being their good boys. Nah. I hate that syndrome.”
Instead, Holbrook-Smith said that Ghana is “looking for investments. People should come, build, you know, grow crops, put infrastructure in place that will give people jobs and lift our economy up.”
For others, the trip isn't about Obama, at all — at least not Mr. Obama.
“For me, the historic element of the visit and the most important story will be Michelle Obama’s reaction when she gets to the slave dungeons,” said Amos Anyimadu, who runs the Africa Next think tank. The first lady is widely rumored to be Ghanaian by ancestry, and for Ghanaians, her visit broaches an awkward relationship to the slave trade.
The visit is a different opportunity for Obama. As his ancestors were not slaves, he is an African-American with a direct connection to the continent. Just as Obama succeeded in "pushing the reset button" in dealings between Washington and Moscow, many Ghanaians and Africans are anticipating that his visit here will usher in a new period of U.S.-Africa relations.
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