Scholars speak of “the empire striking back,” referring to former colonized peoples, such as immigrants from Africa and India, settling in Europe and North America and then challenging norms of race and identity. In his first official trip to Africa, U.S. President Barack Obama is striking back in a novel way. His visit to Ghana highlights the desirability of prominent people from the diaspora making a positive contribution to African affairs.
But Mr. Obama's visit, while heavy on symbolism, reveals the limits of his power. Burdened by economic problems in America and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he can't act boldly in Africa or make big promises.
There is certainly no denying the importance of Obama's trip to Africa... errr Ghana... but I am struggling to discover the novelty of the visit. Arguably the trip would have carried much more symbolism had he been 'returning' to Kenya, the birthplace of his father. As Kenya is the most corrupt state in east Africa, the President's decision to visit Ghana instead is being justified on the grounds that by his visit he is hoping to "lift up successful models of democracy" of which Ghana is surely one (and Kenya quite obviously not). If this truly is the objective, however, then he presumably should not have extended aid to Zimbabwe or made nice in Saudi Arabia or buddied up to Chavez, etc. etc. If one is keen to promote models of democracy, one would hope that this would apply on a global scale and not just in select regions.
I further hesitate to attach much significance to Obama's upcoming 'Africa' visit because a) he is in fact going only to one country which quite limits whatever impact he might have, even more so in light of the fact that he is not giving a speech as he did in Egypt when addressing the Islamic people. One would think that he would desire to address the people of Africa, if for no other reason to pay tribute to his roots. Moreover (point (b) as it were) as Gregory aptly notes, Obama cannot act boldly in Africa or make any big promises, though to be quite honest I haven't seen any signs signaling his intention to do so anyway.
While there certainly is much excitement surrounding the President's upcoming visit, much of it seems to stem from the symbolism surrounding the trip - a man born to a Kenyan father, elevated to the highest office in America, returning to his native continent. There is certainly much to be celebrated in this tale, but I fear that Obama's visit will be little more than that: another chapter in the history of a man. All the while, great expectations will be met with great disappointment.
Update: I stand corrected, President Obama will deliver a speech in Ghana, according to the White House blog. The speech is set to air at 6am EST on Saturday, 11 July for all of you early Americans risers (and at a much more reasonable hour for those in Europe and elsewhere!). The President's interview with allAfrica.com likely provides some insights into what we might expect from him. I very much look forward to learning what he has to say.