Obama marks Africa's promise

ACCRA: In his first visit to sub-Saharan Africa since taking office, President Barack Obama is seeking to lift up the continent of his ancestors — while keeping its emotions in check.

Greeted by a rush of excitement on his arrival here, the United States' first black president planned a speech to Ghana's Parliament on Saturday outlining his hope for a future Africa prospering in democracy. He was also visiting a hospital and a one-time slave trading post, joined by his wife, Michelle, a great-great granddaughter of slaves.

But his speech was also pitched as a sobering account of Africa's enduring afflictions: hunger, disease, corruption, ethnic strife and strongman rule.

And during his 21-hour sojourn, no big public event was planned — in part for fear it could cause a celebratory stampede, as a 1998 stop by President Bill Clinton almost did.

People lined the streets Saturday morning, many waving at every vehicle of Obama's motorcade at it headed toward a meeting at Osu Castle, the storied coastline presidential state house. One woman emerged from a coffee shop to wave a tiny U.S. flag while others sold posters and T-shirts with Obama's picture. Many billboards lined the roads, including one that showed the president and his wife with the greeting, "Ghana loves you."

While the people of Ghana may be in a frenzy over Obama's visit, the president started his day with typical calm. Wearing a gray T-shirt and gym pants, he walked through the lobby of his hotel virtually unnoticed at 7:30 a.m. local time on his way to the downstairs gym for a morning workout.

A short time later, his motorcade left the hotel, passed under hovering military helicopters and arrived for a delayed welcome ceremony. President John Atta Mills greeted his counterpart and then the pair went inside for one-on-one meetings.

Selecting Ghana as the starting point of his black Africa travels, the president sought to highlight a continental success story.

"You've got ... a functioning democracy, a president who's serious about reducing corruption, and you've seen significant economic growth," he told a news conference in Italy on Friday.

Obama was to hold talks with Mills, who took over from longtime leader John Kufuor in January — a peaceful democratic handoff all too rare for the continent.

Obama flew to West Africa after the G-8 summit in L'Aquila, Italy, approved a new $20 billion food security plan. It aims to help poor nations in Africa and elsewhere avert mass starvation during the global recession.

He also had a cordial first meeting with Pope Benedict XVI. In their half-hour private audience at the Vatican, the two reviewed Mideast peace and anti-poverty efforts, aides reported. They also discussed abortion and stem cell research at length, Benedict giving him a treatise on bioethics to read while flying here, the White House said.

In Ghana, enthusiastic drummers greeted Obama, the first lady and daughters Malia and Sasha as they stepped off Air Force One just after 9 p.m. local time. Mills and his wife led dignitaries along a red carpet, wearing colorful traditional garb.

In his speech, Obama was to urge Africans to embrace a future of accountable leaders and open markets. To ensure a wide audience, the administration organized watch parties at embassies and cultural centers across Africa.

But the speech was also a splash of cold water for Africans still nursing grievances over colonial rule.

"For many years we've made excuses about corruption or poor governance, (insisting) this was somehow the consequence of neocolonialism, or the West has been oppressive, or racism," he told AllAfrica.com last week. "I'm not a believer in excuses."

Those sentiments led Obama to avoid his father's native Kenya for this stop. Tensions in Kenya remain high after a disputed 2007 election and subsequent ethnic bloodshed.

Yet in Ghana, Africa's grievous past was also part of the picture.

Obama was touring Gold Coast Castle, a seaside fortress converted to the slave trade by the British in the 17th century. In its dungeons, thousands of shackled Africans huddled in squalor before being herded onto ships bound for America.

While Michelle Obama's great-great grandfather was a slave in South Carolina, his African origins are not known.

The castle visit mirrored ones paid by Clinton and George W. Bush to the slave-trading post of Goree Island, Senegal — with the added impact of Obama's mixed-race background and history-making election.

In Ghana, too, Obama followed in Clinton's footsteps. In 1998, a surging crowd cheered Clinton in Accra's Independence Square and toppled barricades after his speech. Clinton shouted, "Back up! Back up!", his Secret Service detail clearly frantic.

Bush's reception last year was less tumultuous, but equally warm. At a welcoming banquet, Kufuor noted huge increases in U.S. development aid and AIDS relief — and named a highway after Bush. Earlier, Bush hosted Kufuor at one of his few White House state dinners.

Obama — son of a Kenyan father and white mother from Kansas — first toured Africa in 1992. The newly minted Harvard law school grad savored its sights, sounds and tastes. In "Dreams from My Father," he recalled running his hand over his father's burial plot. "I had sat at my father's grave and spoken to him through Africa's red soil," he wrote.