Obama Visit: Does Ghana have a Sensible Agenda?

Published on 30th June 2009

In the excitement surrounding President Obama’s July visit to Ghana, what has been missing is an analysis of what is in it for the United States, an understanding of which is crucial for Ghana if it is to capitalise on the immense opportunity provided by this trip. Ghana is now the subject of strategic U.S. energy and military interests which, as far as the Obama administration is concerned, has raised the stakes considerably in Ghana–United States relations. As the potential gem in the crown of what Washington terms Africa's ‘New Gulf’, Ghana’s pending oil-rich status will shift the terms of negotiation during the trip. Furthermore, America’s preference for Ghana as the physical location for the U.S. African Command (AFRICOM) headquarters, and its concern not to cede strategic ground to China in this region, mean that in 2009 Ghana has an unprecedented hand of cards to play in this game of international diplomacy. Our task as a nation – and the Government’s task as our representatives - is to make the strategic decisions to ensure that we aren’t simply the honoured recipients of President Obama’s visit to Africa, but that we come away with more concrete deliverables to help us meet our own strategic goals.

Not since the inauguration of Nelson Mandela as President of a free South Africa has the election of a national leader generated so much global interest and excitement as Barrack Obama’s last November. It was therefore predictable that the announcement of President Obama’s trip to Ghana from 10-11 July would attract extensive media coverage as the first state visit by the first ‘black’ President of the United States to any African state.

Obama with Egypt's President Photo Courtesy
While cool heads maintain it is a result of Ghana’s enviable role as a beacon of hope in the continent, proving that multiparty democracy can work in Africa, others have added a partisan spin to the visit, alleging it is because President Mills has shown a greater commitment to fighting the drug barons, which has led to cocaine being in short supply.

The U.S. Government itself states the purpose of the visit is:“strengthening the U.S. relationship with one of our most trusted partners in sub-Saharan Africa, and to highlighting the critical role that sound governance and civil society play in promoting lasting development.”

But who is talking about what is in it for America? US-Ghana relations in the past Ghana has enjoyed a strong relationship with U.S. ever since the first American Peace Corps volunteers came to Ghana in 1961, the same year that President John F. Kennedy created the U.S. Agency for International Development (U.S.AID) to assist the developing world (aside from a blip in the mid-1980s during the Soussoudis spy affair). Indeed, the setting up of the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of African Affairs in 1958 was largely informed by Ghana becoming the first black African nation to gain independence the previous year.  

But for the next three decades, Africa was little more than a geo-political lebensraum for proxy campaigns of the Cold War. It was not until March 1978 that sub-Saharan Africa witnessed its first ever state visit by an American President, Jimmy Carter, who first met President Olusegun Obasanjo in Lagos, Nigeria, and then President William Tolbert in Monrovia, Liberia, a country the United States established diplomatic relations with 147 years ago for obvious reasons.   

Bill Clinton’s visit to sub-Saharan Africa in March 1998 was the first by a U.S. president in 20 years. His successor, President George W. Bush, visited the continent twice in eight years and it was even said that Africa was the place where he felt most comfortable and welcome. He returned this by pushing for the implementation of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), which was passed just a year before his predecessor handed over to him. This was followed by initiatives of his own for Africa that earned him respect in the eyes of millions of Africans, including the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) in 2003 and the Millennium Challenge Corporation, which has thirty-two African countries on its development assistance radar. Under President Bush’s watch American assistance to Africa quadrupled since 2001. 

The significance of July’s visit 

Against this backdrop, July’s U.S. state visit is significant for various reasons. It will be President Obama’s first to Africa – a continent that has not only personal significance for Obama the man, but growing political significance for Obama the President - and one that has significant expectations of the first black President to sit in the Oval Office.

For Ghana, Obama will be the third successive American Presidents to have visited in the space of 11 years, confirming the significant position Ghana has assumed as a role model for the continent,. That Obama’s visit is to one of Africa’s unquestioned success stories rather than one of its examples of stalled development or conflict zones, will draw attention to the fact that there is proof right here in Africa that freedom can serve as the means to development and multi-party democracy can work. Ghana’s extraordinarily consistent economic growth pattern for the past seven years (registering a GDP of 7.3% in 2008) offers the best evidential advertisement for the new development paradigm, which seeks to show that not only can freedom and development go hand in hand, but that the former provides a helping hand to the latter.  

Why Ghana? 

But we must not ignore America’s interest. After all, whatever his connection to the African continent, Obama is President of America – and acts in the interest of its people at home above all else. So what can Americans hope to gain from President Obama’s trip to Ghana?  

First, this trip offers a very compelling platform for America to reaffirm to a significant mass of the world the triumph of its values of liberal democracy, rule of law and freedom. With the U.S.’s failure to impose these in the Middle East, and China’s irksome demonstration that economic progress can be achieved without them, Ghana helps bolster the U.S.’s argument about the centrality of these values to the development process. But the decision to embark on this trip was also made on the basis of some tangible and concrete opportunities for America in the region.  

Top on the list is the United States’ military and energy security agenda. Before the 9/11 bombing in 2001, conventional thinking in Washington perceived no vital strategic interests for the U.S. in sub-Saharan Africa. But this has changed. Today we can see a significant shift away from America’s traditional geopolitical calculations regarding oil production and supply. The U.S.’s National Intelligence Council (NIC) estimates that by 2015, 25 percent of American oil imports will come from West Africa, compared to 16% today – an estimate even considered as too conservative in some quarters. Already West Africa supplies as much oil to the U.S. as Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, our oil is light and sweet, making it easier and cheaper to refine than Persian oil. Plus its offshore location reduces transportation costs and minimises risk of political violence and terrorist attacks.

This shift in global energy patterns to the Gulf of Guinea has led to a significant re-evaluation of foreign policy focus and global alliances, resulting in a multi-layered engagement with countries such as Ghana, that encompasses military and energy security, and development aid. This trip is thus at the heart of Washington’s strategy of working with its regional allies in West Africa to develop relationships that will secure its energy security in the long term.  

The United States, in typical Dick Cheneyic oilthink, sees the Gulf of Guinea as offering the opportunity to break with the old politics which saw the U.S. at the mercy of the geostrategic pressure of unstable or unfriendly oil-producing states in the ‘old’ Gulf (Persian Gulf) and Venezuela.  

The way forward is a pro-active policy to build a new Gulf of energy security and prosperity in a part of the world that is relatively receptive to American presence. With significant discoveries being made in the Gulf of Guinea oil basin, off the coast of Ghana, Equatorial Guinea, Congo and Cote d’Ivoire, according to the Energy Information Administration of the U.S. Department of Energy, the United States will be importing in the year 2020 over 770 million barrels of African oil a year. And Ghana with its stability, notable responsiveness to America, deepening multiparty democracy and promising investment climate is seen as the perfect epicentre for the growth and fulfilment of this interest. In the eyes of America, geography, geology and ideology all favour Ghana as the gem in the crown of this new policy.  

What about China? 

But the U.S. is not alone in seeing Africa as a better bet to provide a secure source of energy. There is a new scramble for Africa’s raw materials, especially energy resources, brought on by China’s astonishing industrial growth and its deepening influence in the global economy. It is the second largest consumer of oil in the world behind the United States. Consistently high economic growth rates saw Asia’s formerly largest oil exporter switch to become a net importer of oil since 1993. The International Energy Agency projects China's net oil imports will jump from 3.5 million barrels per day in 2006 to 13.1 million barrels per day by 2030.  

In 2006, 9 percent of Africa’s oil exports went to China (with 60% of Sudan’s oil export China-bound). The U.S. received 33 percent. Already, China has sped past Britain and France to become Africa’s second-highest trading partner behind the United States.

Though Angola, the second largest oil producer in sub-Saharan Africa, supplies the U.S. with approximately twice as much oil as it does China, China has outpaced the United States in partnering Angola’s rapid development with its multi-billion dollar investment support in the country’s infrastructure. For example, in 2006, Sinopec, China’s state-owned energy company, bid $2.2 billion for two deep-water blocks off the Angolan coast. Two years earlier, Beijing softened the ground with a $2 billion package of loans and aid to Angola, which has Chinese companies building telecommunications infrastructure, roads, railways, bridges, buildings, schools and hospitals.  

However, in 2007, Erica Strecker Downs of the Brookings Institute think tank made some headway in calming American anxiety over China and African oil. She wrote that contrary to public opinion, China's NOCs are not "locking up" the lion's share of African oil as part of a centralised quest for energy. But while China, with a mere 3% of its FDI in Africa and controlling under 2% of oil reserves on the continent, may not be winning the race for oil exploration and production in Africa, there is no question that China is winning more and more of the oil supply produced in Africa. 

If the U.S. wants to out-muscle China in the 21st century scramble for Africa, then it will have to show more aggression in investing in the development of infrastructure on the continent, as China is doing. Even if American money comes with job for American companies, Africans are not likely to complain so long as it ends in the brick and mortar of the continent’s infrastructural development. Africans believe they are increasingly feeling more and more the positive might of Beijing in their quest for advancement. Chinese investment deserves a big part of the credit for Africa’s highest ever economic growth rate, 5.8 percent in 2007. Furthermore, China has cancelled $10 billion in bilateral debt owed to it by African countries.

Outside of Ghana’s oil exploration and production zone, the U.S. and China’s involvement in Ghana’s development has been most obvious in two major infrastructural projects in the energy sector. The first, the West African Gas Pipeline (WAGP), is 59% owned by Chevron, the U.S.-based oil multinational company and Royal Dutch Shell. This $700 million onshore-offshore pipeline will run 681km from the Western Niger Delta of Nigeria via Benin and Togo to Ghana, and was cooperatively underwritten by the World Bank in 2004. The Bank, however, refused to underwrite the Bui Dam project designed to generate 400MW of electricity for Ghanaians. It took a 2006 visit to President Hu Jintao of China by President J A Kufuor to secure Chinese support for the Dam’s construction (by Sino-Hydro) and funding (Exim Bank) at an estimated cost of $600 million.  

These two projects highlight the masterful diplomacy that the Mills’ administration will need to deploy in the coming years in order to secure optimal benefit for Ghana from its new oil-rich status.  

How Ghana must utilise its new strategic importance 

With the discovery of significant oil potential offshore, Ghana has not only new international importance – we also have cause for greater confidence and strength in our global interactions. The increased interest of both China and the United States in Ghana can add extraordinary oomph to Ghana’s development – but this can only happen if we become smarter, more strategic and more assertive in our dealings with these two powerful nations.  

The Obama trip reinforces the extent of U.S. strategic interest in the country. Ghana has become an object of international desire between the two super powers of the 21st century – America and China – and the Americans are in no mood to lose its ‘trusted partner’ to the Chinese. 

The Americans know what they want from Ghana. But does Ghana know what it wants from America? The question is: has the Ghanaian Government taken a considered, sober decision on the price to be paid and the prize to be gained for being considered as the serene oasis at the heart of the ‘New Gulf’?  

President Obama came into office with the strategic objective of “investing in a shared humanity” with regards to U.S. policy in Africa, listing his three thematic policy areas of focus as:

  1. to accelerate Africa's integration into the global economy
  2. to enhance the peace and security of African states
  3. to strengthen relationships with those governments, institutions and civil society organisations committed to deepening democracy, accountability and reducing poverty in Africa.

He may well be the President who can make a bold resourceful contribution to see the realisation of the dream of an African nation breaking though the stigma of underdevelopment to act as a trailblazer for the others. Ghana has the potential to serve as this model – but it will require a wholesale adoption of a new attitude of assertiveness based on a well-founded confidence in what we bring to the table, and a permanent shift from the outdated and counterproductive assumption amongst Ghanaians that our country is simply a geographical mass of humanitarian concerns or a charity case.  

But has the mindset of the Ghanaian leadership gravitated towards this new reality? 

To be continued. 

By Asare Otchere-Darko

Asare Otchere-Darko is executive director of the Danquah Institute, a think-tank based in Accra.This article first appeared on GhanaWeb.

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