Erick Kabendera: What Africa wants from Obama

Good governance is the most pressing issue and he should tackle it head on

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Barack Obama arrives in Ghana today on his first trip to sub-Saharan Africa since becoming President. It has taken six months for the most famous African son to return to the continent of his father, and manyhave been frowning that he has been relatively slow to shape his relationship with Africa.

His barrier-breaking victory meant a lot to a lot of different people. For Africans, who streamed through poor villages and cities to celebrate, it was obviously a source of immense pride that the son of a Kenyan was in the White House. The victory also offered hope, not only of a multi-lateral approach after eight years of Bush's navel-gazing, but of Washington helping to bring an end to the rampant corruption that is holding the continent back.

Good governance is the most pressing issue facing Africa – corruption costs it a quarter of GDP every year – and it is this I would like to see Obama tackle head on.

When a woman dies giving birth in Africa, it is not because donors have not met their aid commitments, but because money has been stolen by some "clever" tyrannical leader. They freely pillage the national coffers yet they are left off the hook because of strong relationships with former colonial powers.

The initial signs from the Obama presidency were far from encouraging as far as promoting good governance was concerned. The first of the continent's leaders to be granted an Oval Office meeting with the new black occupant of the White House, was my own president: Jakaya Kikwete, of Tanzania.

He had just finished his stint as the rotating head of the African Union, so it might have been a matter of diplomatic protocol, but it was a disappointing choice nonetheless. While at the AU helm, President Kikwete was far from impressive. He stuck to the Africa old norm of "respecting your elders even when they are convicted thieves". So even when ordinary Zimbaweans were suffering at the repressive hands of Robert Mugabe, Mr Kikwete failed to denounce the rigged election and call him to account.

I am not sure Mr Obama grasped the signals he was sending by choosing the Tanzanian leader as his first African guest. This was a man who rabble-roused the AU into refusing to cooperate with the International Criminal Court regarding the indictment of the Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir for his role in the genocide in Darfur. The AU's refusal was a blessing to corrupt criminal leaders around the continent.

However, in choosing Ghana for his maiden presidential visit to the continent, perhaps there are reasons to be more optimistic about Mr Obama's relationship with Africa. The whole of Africa is looking up to the President for guidance on how things should get done. He obviously cannot be in every nation but by picking Ghana above his ancestral homeland Kenya or the continent's most populous nation, Nigeria, he is sending very clear signals about the leadership he wants to see in Africa.

Ghana – the first African country to gain independence – is an established democracy with a solid series of successful multiparty elections behind it. Last December's presidential election was an epic race that saw long-time opposition candidate John Atta Mills, of the New Patriotic Party, scraping through to the executive mansion by a mere 40,000 votes. In other countries, the neck-and-neck race might have unleashed a wave of violence – just think back to the ethnic unrest that erupted in Kenya at the end of 2007, but in Ghana, the ruling party, in power for eight years, was democratically dethroned and went quietly.

In his speech in Ghana, Mr Obama should declare that his administration will not spare Africa's despotic leaders like Mugabe and Bashir. It is important for him to distance himself from countries like Kenya that are sliding back into violence and notorious undemocratic and corrupt tendencies, and he should clearly define what leaders in such countries need to do for understanding to be restored. In his 2006 tour of Africa when he was still Obama the candidate, jeers, laughter and groans broke out in Kenya when he spoke candidly to the government about the impact of graft. It is hard to imagine that happening in Accra.

Of course economic concerns are always part of any geo-political equation. It was no coincidence that less than a month after the inauguration of America's first black head of state, as the USreeled from the financial crisis, China's President Hu Jintao was on a four-country tour of Africa stressing China's economic commitment to the continent. And Ghana is set to become the newest oil producer in a region that is increasingly important for Washington as it seeks to diversify energy supplies away from the Middle East.

But Mr Obama needs to assure Africans that under his administration, America will go beyond protecting its own economic and political interests, and act to ensure good leadership defines African politics. With good leadership, Africa could properly manage its resources and fight poverty that has ravaged the continent despite increased international aid.

And the American President can lead by example. In the six months since he took office, he has rolled out an impressively large agenda, which calls for wholesale reform of America's health care programme and energy infrastructure. This, in turn, has actually piled a lot of pressure onto Africa's leaders who often spend years on power without anything to show for it.

Upon securing the presidency, Mr Obama appointed Susan Rice as his ambassador to the United Nations. She has strong ties to Africa. She testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in April 2007 over the killings in Darfur, accepting the idea of military action as a means of forcing President Bashir to stop the killings. She also visited Rwanda after the 1994 genocide and is seen on the continent as someone who could push the UN to start thinking of using tough measures to remove tyrannical leaders from power.

If the likes of Ms Rice do their job properly and the Obama administration avoids "going to bed" with African leaders, I am optimistic that change could not only belong to America alone, but to Africa as well.

The writer is a Tanzanian journalist and winner of this year's David Astor Journalism Award

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