Obama's Africa visit prompts Nigerian, Kenyan angst

LAGOS (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama’s choice of Ghana for his first official trip to Africa next week has triggered a bout of self-questioning in Nigeria and Kenya, where many see his itinerary as a deliberate snub.

U.S. President Barack Obama delivers remarks about innovation and jobs in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington, July 2, 2009. REUTERS/Jim Young

The first black U.S. president is keen to hold Ghana up as a democratic model for Africa, where polls are too often marred by vote-rigging and violence, denting the pride of states which consider themselves equally important and worthy of a visit.

"Part of the reason is because Ghana has now undergone a couple of successful elections in which power was transferred peacefully," Obama told the AllAfrica news website, when asked why he had chosen to visit Ghana (

“Countries that are governed well, that are stable, where leadership recognizes that they are accountable to the people and that institutions are stronger than any one person, have a track record of producing results for the people. And we want to highlight that,” he said.

Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation and a major supplier of oil to the United States, was already sensitive to the growing clout of its regional rival, particularly since Ghana is itself due to become an oil producer by the end of next year.

Endemic corruption, shambolic infrastructure and weak regulation in the so-called “Giant of Africa” -- or “Sleeping Giant” as some weary Nigerians call it -- have already pushed some international companies to relocate.

In contrast to Ghana, which in January held a closely contested election that brought former opposition leader John Atta Mills peacefully to power, Nigeria has an appalling record on organizing transparent polls.

The April 2007 vote which brought President Umaru Yar’Adua to power was so marred by ballot-stuffing and intimidation that local and foreign observers said it was not credible.

Critics of Yar’Adua -- who have dubbed him “Baba Go-Slow” for lack of progress on everything from the fight against corruption to providing reliable power supply -- say Obama’s snub should make his administration sit up and think.

“If Obama decides to grace Nigeria with his presence, I will stone him,” Nigerian Nobel prize-winning writer Wole Soyinka was quoted by Nigerian newspapers as saying.

“The message he is sending by going to Ghana is so obvious, is so brilliant, that he must not render it flawed by coming to Nigeria any time soon,” he said.


In Kenya, those trying to put a positive spin on the planned itinerary said it would have been seen as favoritism for Obama, whose father was born in Kenya, to visit his ancestral homeland.

But it is seen as a deliberate snub by others, especially critics of President Mwai Kibaki’s coalition government, formed after deadly post-election violence in 2008. They see it as a sign of U.S. disapproval of nepotism in Kenya’s political elite.

“We have seen progress over the last several years in some cases, though we’re also seeing some backsliding,” Obama said in the AllAfrica interview, broadcast on YouTube.

“In my father’s own country of Kenya, I’m concerned about how the political parties do not seem to be moving into a permanent reconciliation,” he said.

The coalition government, formed after mediation by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, has failed to make much progress on political reforms. Kenya still ranks as the most corrupt country in east Africa, according to watchdog Transparency International.

Renowned cartoonist Gado, of the Daily Nation newspaper, depicted Air Force One jetting over Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga with a note spiraling down from the plane:

“Get your act together -B. Obama,” it said.

Odinga, who comes from the Luo ethnic group like Obama’s father, said it was wrong to read too much into the president’s itinerary, pointing out that he was also not visiting influential nations such as South Africa and Nigeria.

“Ghana is symbolic. It was the first African country to gain independence from Britain in 1957. Ghana is very advanced in its transition to democratic form of governance. So it’s perfectly logical,” he told Reuters.

Not all see it the same way.

“It’s like him visiting (the Welsh capital) Cardiff but not London,” said one disgruntled Nigerian resident.