You don't have to be a conservative Republican to think President Obama gave an extraordinary speech in Ghana today. But conservative reaction to the address has already been favorable. Newt Gingrich wrote on Twitter that "The Obama speech in ghana is a very positive speech about importance of self government and responsibility of Africans for their own future." Karl Rove noted that Obama praised George W. Bush's increase of HIV/AIDS assistance to Africa. The speech, which was the highlight of the president's one-day visit to Africa, had obvious emotional import from the start--the first African-American president, the son of a Kenyan, comes to the country where so many slaves began their journey to North America. (After his speech, Obama visited the famed gate of no-return where so many slaves departed Africa for the West.)
So just being in Africa would have been a big deal, an emotional, searing moment. But the president used the occasion to speak frankly about corruption and pathetic governance on the African continent, something that Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, both of whom visited Ghana, largely avoided and certainly didn't confront in the same direct manner. Obama noted that when his father came to America in the ealry 1960s, Kenya's GDP outstripped that of South Korea and now it's far, far behind the Asian dynamo. That, Obama suggested, couldn't be blamed on the West or colonialism. Obama told the audience assembled at the Ghana parliament in Accra:
"Now, it's easy to point fingers and to pin the blame of these problems on others. Yes, a colonial map that made little sense helped to breed conflict. The West has often approached Africa as a patron or a source of resources rather than a partner. But the West is not responsible for the destruction of the Zimbabwean economy over the last decade, or wars in which children are enlisted as combatants. In my father's life, it was partly tribalism and patronage and nepotism in an independent Kenya that for a long stretch derailed his career, and we know that this kind of corruption is still a daily fact of life for far too many."
This kind of tough talk would have been impossible for President McCain to make or at least to get the same hearing. Other aspects of the speech were more of what you'd expect--references to tribalism and energy, climate change and terrorism, human trafficking and American cooperation. But it was the speaking truth to Africans that stood out for Gingrich and hopefully will for others as well. If the 21st century sees a surge in African incomes and prosperity it will be because decent governance replaces the kleptocracies of the post-colonial era.
It's telling that Obama made his first Sub-Saharan African visit--he was in Cairo earlier this year--to Ghana and not his father's native Kenya. Ghana has stood out as a model democracy on the continent, and situated in the country's west, it was, as I mentioned above, a key departure point for the shipment of slaves. To have gone to Nairobi would have been sheer vanity, bestowing an honor on a once-thriving democracy turned undemocratic mess simply because his father had come from there. In time, Obama will surely visit Kenya and the pilgrimage will be stirring. But the Ghana visit he made today will be the more historic.
Audio of the speech is available here. What do you think?