Obama's Trip to Ghana Inspires Envy in Nigeria

The streets of Ghana's capital city buzz with anticipation and excitement as President Obama pays his first presidential visit to sub-Saharan Africa.
By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, July 11, 2009

LAGOS, Nigeria -- When the White House announced two months ago that President Obama would visit Ghana this week, Nigerians read a different, glaring message between the lines: The American leader was not coming to their country.

"The first country to be chosen by the American people should be Nigeria," said Samuel Ayankoso, 57, a taxi driver in Lagos, Nigeria's largest city. "We are the giant of Africa."

That Obama also is not visiting about 50 other African nations seems beside the point. Here in Africa's self-enthroned behemoth, Obama's sojourn to small but stable Ghana has spawned an outpouring of soul-searching and self-flagellation about Nigeria's image and dubious democracy.

"Why would Obama want to come to Nigeria? To lend credence to the putrefying edifice that the nation has largely become?" one writer asked in the Guardian newspaper. Wole Soyinka, a Nobel prize-winning writer, said he would "stone" Obama if he legitimized Nigeria by visiting.

It is unsurprising that Obama's first visit as president to sub-Saharan Africa, an Obama-obsessed region that views him as a native son, would inspire continental envy. But in a country where democratic expression has been stunted by flawed elections, the move has given critics a fresh opportunity to stick it to their government. They call it a clear indictment of Nigeria's ever-present corruption, President Umaru Yar'Adua's slow progress, the conflict in the oil-rich Niger Delta and what some here see as cooled relations with the United States.

"Most people believe it's deliberate, not a mere oversight, and it's a statement and the message is well conveyed," said Reuben Abati, editor of the Guardian. "Nigerians are very angry with their government."

Nigerian officials, for their part, shrug off the angst. "It was a nonissue," Jibrin D. Chinade, Yar'Adua's special adviser on foreign affairs, said in an interview. "There is no message."

Obama arrived for an overnight stop in Ghana on Friday. White House officials said he will emphasize good governance and U.S. commitment to Africa, to which President George W. Bush massively increased aid.

An Obama administration official declined to say whether the president considered visiting Nigeria but said Ghana was chosen because it is "a model for other countries" in a region beset by "troubled elections and coups."

But in those words is an essential truth: When it comes to democracy in Africa, Ghana is a rising star. Nigeria, on the other hand, seems trapped in a black hole.

Ghana became in 1957 the first African country to gain independence; it is a poor but steady nation in a rough corner of the continent. It won international praise last year for an ultra-close and peaceful election that marked its second transfer of power since a military ruler re-launched democracy in 1992. Investors praise Ghana's open-market economy, which is likely to be boosted by recently discovered oil.

Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation with 150 million people, has long thought of itself as the continent's beating heart. Its economy is Africa's second-largest, and its international peacekeeping force -- the world's fourth-biggest -- patrols across the region. But corruption that watchdogs rank among the world's worst has kept most Nigerians in poverty. Infrastructure is poor, and generators power much of the country. The Niger Delta is simmering with low-level warfare over oil.

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