By Michael A. Fletcher and Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, July 12, 2009; A11
ACCRA, Ghana, July 11 -- President Obama, making his first visit to sub-Saharan Africa since taking office, called on people of the oft-troubled continent Saturday to seize control of their future by building strong, democratic institutions and eliminating corruption.
Ghanaians thrilled by the historic visit of the United States' first black president feted Obama. But Obama did not revel in the adulation he received during his whirlwind stop that included a somber visit to a former slave port, a tour of a local hospital and a festive ceremony at the airport here before leaving to return to Washington.
Rather, in a speech to a special session of the Parliament of Ghana held at a conference center in this capital city, he delivered a blunt but optimistic message about how Africa can shape its destiny.
"We must start with a simple premise that Africa's future is up to Africans," he said.
While Obama nodded to the continent's colonial past as a factor in its struggles, he said that Africa's contemporary problems could hardly be blamed on its former European overseers.
"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," Obama said.
Invoking the experience of his late Kenyan-born father, Obama said he knows well the toll exacted by the corruption that grips many African governments. "In my father's life, it was partly tribalism and patronage in an independent Kenya that for a long stretch derailed his career, and we know that this kind of corruption is a daily fact of life for too many."
Obama said that the corruption and violent conflict have continued unchecked in too many parts of Africa, with leaders fleecing their nations' treasuries, brutally repressing dissent and waging wars unnoticed by much of the outside world leaving untold thousands dead.
"No person wants to live in a society where the rule of law gives way to the rule of brutality and bribery," Obama said. "That is not democracy; that is tyranny. And now is the time for it to end."
The president's visit included no public events that would allow the masses to get a live glimpse of him. "The president wanted to use this visit to shine a light on Ghana and on what it is doing so successfully, rather than on him," Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said.
So Ghanaians who had eagerly awaited his visit listened to his tough-love message on televisions and radios in places such as Nyasa Enterprise, a dim one-room barbershop adorned with a plastic wall clock and a poster of Jesus.
Obama's message went over well in this single outpost of Ghana's largest city. Ghana, a stable democracy, is doing better than many African countries, but it has plenty of problems. Indeed, Ghana ranks in the middle on Transparency International's corruption index, and four out of five of its people live on less than $2 a day.
"It's good that he was hammering on that point," said Kofi Kennedy, 30, a hotel manager. "Because the money comes in, and as I'm sitting here, I'm not privy to what they're using it for. At the end of the day, it's the Ghanaians who suffer."
Before his speech, the president and first lady Michelle Obama visited La General Hospital, a public facility that focuses on child and reproductive health.
In Labone, a neighborhood near the hospital, Abdul Rahim was gathered with four friends around a tiny television with staticky sound and snowy black and white images of a young Obama.
The announcers were detailing the president's humble beginnings, and Rahim was leaning forward, a plate of lunch in his lap. He was eager to hear the president's speech, which was not going to start for more than an hour.
But like a lot of the folks who live in this neighborhood of red earth streets and metal-roof houses -- and where American flags fly as prominently as Ghanaian ones -- he didn't mind the wait. "I'm so happy because he's the first African American to lead the U.S.," he said.
After the speech, the president and his family boarded the presidential helicopter for a visit to Cape Coast Castle, which during the slave trade was used to warehouse thousands of slaves before they were packed into the holds of ships for the journey west.
After touring with his wife and two daughters the dank, stone dungeons and haunting "door of no return" portal leading to the ocean, Obama said the experience was reminiscent of a recent visit he made to a Nazi concentration camp. He called it a place of "profound sadness."
But as the same time, he added that he draws hope from the progress that has occurred since slavery. "It reminds us that as bad as history can be, it's also possible to overcome," Obama said.
White House officials said Obama chose Ghana for his first visit to sub-Saharan Africa as president because of its recent record of peaceful, democratic elections. That political stability is being accompanied by impressive economic growth in this still-poor country, a relative success story that Obama thinks can be replicated across Africa.
"Here in Ghana, you show us a face of Africa that is too often overlooked by a world that sees only tragedy or the need for charity," Obama said in his speech, drawing applause from the audience which included women and men in business suits sitting next to men in traditional kente wraps that left one shoulder exposed. "The people of Ghana have worked hard to put democracy on firmer footing, with peaceful transfers of power even in the wake of closely contested elections."
Governmental institutions that attend to the needs of the people, independent courts that uphold citizens' rights and a sense of unity that transcends tribal and religious differences will help Africa meet its vast potential, he said.
He said his administration would be supporting Africa with aid to build reliable governmental institutions, help in promoting good health, and with agricultural and other assistance that fosters self-sufficiency.
With abundant natural resources and talented people who have thrived elsewhere, Africa has the ingredients for success, Obama said. "With strong institutions and a strong will, I know that Africans can live their dreams in Nairobi and Lagos; in Kigali and Kinshasa; in Harare and right here in Accra," he said.
Obama also praised those across the continent who have stood up for democratic principles, even in the face of grave danger. If all of Africa is to prosper, he said, it would have to follow their example.
"Make no mistake: History is on the side of these brave Africans," he said, "and not with those who use coups or change constitutions to stay in power."
Staff writer Robin Givhan in Ghana contributed to this report.