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Africa still on back burner for U.S.

By Todd Pitman

Associated Press

ACCRA, Ghana — Never mind that Barack Obama has never set foot in Ghana before. This country has a message for the American leader when he makes his first trip to sub-Saharan Africa as president this weekend: "Welcome Home."

The posters and banners bearing the warm greeting across Ghana’s verdant tropical capital are borne from hope the world’s most powerful man will help lift his late father’s impoverished continent from the depths of crushing conflict and poverty.

But so far at least, Africa is getting no special treatment: it remains on the back-burner of U.S. foreign policy, aid levels are roughly unchanged from the Bush years, and Obama’s message is clear: Africans must take responsibility for curing their own ills.

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"Expectations are quite high because Obama has roots here," said Wafula Okumu, a Kenyan analyst at South Africa’s Institute for Security Studies in Johannesburg. "But it’s unrealistic to think he’s going to open the flood gates of aid or change anything overnight. In fact, we’ve yet to see any significant change in policy."

While in Ghana, Obama is likely to spell out his administration’s strategy for the continent.

The brief trip comes at the tail end of high-powered stopovers in Russia and Italy for Thursday’s Group of Eight summit. After arriving in Accra late today, Obama holds talks Saturday with Ghana President John Atta Mills, makes a speech to parliament, then helicopters to a former coastal slave fort before jetting out the same afternoon.

Obama told the AllAfrica.com news Web site ahead of his trip that he chose Ghana to highlight the country’s history of good governance. He said he hoped other African nations would emulate the country’s example.

Ghana was the first in Africa to declare independence from colonial rule in 1957, but it went on to endure a quarter century of coups and dictatorship before holding five successful democratic ballots, the last a tense December nail-biter decided by a rerun in a single district.

Good governance is not an "abstract notion that we’re trying to impose on Africa," Obama said. "If government officials are asking for 10, 15, 25 percent off the top, businesses don’t want to invest there."

That Ghana was selected over other sub-Saharan African nations has spurred "why not us" soul-searching by regional powerhouses like Nigeria, which held controversial 2007 elections and is considered one of the most corrupt places on earth. Obama pointedly avoided his late father’s native Kenya, where hundreds of civilians were killed when ethnic clashes broke out following a disputed 2007 vote. The president said he was concerned political parties there "do not seem to be moving into a permanent reconciliation."

Another reason to visit Ghana: the country is expected to start pumping oil in commercial quantities in 2010, boosting the region’s growing strategic importance.

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Oil and gas from Africa accounted for 19 percent of U.S. imports in 2008, surpassing the Persian Gulf’s 18 percent, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

American officials are especially concerned about nascent terror networks operating in Somalia and Algeria.

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