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Published: Friday, 7/17/2009

Speech to a continent

PRESIDENT Obama's speech to Africa, delivered in Ghana during a short visit there, was important not only for what he said but because he had the courage to say it.

Although the financial aid that President George W. Bush sent to Africa during his eight years in power was substantial and well-directed, focused largely on attacking the continent's major diseases, Mr. Bush didn't pay a lot of attention to African issues in general policy terms.

In contrast, Mr. Obama has sought energetically to reset America's course in the world, especially in regard to Muslims, given that that is where much of the world's troubles reside - the Israeli-Palestinian problem, the Iraq war, Afghanistan, the bid for constructive dialogue with Iran.

His major policy speech on American-Muslim relations was delivered in Cairo on June 4. He laid down good, strong lines in it. The people of the region and the world are now watching to see if he delivers on the promise he projected in that speech.

He did the same thing for Africa during his one-day visit on Saturday, with the speech delivered in Accra, Ghana. This one was particularly poignant, given that Mr. Obama is half African. On that basis Africans have enormous hopes of Mr. Obama and of America.

It was noteworthy that he made his first visit to Africa as President to Ghana, as opposed to Kenya, the country of his father, or to South Africa, the continent's leader in economic development.

He passed on Kenya because he did not want to seem to favor it just because his father was Kenyan, but also because of its mediocre record in practicing democracy. Ghana's performance, eschewing violence and fighting corruption, surpasses Kenya in all those respects.

Mr. Obama's speech - really to all of Africa - was eloquent and, most of all, it was the kind of "Dutch uncle" talk that Africans need at this point in time, 50 years after independence.

The President was categorical: "Africa's future is up to Africans." That means that it is not up to America, nor the World Bank, nor to other outside aid donors. Development depends on good governance, he said. These elements of nation-building - independence and effective, noncorrupt government - have been missing in most of Africa.

The four keys, he said, are democracy, opportunity, health, and peaceful resolution of conflicts, and "capable, reliable, and transparent institutions" are essential to progress.

By virtue of his background, Mr. Obama can say these things. Other African leaders do not say these things to each other because they know they are vulnerable to politics at home.

Africa's "triumph of justice," he said, "must be won by you." A "new era of progress" is possible, but Africans "must take responsibility" for their future.

Strong words, said in the right setting, on the American President's first visit to Africa. Now it's up to Mr. Obama to fashion those words into effective policy.



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