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Ghana's hype over Obama, beyond race

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The slave trade also evokes guilt, of course, since Ghanaians' own forefathers participated in it. So there's a bit of anxiety about reports that Obama and his wife will visit one of Ghana's slave castles, where millions of human beings were shackled and sent across the sea.

"For this visit, we should not over-play the slavery card," the article warned. "Obama is no descendant of a slave."

But Michelle Obama is. Predictably, then, rumors have circulated that the first lady – not the president – has insisted that they tour the castles.

Most of the other talk around town focuses on the reasons behind the Obamas' visit. Why Ghana? And why now?

The obvious answer is that Ghana is a democracy. Last December, following a close and bitter election, the nation peacefully transferred power from one party to another. On a continent marred by dictatorship and violence, Ghana is a beacon of stability. And Obama probably wants to recognize that.

He also wants oil, other Ghanaians emphasize. The recent discovery of large offshore oil reserves here has whetted the energy-hungry appetite of the United States, which already derives 16 percent of its petroleum imports from West Africa. By 2015, the US National Intelligence Council estimates that fraction will rise to 25 percent. Obama seems to want to make sure the US gains access to Ghanaian oil before China, which has its own enormous energy needs – and its own designs on West African petroleum.

The two interpretations aren't inconsistent, of course. By celebrating and assisting democracy in Ghana, the US can ensure a favorable environment for the oil trade and other forms of economic development.

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