Obama takes political spotlight on return to Africa
When Sen. Barack Obama travels to Africa next month for a five-nation, 15-day tour, he will have one credential no other U.S. senator can claim: He is the son of an African.
Twice before, that connection has led Obama to visit Africa and learn more about his late father, a Kenyan goat herder who became a Harvard-educated economist for his own nation's government.
This trip is guaranteed to be different now that Obama has become a political celebrity in the United States and a hero in parts of Africa.
"As the only African-American in the U.S. Senate, there is obviously some symbolic power to my visit," Obama said in an interview with The Associated Press.
Illinois' junior senator said he intends to use that status to spotlight a continent few Americans know much about. He arrives in Africa on Aug. 18 and leaves Sept. 2.
"What a trip like this does is it allows me to really target a wide range of issues that come up on the international stage and help Americans appreciate how much our fates are linked with the African continent," Obama said.
He plans to visit not only Kenya and the province of his African relatives but also South Africa, Congo, Djibouti and Sudan, an itinerary that takes in some of the most populated and some of the most troubled parts of the continent.
He wants to learn more about the spread of AIDS, avian flu and other diseases, the genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan, the prospects for Africa becoming a haven for terrorists, and the impact of climate change -- and what can be done about them all.
Obama also plans to talk about the responsibility of Africans to take action against "a lack of basic rule of law and accountability that has hampered the ability of countries with enormous natural resources."
"Ultimately, a new generation of Africans have to recognize the international community, the international relief organizations or the United States can't help Africa if its own leaders are undermining the possibilities of progress," Obama said.
In his 1995 memoir, "Dreams from My Father," Obama recalled his first trip to Africa, when, in his late 20s, he cried as he sat between the graves of his father and grandfather.
On his next visit, 14 years ago, Obama was a Harvard Law School graduate preparing to start a civil rights law practice in Chicago. He was joined by his future wife, Michelle, so they could meet relatives.
This time, Obama will be returning with a family -- his wife and two young daughters. But he says this trip will not be so much for the family as for the United States and Africa.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who has visited Africa on four official trips, said Obama should receive quite a welcome. He said people there during his own visit last December told him they had taken a huge interest in Obama and followed his senatorial election more than any other election in the West in many years.
"They realize that he is truly a son of Africa and his election means something to them personally," Durbin said. "And I think we're going to find that he is going to be wildly received."
Obama, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's subcommittee on Africa, said his goal is not simply to dwell on problems but to talk about solutions, too.
"These days, the challenges Africa faces are well documented. The opportunities are less known," he said. "When I visit an AIDS clinic what I am trying to learn is not whether AIDS is devastating in a country like Kenya. There is no denying that. What I hope to learn in talking to a nurse or a mother or talking to a doctor is what programs are working to prevent AIDS, to treat AIDS."
One example is a program in which he has a personal stake.
He plans to visit a group of Kenyan women age 50 and older who have adopted children suffering from AIDS and are making a success of it with the help of a "microcredit" program supported by his personal funds from a children's book deal.
The program, with an initial $14,000 Obama investment, enables the women to obtain small loans so they can buy such items as sewing machines or bicycles or crops at market that might enable them to start small businesses. The borrowers repay the loans as their money comes in.
Obama said the United States could make a difference by working with pharmaceutical companies, such as those in Illinois, to increase access to antiviral drugs in Africa.
Improved international trade would also help Africans escape poverty, he said. "Unfortunately, we have a range of trade barriers that inhibit countries in Africa to export," he said.
During his trip to Congo, the senator will see a nation after what is scheduled to be, on July 30, its first free legislative and presidential balloting in 46 years. Some 17,000 United Nations peacekeepers are deployed to oversee the voting, as Human Rights Watch has warned that fear and intimidation could affect the results.
Obama cautions that good government is not just about having elections.
"Good government is not getting shaken down by a bureaucrat if you want to start a business, not being pulled over by police to pay a bribe, being able to get a business license in a few days instead of a few years," he said.
In the Senate last month, Obama attached an amendment to a pending bill that would provide up to $52 million to the Democratic Republic of the Congo while letting President Bush withdraw the assistance if the Congo makes insufficient progress toward democracy.
The senator also argues it would be wise for the United States to emphasize helping Africa's "anchor states," countries -- such as South Africa, Congo, Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda -- that are large, populous and with natural resources in their favor, and whose successes should spread elsewhere.
In Sudan, the senator is expected to focus on the genocide occurring in the Darfur region, where nearly 200,000 people have been killed and more than 2 million displaced. Obama favors using United Nations peacekeepers to bring the situation under control.
Africa faces a daunting list of problems, but Lorenzo Morris, chairman of the political science department at Howard University in Washington, D.C., predicts that Obama's mixture of African roots and political celebrity will at least call new attention to those problems during his trip -- a big step away from the status quo.
"In Africa, there's no compelling focus on the image or the place of Africa in U.S. foreign policy," he said.
Morris said Africa has long been ignored as a national issue, even by the Democratic Party, which relies heavily on black voters during presidential elections. But he said that should change because Obama, who has raised millions of dollars for the party and its candidates over the past two years, is a strong Democratic leader.
Durbin, the Senate's second-highest ranking Democrat, is optimistic already.
"I think it's going to open up the possibility of a new conversation about that continent," Durbin said, "and it's long overdue."