Obama’s hi-tech African visit

US President Barack Obama speaks to the
crowd at the departure ceremony at Accra
airport in Ghana on 11 July 2009.
(Official White House photo by Pete

Samson Mulugeta

As US President Barack Obama prepared to visit Ghana on 10 July 2009, his first trip to sub-Saharan Africa since his inauguration in January, US ambassadors and public diplomacy staff set in motion a dynamic communications strategy that would help the president engage with people across the continent and around the world.

The public diplomacy team focused on relaying Obama’s message to as many Africans as possible via cellphone, the most popular communication device on the continent.

Before Obama made his speech to the huge crowds lining the streets of Ghana’s capital Accra, the team set up an SMS, or texting service, throughout Africa and invited people to text the president in either English or French.

Nearly 16 000 people from 87 countries around the world responded. This number was further boosted by the American embassy in South Africa, which gathered an additional 200 000 questions and comments from across Africa through a mobile-based social networking site, according to Judith McHale, the undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, who masterminded the communications strategy.

As the president spoke, the team sent SMS highlights of his speech in French and English to over 12 000 people in some 80 countries, and asked for their feedback via SMS.

Hundreds of those messages were posted on www.america.gov, the State Department’s public diplomacy website, and on www.whitehouse.gov.

In return, the president answered questions selected from the massive influx in a podcast that was dubbed into French, Swahili, Portuguese and Arabic, in addition to the original English.

“We interacted directly with hundreds of thousands of people and helped the president to engage with tens of millions. We showed the world that America listens and wants to engage,” said McHale as she briefed reporters at the White House after the president’s Ghanaian visit.

“We broke new ground in using technology to reach non-traditional audiences. Central to this was a creative White House initiative that bridged new media and old.”

The public diplomacy team’s overseas partners worked with local media to enable them to broadcast the president’s speech and report on his trip to Ghana.

They invited audiences to ambassadorial residences, cultural centres and movie theatres to view and discuss the speech. Ambassadors and public affairs officers led panel discussions and spoke to local and regional media to highlight the president’s themes.

The American embassy in Freetown, Sierra Leone, gave small grants to dozens of cinemas throughout the West African nation to screen Obama’s speech live, free of charge. This enabled the president’s message to reach thousands in remote corners of that country.

Across the globe in the Dominican Republic, the American embassy screened Obama’s African address with Spanish subtitles for university students and held a discussion afterwards.

Further north, the US embassy and consulates actively spread the president’s message to African groups living in Canada.

A winning formula

The Obama administration is no stranger to internet-based communication.

The White House has official pages on social networking sites MySpace, Facebook and Twitter, making Obama the first president to use such new technology to communicate with the public.

During his election campaign, Obama’s team effectively used social networking sites and blogging tools to promote his agenda, connect with voters, and raise campaign funds.

Joshua Green of Atlantic – an American magazine that focuses on foreign affairs, politics, the economy and cultural trends – has made a thorough study of Obama’s use of new media, naming it as the hidden reason behind his election as the first African-American president of the US.

To get to grips with tech-savvy election campaign, Green said he “opted to undergo the full tech immersion”, while reporting on the subject. “Soon I had Obama ring tones on my phone, new networks of online ‘friends’, text message updates from the campaign, and regular emails from its manager, all gently encouraging me to give money, volunteer time, bring in new friends, and generally reorient my life in ways that were made to seem hip and fun…”

‘Seize control of your future’

The SMSs that whipped around the world on 10 July during Obama’s Ghanaian visit carried a strong message for Africa: people living on the continent must demand stronger government in order to seize control of their own future.

The US president’s message “resonates as a real declaration of war against the dysfunctions that have paralysed Africa for five centuries”, said Guy Parfait Songue, a political science professor at the University of Douala in Cameroon.

“This is a man bound and determined to upend the continent’s realities, notably on corruption, lack of democracy and disrespect of human rights,” he added.

Obama’s decision to make Ghana the destination of his first African visit drew attention to last year’s post-election violence in Kenya, the homeland of Obama’s father, a country that was once seen as a development success story.

“The general feeling is that Obama is ‘punishing’ the Kenya government for its slow pace of reforms and its unwillingness to deal with corruption,” read an opinion piece in the country’s Daily Nation, an independent newspaper in Kenya with a daily circulation of about 205 000 copies.

In his speech Obama called for redefining donors’ aid relationship with Africa, but insisted that broader investment and trade would require nations across the continent to build more solid institutions.

“He made an important and unprecedented pronouncement for the whole of Africa of partnership based on mutual respect in which Africans take their destiny into their own hands,” said Emmanuel Akwetey, director of Ghana’s Institute for Democratic Governance.

“By asking Africa to own up to its under-development instead of shifting the blame to colonialism, Obama has thrown a challenge to Africa which we should take seriously.”

US policy on Africa already made significant changes under former president George W Bush, who last year tripled US spending to fight Aids, tuberculosis and malaria – mainly in Africa – to US$48-billion (about R373-billion).

A Bush-era trade law helped Africa triple its exports to the US since 2000, rising to $51.1-billion (about R397-billion) in 2007, mostly due to rising oil exports from Angola and Nigeria.

“By setting out the responsibilities that Africa must assume, in order to put its house in order or risk deepening its marginalisation, he [Obama] responded to the expectations placed in him by millions of Africans,” wrote Adam Gaye, in Senegal’s private Wal Fadjri newspaper.

Mozambique’s O Pais newspaper said the US needed to offer more concrete election support to meet Obama’s challenge.

“Obama must work directly with the continent to guarantee that elections are conducted honestly, in accordance with democratic principles,” it said.

“If that doesn’t happen, democracy will become insignificant and instability inevitable, creating a threat to the continent’s security, as well as that of the United States.”

In Zimbabwe, a nation Obama singled out for both its economic collapse and its efforts at political reform, his message was seen as an encouragement in the struggle for democracy.

“We believe it’s an inspirational message,” said Nelson Chamisa, spokesperson for the Movement for Democratic Change, which joined Zanu-PF to form a unity government early in 2009 after a decade of struggle against President Robert Mugabe.

“It’s encouraging to all those who are fighting for democracy, to all those who are hoping to have Africa as a continent with development and goals, particularly the young generation,” he said.

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