When President Barack Obama arrived in the West African nation of Ghana on Friday, large billboards greeted the first family with this message: "Akwaaba." Translation: "Welcome home."
If Obama's first visit to sub-Saharan Africa since becoming president represented a homecoming, it was a decidedly subdued one: The president planned to stay less than 24 hours, and pointedly avoided his ancestral home of Kenya.
But his choice of Ghana isn't surprising: The nation serves as a unique point of stability on an increasingly unstable continent, and has enjoyed five peaceful democratic elections in recent years. Obama called the country "an extraordinary model for success." Tensions in Kenya remain high after election-related violence swept the country early last year.
(Ghana also represents a potential source of oil for the U.S., with the nation planning to begin pumping oil in commercial quantities next year. The U.S. imported 19 percent of its oil from Africa in 2008, and securing stable sources remains critical.)
More surprising: That this is Obama's first presidential trip to the sub-Saharan continent that embraced his candidacy and that also harbors some of the most substantial humanitarian and political crises in the world. The low-profile, stop-over visit on his way back from a week-long trip to Europe, his second, underscores the Obama administration's so-far tentative approach to African policy.
Indeed, for a president trying to distance himself from his predecessor at home, Obama may have to play catch-up to President George W. Bush's expansive efforts in Africa: During Bush's tenure, the U.S. more than tripled its aid to Africa and enacted a sweeping program that transformed the worldwide approach to the AIDS pandemic, including providing life-saving anti-retroviral drugs to millions of Africans.
The Bush administration also helped negotiate a now-fragile peace treaty in Sudan, though conflicts in the Congo, Nigeria, Somalia, and other nations continued to worsen.
Obama's administration has so far continued Bush's humanitarian programs, but has offered little about Obama's plans for crafting his own policy in Africa. The administration hasn't yet named an ambassador to the African Union, and remains divided over policy in crucial regions like Sudan.
Obama tried to dispel notions that he's downplaying Africa during a meeting with Ghanaian President John Atta Mills, saying: "Africa is not separate from world affairs." Obama said Africa's fate is interwoven with the rest of the world, but emphasized the importance of the continent taking responsibility for its own problems.
"Part of what's hampered advancement in Africa is that for many years we've made excuses about corruption or poor governance, that this was somehow the consequence of neocolonialism, or the West has been oppressive or racism," Obama told African reporters. "I'm not a believer in excuses."
Still, Peter Pham, an Africa expert at James Madison University, said the Obama administration will soon have to move beyond rhetoric to action: "They should be applauded for maintaining the Bush programs, but the nitty gritty of engaging political leadership, of laying out strategy, they have yet to show their metal."