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Africa's Rising Stars

On a troubled continent, Ghana and Botswana stand out for their political and economic progress. Can other nations follow their lead?

By Patricia Smith

When President Obama went to Africa in July, it's no coincidence that his destination was Ghana. And when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton toured the continent a month later, it wasn't surprising that her itinerary included Botswana.

Ghana and Botswana are the kinds of success stories the Obama administration is trying to encourage across Africa. Unlike many African nations, they've both made real strides in establishing democratic institutions with relatively little corruption, and open economies that are attracting foreign investment.

"The African continent is a place of extraordinary promise as well as challenges," Obama said just before his visit. "We're not going to be able to fulfill those promises unless we see better governance."

Indeed, Africa is known more for its failures than its successes. It has suffered from corrupt dictators like Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe and Liberia's former President Charles Taylor. Other problems include famines, ethnic conflicts in places like Darfur and Rwanda that have killed millions, and the rampant use—and abuse—of child soldiers. In some countries, there's also been a reluctance to deal seriously with AIDS, which has decimated an entire generation of Africans.

But countries like Ghana and Botswana are helping to create a new image of Africa as a place in which power can change hands peacefully, free-market policies can boost economic growth, and education is widely available.

As a point of departure for thousands of slaves bound for the Americas, Ghana has a special, if sad, connection to the United States. This west African nation of 23 million people gained its independence from Britain in 1957. It has a functioning democracy that has managed several peaceful transitions of power. Its diversified economy includes gold mines and cocoa production, and its people are well educated.

A Favorite Stop

The rock star Bono, who has made Africa's progress a personal cause, has called Ghana "the new face of Africa."

All this has made Ghana a favorite stop for American Presidents. Obama's predecessors, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, also visited.

Obama received a warm welcome in Ghana. His face was everywhere, from billboards to T-shirts, with thousands of people lining the streets and watching from rooftops to get a glimpse of America's first black President. As the son of a one-time Kenyan goat-herder who came to the U.S. as a student, Obama was in a good position to deliver a blunt message to Africans about the need to take responsibility for their problems and put their houses in order.

"Africa doesn't need strongmen," Obama said in an address to Ghana's Parliament. "It needs strong institutions." Botswana, in southern Africa, has developed those institutions. In 1967, the year after it gained its independence from Britain, a huge diamond mine was discovered.

But unlike other countries where the money ended up in the hands of corrupt leaders and their friends, Botswana's government set aside a percentage of the revenue from the mines for public projects like better roads and clean drinking water. As Secretary Clinton put it, "they were not going to let outsiders or corrupt insiders exploit what was the [people's] natural right to the riches of their country."

It transformed the nation: In the first years of its independence, Botswana was one of the poorest countries in the world. Today, it's one of the most prosperous countries in Africa, with a solid middle class and a per capita income of $13,000 a year. Botswana is also Africa's longest continuous multi-party democracy, and it has a good record on human rights.

Compared to countries like Nigeria and Sierra Leone, Botswana has "done spectacularly well at avoiding all the curses of resource-rich countries," says John Page of the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.

Dorina Bekoe, an Africa expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace, says the rest of Africa could learn from the examples of Ghana and Botswana. The lesson is that "good governance is a way to avoid conflict," she says.

A New Generation of Leaders

Bekoe notes that Ghana's election last December was very close and hotly contested, and there were fears it might end in violence. But it didn't, according to Bekoe, because the government moved quickly and openly to resolve election disputes and give people confidence in the process and the outcome.

Despite Africa's challenges and its troubled history, Page sees hope for the years ahead.

"The generation of African political leaders who came into power immediately after the colonial period were well-intentioned people with bad economic policies," says Page. "Then you go to a generation of leaders who are bad people with bad economic ideas. Finally, we're starting to see a generation of leaders in Africa who are better people with better economic ideas."