UNITED NATIONS, Sep 21 (IPS) - When Barack Obama visits the United Nations on three consecutive days this week - a rare gesture by a U.S. president - he will be addressing delegates on subjects ranging from climate change and peacekeeping to nuclear non-proliferation and the global financial crisis.
But one of his closed-door meetings will be a private lunch with heads of state and heads of government from sub-Saharan Africa.
"In my knowledge and experience," says U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice, a former assistant secretary of state for African affairs, the lunch Obama will host "is unprecedented".
"It's an opportunity for him to engage with leaders from African countries on the issues that are frankly most pressing to them: how to deal with the youth bulge and find and generate employment opportunities for their people; how to promote trade and investment; and how to feed those that go without every night," she told reporters last week.
Rev. Gabriel Odima, president of the U.S.-based Africa Centre for Peace and Democracy, says President Obama should not only focus on social and economic issues but also on human rights and good governance.
"For nearly 40 years, democracy and good governance have dodged the continent of Africa and Africans," he told IPS.
As a result, their fundamental rights have been taken away from them by leaders who have come to power by the gun and not the ballot.
These leaders, he pointed out, have used intimidation as means of scaring their citizens from exercising fundamental rights such as freedom of conscience, expression, association, and assembly.
Odima said President Obama should encourage African leaders to move towards a true democratic transition and confront head-on human rights abuses and corruption in countries such as Uganda; the reform process in Kenya; the looming crisis in Sudan; the tragedies in both Somalia and Zimbabwe; and the forgotten war in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
Asked about the U.S. role in Somalia, Rice said Washington's goal is to support the peace process, the new transitional federal government,("which is the best hope that Somalia has had for quite some while"), and the African Union peacekeepers that are there very much on the front lines of supporting the nascent government.
"We want to see a Somalia that is stable; that is not serving as - or able to serve as - a safe haven for al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists; that can end the years of humanitarian suffering and move to a responsible government that's able to assert its authority over all of that territory," she said.
Odima told IPS the Security Council adopted Resolution 751 in April 1992 authorising deployment of the military observers in Somalia.
"This marked the beginning of the Somalia tragedy," he said.
The current African Union peacekeeping force in Somalia has no moral authority in bringing peace to Somalia. Both Ugandan and Burundian troops in Somalia have a dark past in their own countries, he added.
Human rights abuse in Africa stands out as a major threat and a challenge to the Obama administration, Odima noted. The spread of AIDS, poverty, corruption, hunger, poor governance, civil wars, poor leadership and mismanagement of resources continue to haunt the continent.
In 1962, he said, U.S. President John F. Kennedy met with several African leaders who had come to attend the U.N. General Assembly sessions in New York and showed a great interest in helping newly independent African countries.
During the same week of the U.N. General Assembly, Kennedy gave a very important speech to the nation that set a road map of U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War.
"Today, President Obama has an opportunity to engage African leaders in bringing hope and change to the people of Africa," Odima added.