WASHINGTON – The Obama administration is pressing African leaders to tackle corruption and give greater recognition to the rights of women as the first U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit opens in Washington.
“No democracy can survive without the active, intense participation of its people,” Vice President Joe Biden said in remarks Monday to the summit’s civil society forum.
“This is more easily said than done,” Biden said, underscoring that in many Africa countries there is “still an effort to monopolize power” and muzzle civil society with “harassment, intimidation, arrest, even violence.”
While “America doesn’t have all the answers,” Biden said, African governments must allow “transparent institutions” if they want to deepen partnerships with the U.S.
Biden spoke a day before he and President Barack Obama are to meet with African heads of state as Obama seeks to build a legacy in Africa, by shifting the U.S. approach to helping the continent toward investment over aid.
The vice president touched on topics the administration is pushing for across the African continent.
He called on governments to “draw on the talents of all of your people including women and girls” because marginalizing them is “a waste.” Corruption, he said, stifles economic growth and prevents democracy from taking root. “It’s a cancer in Africa as well as around the world.”
Over time, Biden said, “I’m confident you will be successful.”
The son of a Kenyan and the first black U.S. president, Obama is playing host this week to the first U.S.-Africa Leadership Summit. His administration says it expects more than $900 million in deals to be signed, with an emphasis on development driven by private business.
“The importance of this for America needs to be understood,” Obama said at a Friday news conference. “Africa is growing and you’ve got thriving markets and you’ve got entrepreneurs and extraordinary talent among the people there.”
Trade and business, he said, “that’s the kind of relationship Africa is looking for.”
In welcoming 50 delegations to Washington for three days of meetings beginning Monday, Obama is working to overcome perceptions that sub-Saharan Africa has been a low priority his administration. For the past five years, Obama’s foreign policy has focused on expanding ties to Asia, the crises in North Africa and the Middle East, winding down wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and, more recently, confronting a more assertive Russia.
By contrast, former President George W. Bush won praise for his initiatives in sub-Saharan Africa, including from Obama. The biggest part of that was a $15 billion commitment to prevent and treat HIV infections, known as Pepfar, and a $1.2 billion program to fight malaria.
Bush has remained involved with Africa. The Bush Institute at Bush’s presidential library is co-hosting a forum for the spouses of African leaders. Former first lady Laura Bush is scheduled to take part in the program with first lady Michelle Obama.
Uganda’s ambassador to the U.S., Oliver Wonekha, and Ambassador Steve Matenje of Malawi, both Obama fans, said in interviews last week that Africans expect more from Obama, even as they appreciate the African initiatives he’s announced to date and understand that U.S. fiscal challenges and international crises have consumed his attention.
“This is a big thing for Africa,” Wonekha said of the summit. “We want investment. There isn’t enough investment coming from the United States.”
While calling Obama “an inspiration to many Africans,” Matenje said, “Maybe he needs to do more to help African countries.”
The summit “gives him an opportunity to show the continent that at the end of his term we will see a clearly defined legacy,” Matenje said. “That’s what we expect — that this will be a turning point.”
Obama remains more popular in Africa than he is at home, though that has waned since he took office, according to a Pew Research Center poll released last month.
Africans across seven nations said they have confidence in Obama, ranging from a low of 53 percent in Nigeria to a high of 78 percent in Kenya, according to the global poll that surveyed 48,643 people in 44 countries from March 17 to June 5. That’s down from 2010 findings of 95 percent confidence among Kenyans and 84 percent among Nigerians. His U.S. approval rating in a July Pew poll was 44 percent.
Africa — cited by the White House as home to six of the 10 fastest-growing economies — is ripe for expansion, Susan Rice, Obama’s national security adviser, said.
“A relative little goes a long way if it’s well targeted and well framed and if you leverage the private sector and foundations and civil society,” she said in an interview. “That’s a new model of development.”
The World Bank projects a 5.2 percent growth rate for sub- Saharan Africa this year, driven by rising investment in natural resources and infrastructure, and strong household spending.
With the summit, Obama aims to institutionalize the move from a model of delivering aid to spurring development and trade as the main path for lifting Africans out of poverty.
Part of that involves helping nations become more attractive to investment by nudging African governments to adopt more inclusive human rights and follow good governance practices. The U.S. didn’t invite leaders from Zimbabwe, the Central African Republic, Sudan or Eritrea, which aren’t in good standing with the African Union or with the U.S.
“He understands Africa for all of its potential and all of its magnificence but also he understands its warts,” Rice said. “His family members have lived them.”
Obama earlier unveiled initiatives to double access to power in six African countries and expand trade, food security and health initiatives, and his inaugural Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders began last month.
The Power Africa initiative, which still requires action by Congress, envisioned a five-year $7 billion plan to double access to power in Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria and Tanzania — singled out for good governance practices.
By bringing together 50 delegations to discuss ways to expand markets and investment, Rice said Obama wants to “create a precedent that future presidents will want to replicate.”