Obama Says U.S. Ready For Business With Africa

[News Analyses]

President Barack Obama wanted to ensure that his one-week long trip to Africa this week wouldn’t be viewed as merely a photo-op journey to deflect the appearance that the continent had been moved to the backburner since his 2009 stop-over in Ghana.

While in South Africa yesterday, Obama announced a $7 billion plan to double the number of Africans that have access to electricity and other forms of energy.

This was surely good news to a continent where power outages are common in almost every major city, from Kampala to Lagos, even though the continent is blessed with abundant hydro-electric energy sources. Obama said energy was critical for economic development.

In Tanzania today, where the president received his most rousing welcome during his trip so far he continued the focus on what he says is a desire to create an economic “partnership” with a continent so rich in natural resources but also well-known for mismanagement by tyrants, often backed by the West, who refuse to yield power.

The U.S. may also want to refocus involvement with Africa towards trade, away from the most notable recent interventions — including the NATO military strike on Libya and the assistance to the French during the intervention in Mali. The murdered Libyan leader, Muammar al-Quathafi was popular in many African countries as he preached Pan-African union and pumped hundreds of billions of dollars into African countries South of the Sahara.

“Karibu Tanzania,” signs read, in Dar Es Salaam, the capital. Karibu is the Kiswahli word for welcome.

Obama was greeted by host President Jakaya Kikwete.

“We are looking at a new model that’s based not just on aid and assistance but trade and partnership,” President Obama declared at a news conference. “Ultimately the goal here is for Africa to build Africa for Africans. Our job is to be a partner in that process.”

Obama is accompanied by scores of top executives from major American companies and today met with some of Africa’s top business leaders. His wife Michelle will also meet with emerging African women leaders.

In South Africa, the theme was Africa’s youth, during the president’s address to students at Cape Town. He told the youth that the world would be watching what they do and urged them to take inspiration from a leader like Nelson Mandela, who is now critically ill.

He also pointedly told African leaders not to see themselves as life presidents and follow the example set by Mandela who retired after one term of office.

Africa has been propelled in recent years into global economic news as international coverage increased after China dramatically increased its trade and investment in the continent. Although the U.S. has downplayed China’s increasing role, President Obama clearly alluded to it without naming China while in South Africa. The president wondered whether all investors who came to Africa hired African workers and whether “value added” accrued to African countries.

These questions by President Obama must be posed to both China and the U.S.

It’s clear that the U.S. plans to counter China’s penetration and Obama announced that Penny Pritzker, the  new Commerce Secretary will head later this year to the continent to launch a major trade initiative.  China’s trade with Africa now exceeds $300 trillion while the U.S.’s is under $100 trillion.

What’s more China has been involved in major infrastructure construction projects, including major highways and bridges. China also has left a permanent stamp on the continent by financing and building the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa.

“At every stop one of my main messages has been that, even as this continent faces great challenges, this is also a moment of great promise for Africa,” Obama said, in Tanzania, acknowledging the continent’s emergence and the competition from other quarters.

It’s interesting to see how African countries will position themselves to benefit from these suitors from China and the U.S.  Beijing must be closely monitoring the trip.

Tanzania will be one of the African countries that benefits from the “Power Africa” program announced by Obama in South Africa to double access to electricity by Africans.

Also while in Tanzania, President Obama will lay a wreath at the site where 10 people died when the U.S. embassy was bombed there on the same day that the one in Kenya was also targeted. He will be joined by George W. Bush, who has been visiting Southern Africa.

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