African Leaders Sit Down With American Investors
WASHINGTON — President Obama convened a giant game of “Let’s Make a Deal” between the United States and Africa on Tuesday, bringing together nearly 50 African leaders with American investors for what he promised would be a long-term partnership that went beyond extracting “minerals from the ground for our growth.”
For Mr. Obama, the son of a Kenyan economist, it was the centerpiece of a three-day summit meeting of African leaders — some close allies of the United States, others barely on speaking terms — that is the president’s most ambitious attempt to cement his legacy as an American leader who cares about the African continent.
“Our entire trade with all of Africa is still only about equal to our trade with Brazil,” the president said. “I want Africans buying more American products; I want Americans buying more African products. I know you do, too, and that’s what you’re doing today.”The African leaders seemed gratified by Mr. Obama’s sales pitch, which was echoed by a roster of boldface names from the business world, including the chief executives of General Electric, Coca-Cola and IBM and private-equity titans from Blackstone and the Carlyle Group.But the chamber of commerce vibe was disrupted just before Mr. Obama spoke when some of the African leaders took umbrage to questions about the Ebola outbreak in West Africa and the security threat from Boko Haram and other Islamic militant groups.
“It’s an unfair vision of Africa,” said President Macky Sall of Senegal, referring to Western news reports about the outbreak. “Ebola is not an African disease,” he said, speaking in French. “It is necessary to confront Ebola as a threat to humanity.”
Tanzania’s president, Jakaya Mrisho Kikwete, noting that his country is in East Africa, said that too often “the whole of the African continent is perceived as if everywhere, everybody is suffering from Ebola.”The presidents of Liberia and Sierra Leone canceled their visits to the summit meeting to deal with the outbreak. On Monday, American health officials met quietly at the State Department and with African officials from the affected countries to discuss their responses to the virus.
Mr. Kikwete also played down a question from Charlie Rose, the CBS News anchor, about the threat posed by militants, saying that Africa’s two major trouble spots, Somalia and Darfur, Sudan, had calmed down. That drew a sharp retort from President Moncef Marzouki of Tunisia, who cited continuing violence in Sudan and northern Mali.“We have to face the problems, but we have to work together,” said Mr. Marzouki, who returned from exile in France to run for president after Tunisia’s autocratic leader, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, was ousted in the opening days of the Arab Spring in 2011.
Mr. Obama steered clear of the Ebola outbreak or Islamic militancy — not to mention his own personal links to Africa. Instead, his speech focused heavily on creating the right conditions for American companies to invest in Africa. He made a couple of announcements to jump-start the effort, including $12 billion in new funding for the administration’s Power Africa initiative, which aims to provide electricity to households across sub-Saharan Africa. With $26 billion in funding, Mr. Obama said he had tripled the program’s goal of reaching 60 million households.He also promoted $14 billion in new investments by American companies in Africa, including $5 billion from Coca-Cola. Heeding requests from African leaders, he said the White House would work with Congress to extend the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which grants trade preferences to sub-Saharan countries and expires next year.
With a narrative that has shifted from war and poverty to growth and development, Mr. Obama extolled Africa as an enticing opportunity for the United States. Though he did not mention China, he drew a clear distinction between the American approach and that of China, which has spent lavishly in Africa to lock up sources of minerals.
“We don’t look to Africa simply for its natural resources,” Mr. Obama said. “We recognize Africa for its greatest resource, which is its people and its talents and their potential.”But if Mr. Obama sought to distance the United States from China, he delivered only a gentle admonition to the leaders about the need to curb corruption and install cleaner governments. “People should be able to start a business and ship their goods without having to pay a bribe or hiring someone’s cousin,” he said.
The conference was co-sponsored by the Commerce Department and the foundation of former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York, who told reporters: “It has become unfashionable to be a business person in the U.S. And Africa desperately wants to build a business class because that’s where the jobs are going to come from.”
While the mood at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel was buoyant, a few guests turned the tables on the United States. Mo Ibrahim, a Sudan-born cellphone tycoon, complained that American companies used legal techniques to dodge taxes in African countries where they have operations.
“Can you please also pay your taxes?” he said. “If you want to succeed long-term, you have to do clean business.”
With its combination of marquee panelists and ironclad security, the meeting felt like a cross between the World Economic Forum at Davos and a Group of 20 summit meeting. Corporate chieftains, and celebrity guests like former President Bill Clinton, mixed easily with African leaders, while reporters covering the conference were penned behind a rope and allowed to move around only under escort.
None of the African leaders will get one-on-one meetings with Mr. Obama, but the White House arranged for Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. to meet with the leaders of South Africa and Nigeria.
On Tuesday evening, however, Mr. Obama and his wife, Michelle, welcomed all the leaders to the South Lawn of the White House, where they were serenaded by Lionel Richie and served a dinner of grilled beef with coconut milk, and cappuccino fudge cake with Madagascar vanilla-scented papaya.