Obama, African Leaders Hope to Strengthen Ties

Michael H. Cottman | 8/12/2010, 12:24 p.m.

President Barack Obama talks with British Prime Minister David Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, before a meeting
with African Outreach Leaders at the G8 Summit in Muskoka, Canada, June 25, 2010. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

It was a rare but welcomed sight: Young African men and women, some of them entrepreneurs, sitting inside the White House listening intently to President Barack Obama - a man of Kenyan ancestry - talk passionately about supporting Africa, the continent of his roots.
Since he was elected in 2008, Obama, America's first black president, has spoken proudly of his African heritage and has placed aiding Africa on a list of his priorities while in office.
And so it seemed natural for Obama to discuss the need for renewed economic partnerships between the United States and Africa during an unprecedented town hall meeting where 115 young African leaders from nearly 50 African countries gathered in the East Room, the regal hall where President Abraham Lincoln once walked on the hardwood floors.

"Whether it's creating jobs in a global economy, or delivering education and health care, combating climate change, standing up to violent extremists who offer nothing but destruction or promoting successful models of democracy and development - for all this, we have to have a strong, self-reliant and prosperous Africa," Obama said during the first-of-its-kind White House conference.

Indeed, Obama's 90-minute session with young African leaders last Tuesday signaled to the world that Africa needs - and deserves - all the help that America can offer.

And Obama made it clear that he intends to lead the effort.

"As I said when I was in Accra last year, I don't see Africa as a world apart; I see Africa as a fundamental part of our interconnected world," Obama told the African visitors.

Karen Finney, a Democratic strategist and a political analyst for MSNBC, said former Secretary of State Colin Powell insisted years ago that Africa is strategically important to the United States, something both presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush understood as well.

"President Obama's efforts do not only focus on development in Africa, but also builds relationships with the young leaders who represent Africa's future," said Finney, who helped coordinate President Clinton's historic trip to West Africa in 1998. "It comes at a particularly critical time as Al Quaeda is attempting to establish a stronger foothold in Africa."

According to the White House, the following initiatives have been created to insure continued support for Africa:

Feed the Future: In 2009, President Obama announced a $3 billion global food security initiative that has the support of the world's major and emerging donor nations.

Global Health Initiative: In May 2009, President Obama announced the Global Health Initiative, a six-year, $63 billion initiative which builds on the progress and success of PEPFAR (the President's Emergency Program on AIDS Relief) and also expands America's global health effort.

Climate Change: The United States and nations across Africa are addressing the challenge of global climate change through the Copenhagen Accord and a range of international partnerships promoting clean energy technologies and climate-resilient development for Africans.

As a follow-up to Obama's efforts, the board of directors of the United States Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) recently approved $150 million in financing to support the creation of a private equity fund to invest in companies in West Africa.

Last year, Obama spent two days in Ghana, where he praised Ghanaian officials for their progressive democracy, but he also surprised some African leaders by telling the Ghanaian Parliament that Africa should stop blaming colonialism for its troubles.

"Yes, a colonial map that made little sense bred conflict, and the West has often approached Africa as a patron, rather than a partner," Obama told Ghanaian leaders in 2009. "But the West is not responsible for the destruction of the Zimbabwean economy over the last decade, or wars in which children are enlisted as combatants."

Meanwhile, last week's town hall meeting at the White House was part of the 9th annual African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) Trade and Economic Cooperation Forum, which brings together high-level officials and business leaders to advance trade and economic ties between the United States and sub-Saharan Africa.

Obama also took several questions from a group eager to hear the president's thoughts on a range of issues, which included the mounting social and political problems facing Liberia, Zimbabwe, Somalia and South Africa.

In 2010, 17 countries across sub-Saharan Africa will celebrate 50 years of independence. Obama urged African officials to make their economies even more competitive by combating corruption, lowering trade barriers between each other, and improving infrastructure.

"The great task of building a nation is never done," Obama said. "Here in America, more than two centuries since our independence, we're still working to perfect our union. Across Africa today, there's no denying the daily hardships that are faced by so many - the struggle to feed their children, to find work, to survive another day. And too often, that's the Africa that the world sees."

And Obama told the group that innovative leadership in Africa begins now - starting with the 115 Africans who were assembled in the White House.

"The world needs your talents and your creativity," Obama said. "We need young Africans who are standing up and making things happen not only in their own countries, but around the world."