As he kicks off a historic meeting of African leaders, President Barack Obama tells Americans that the United States must invest in an up-and-coming Africa that’s trying to shed its image of poverty and disease.
“We can’t lose sight of the extraordinary promise of Africa,” Obama wrote in an opinion piece that McClatchy published Tuesday. “And just as Africa is changing, we need to change the way we think about the continent, put aside old stereotypes and respond to Africans’ desire for a partnership of equals where Africans take the lead in their own development.”
The U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, which began Monday in Washington, brings together leaders of nearly all African nations, lawmakers, business leaders and development organizations for a three-day meeting designed to boost economic ties between the United States and Africa.
Obama wrote in his op-ed that the goal of the summit he’s billing as the largest gathering of African leaders ever in Washington is to expand trade and create jobs, strengthen democracies and combat threats, including those from terrorist groups.
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“A new Africa is emerging,” he wrote. “This week I’m making it clear that (Africans) will find no better friend than the United States, because Africa’s success will mean greater security and prosperity for all our nations for decades to come.”
But Obama’s summit is competing for attention with a deadly Ebola outbreak that’s raging in parts of Africa, as well as with other crises in Ukraine, Iraq and the Middle East.
A handful of African leaders canceled their visits to deal with the virus, but White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Monday that some attendees hailed from countries where the outbreak had occurred. He said the Secret Service and the State Department had ensured that officers were trained to identify those exhibiting any symptoms.
Earnest said anyone starting to exhibit symptoms would be quarantined and treated. He noted, too, that individuals from the countries were screened before boarding aircraft in their home countries and again upon arriving in the U.S.
On Monday, Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry spoke to leaders who also participated in a series of roundtables on health, food security, climate and wildlife trafficking. Members of Congress were to host a reception Monday night.
Biden spoke before a gathering of civil society groups, encouraging them to keep governments honest. “There's so much at stake, but the opportunities are so vast,” he said. “In your hands, with your help, Africa can and will go so much further.”
Biden urged the groups to keep tabs on their governments and help root out corruption.
“Corruption is not unique to Africa. But it’s a cancer,” he said. “It's a cancer in Africa as well as around the world. Widespread corruption is an affront to the dignity of its people and a direct threat to each of your nations’ stability; all nations’ stability.”
Obama will speak Tuesday at the end of the U.S.-Africa Business Forum, sponsored by the Commerce Department and Bloomberg Philanthropies. Former President Bill Clinton will moderate the opening session. Obama and first lady Michelle Obama then will host African leaders at a dinner at the White House.
Wednesday’s program will focus on democracy and peace. Former President George W. Bush and former first lady Laura Bush will participate in a separate daylong event on issues geared toward women and girls: education, cancer and improving their lives through entrepreneurship.
Obama didn’t pay much attention to sub-Saharan Africa in his first term as he confronted a series of domestic and international crises. Last summer, he traveled to Africa to start repairing that relationship.
Kerry told attendees at an event Monday at the World Bank that the administration “wants to unleash the potential, both for the benefit of the people of Africa and to create greater prosperity for the world.”
He told them that by the close of the summit they’d “have a clear sense of the fullness of the commitment of President Obama and the Obama administration and the United States to the notion that Africa is a natural partner of the United States and vice versa. And we believe that the United States can be a vital catalyst in Africa’s continued transformation.”
Some have questioned why Obama isn’t meeting individually with any African leaders this week, but his aides say he couldn’t meet with some and not others. Instead, Kerry began a series of one-on-one sessions with leaders, including those from Burkina Faso, Angola, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Libya.
Kerry apologized at least once Monday for his brief remarks, noting there were “so many presidents in the city over the next few days” that he was starting a “marathon” of meetings with them.
Ben Rhodes, a deputy White House national security adviser, said the U.S. had invited all of Africa with the exception of certain countries that weren’t in good standing with the African Union or of particular concern to the U.S. The five leaders that were excluded are from the Central African Republic, Zimbabwe, Sudan, Eritrea and Western Sahara, which the U.S. and the United Nations don’t recognize as a country.