The Obama administration sought Monday to strengthen ties with Africa at an unprecedented summit with dozens of African leaders, grappling with issues such as investment, poverty, terrorism, corruption and deadly diseases.
Nearly 50 African heads of state attended the gathering focused on how to build democracy and raise investment in the continent, which is home to some of the world’s fastest growing economies and an expanding middle class.
Yet an outbreak of deadly Ebola virus, which has killed at least 887 people in West Africa, cast a pall over the summit. Leaders from Sierra Leone and Liberia canceled their plans to attend and the U.S. set up medical screenings for other officials traveling from those nations.
Those who did attend, including women dressed in brightly colored African wear, crowded hotel lobbies and buses. Pickup trucks carrying signs with messages like “End Dictatorship in Ethiopia” cruised downtown streets. Traffic was snarled and streets were closed around event sites.
Inside the summit venues, top U.S. officials spoke positively about U.S.-Africa relations and progress on the continent.
“I think something like 10 of the 15 fastest-growing countries in the world are in Africa,” Secretary of State John Kerry said. “Africa will have a larger workforce than India or China by 2040.”
The Obama administration says it is committed to renewing the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act, which is set to expire next year. Since 2000, AGOA has been at the center of the U.S. efforts to promote trade and investment in Africa while opening new sources of material for U.S. producers.
“AGOA has made it possible for Ford Motor Co. to export engines duty-free from South Africa, where Ford has invested over $300 million so they can supply engines worldwide,” Kerry said. “And the efficiencies of that operation have allowed Ford to create 800 new jobs at their Kansas City plant as part of the global production line.”
South Africa President Jacob Zuma said he wants to see AGOA renewed for another 15 years, with the inclusion of South Africa. South African exports to the United States were worth $3.6 billion in 2013, according to the American Chamber of Commerce. It said the United States was the biggest destination for South African exports of passenger cars, receiving 42 percent of the total.
About 600 U.S. companies do business in South Africa, which has one of the biggest economies on the continent, but struggles with low growth, labor unrest and high unemployment.
“Almost 95 percent of South African exports receive preferential treatment under AGOA,” Zuma said in a speech at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “We strongly believe that by endorsing the extension of AGOA, the U.S. will be promoting African integration, industrialization and infrastructure development.”
The U.S. is competing in Africa with China, which surpassed the United States in 2009 as Africa’s largest trading partner. China has been increasingly investing in natural resources projects in Africa, and Chinese leaders make frequent trips to the continent.
In Kenya, Aly-Khan Satchu, the owner of a financial management company and a prominent social commentator, said he believes the U.S. is “a bit late” to what has been a global re-engagement with Africa. That movement in Kenya has been led by China, which is helping build new roads and overpasses, and new skyscrapers rising above Nairobi, the capital.
Vice President Joe Biden warned that corruption was a red light to progress in Africa. He called on African nations to improve rule of law with better court systems, independent oversight of government departments and vetting of police and security officials.
“Corruption not only undermines but prevents the establishment of genuine democratic systems. It stifles economic growth and scares away investment. It siphons off resources that should be used to lift people out of poverty, and it weakens your military readiness,” Biden told summit attendees. “It creates vulnerabilities to foreign manipulation and interference.”
Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud said extremist militants threaten to hamper progress in eastern Africa. Mohamud’s Western-backed government has promised to put the country on a path toward democracy and economic progress, despite regular attacks by the Islamic group, al-Shabab.
Mohamud, whose life has been threatened by the group, said young people in his country are being herded into al-Shabab training camps, toys are replaced by guns and the youth are missing out on simple pleasures like going to a movie or relaxing on a beach.
Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell and other U.S. officials spoke Monday with Guinean President Alpha Condé and senior officials from Liberia and Sierra Leone about the Ebola outbreak. Burwell and Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, emphasized ongoing U.S. support for efforts to control the outbreak, officials said.
The World Bank Group on Monday pledged as much as $200 million in emergency funding to help Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone contain the spread of Ebola infections. The group of five development organizations said the money would pay for urgently needed medical supplies, medical staff salaries and help enhance the region’s disease surveillance and lab networks to stem future outbreaks.