WASHINGTON — Though noting persistent challenges, President Barack Obama heralded Africa as a continent on the rise and a growth market for U.S. businesses, as he closed an unprecedented summit Wednesday aimed in part at fostering his own African legacy.
The summit also marked a rare return to Washington for former President George W. Bush, who launched a $15 billion HIV/AIDS initiative while in office and has made public health issues in Africa a priority since leaving the White House. Mr. Bush partnered with first lady Michelle Obama to host a daylong event for spouses of the African leaders. “There’s not many things that convince me to come back to Washington,” said Mr. Bush, who now lives in Dallas and steers clear of politics. “The first lady’s summit, of course, is one.”
While Mr. Obama has continued Mr. Bush’s signature AIDS program, he also has sought his own legacy-building Africa initiatives. This week’s U.S.-Africa summit, which brought together leaders from more than 50 African nations, was seen as a cornerstone of that effort, and Mr. Obama pledged to make the gathering a recurring event. “Africa must know that they will always have a strong and reliable partner in the United States of America,” Mr. Obama said at a news conference marking the end of the three-day summit.
Much of the summit centered on boosting U.S. business ties with Africa, home to six of the world’s 10 fastest-growing economies and a rapidly expanding middle class. Yet the summit’s final day underscored the challenges that could undermine that economic growth.
Health crises remain among Africa’s most pressing problems, including the current outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus in West Africa. Mr. Obama acknowledged that the public health systems in affected countries have been overwhelmed by the outbreak, and said the United States was encouraging them to focus their efforts on rapidly identifying and isolating patients.
The president also pledged to expand security cooperation with African nations in order to address threats from terrorism and human trafficking, alluding to U.S. concerns that extremism in North Africa and the Sahel (the zone between the Sahara desert to the north and Sudan’s Savanna to the south) could destabilize the already-volatile region. “The entire world has a stake in peacekeeping in Africa,” Mr. Obama said.
Before taking questions from reporters, Mr. Obama convened a session with African leaders on good governance, universal rights and strengthening civil societies. And he defended U.S. engagement with countries that have problematic records on those fronts, contending that America’s involvement can help spur those nations to do better. “We find that in some cases, engaging a country that generally is a good partner, but is not performing optimally when it comes to all the various categories of human rights, that we can be effective in working with them on certain areas and criticizing them and trying to elicit improvements in other areas,” Mr. Obama said.
Among the leaders treated to an elaborate reception the night before at the White House were figures such as Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, who has pleaded innocent regarding his alleged role in organizing violence that left more than 1,000 people dead. Mr. Obama has also spoken out repeatedly against recent laws passed in some African nations targeting lesbians and gays, including Uganda, which was represented at the summit.
As Mr. Obama participated in summit meetings, his wife convened a gathering of African first ladies, discussing investments in education, health and economic development. She was joined by Laura Bush, reprising an event the two American first ladies held last summer in Tanzania.
Calling Africa “an underappreciated continent,” Mrs. Obama said it was incumbent upon the world to develop a better understanding of what it has to offer. “This is the beginning of a lot of work that needs to be done,” she said.
Mrs. Obama and Mrs. Bush also focused on the need to educate girls.
Mrs. Obama noted that 30 million girls in sub-Saharan Africa do not attend school.