African summit: Obama plays catch-up in opening U.S. opportunities

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As a way to connect American CEOs with African leaders, President Barack Obama hosted a summit this week involving most of Africa’s 54 states.

For the U.S. corporations, the event highlighted business opportunities on an often overlooked continent. For the Africans, the summit was a chance to become familiar with the potential of American companies and banks to participate in the development of their countries.

The Washington summit had other objectives, one of which was to establish the United States as a competitor to China in Africa. China has been marching quickly to nail down access both to Africa’s assets, particularly its minerals, and to its markets for Chinese exports. The continent remains a relatively undeveloped market of more than 1 billion people.

Another objective was to make up for what Africans consider to be Mr. Obama’s relative inattention to the continent and its issues. They had perhaps exaggerated hopes of him, the son of an African father, which he has barely begun to fulfill until now. What Mr. Obama offered was business instead of aid, which is unlikely to grow in America’s current economic and political climate.

There were problems, of course. One was that the leaders of some African countries are so out of line with international norms of behavior that they could not be invited, notably the leaders of the Central African Republic, Eritrea, Sudan, Western Sahara and Zimbabwe. Some who were invited were close to the line on whether they might have been excluded — namely, Rwanda, South Sudan and Uganda.

The worst problem the summit encountered, in terms of the U.S. public’s perception, was the coincidence between its timing and the potential spread of the dangerous Ebola virus from a handful of African countries to other parts of the world.

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