President Barack Obama wrapped up a weeklong visit to Africa on Tuesday, a tour overshadowed at times by the legacy of his predecessor and a political hero with a bid for his own mark on the continent.
Obama headed home to Washington after ending his tour of Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania with a pledge to help Africa with a seemingly simple service that’s hampered the continent’s development: electricity. Nearly 70 percent of Africans don’t have electricity, Obama said in Tanzania, calling it “one of the biggest hurdles” to Africa’s economic development.
The U.S. is committing some $7 billion toward Obama’s initiative, Power Africa, to double access to electricity. Private companies have committed more than $9 billion.
“That’s what all our efforts are going to be about: making sure that Africans have the tools to create a better life for their people, and that the United States is a partner in that process,” Obama said.
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Before the event, Obama appeared with former President George W. Bush, whom he’d criticized on the campaign trail but whose dedication to eradicating disease and poverty in Africa he hailed at several points during this trip.
He and Bush stood side by side, heads bowed, in a moment of silence to remember the victims of an al Qaida terrorist attack. The two laid a wreath at a memorial for the victims of the August 1998 U.S. Embassy truck bombing in Dar es Salaam, which killed 10 Tanzanians and wounded more than 85 Americans and Tanzanians. They talked quietly with embassy staff who’d survived the attack and with victims’ family members, but they didn’t speak publicly.
That was left to their wives. First lady Michelle Obama shared the stage with her predecessor, Laura Bush, at a summit Bush hosted for African first ladies. The two talked about serving as modern first ladies and poked a little fun at their husbands as they championed efforts to empower women.
“I want to encourage every first lady to speak out and speak up and let people know, because people are watching and they are listening,” Laura Bush said. “And you can be so constructive for your country if you speak up about issues that you think are important.”
Obama invoked the focus on what she wears and how she styles her hair, telling the first ladies to ignore the critics.
“We take our bangs and we stand in front of important things that the world needs to see, and eventually people stop looking at the bangs and they start looking at what we’re standing in front of,” Obama said.
The appearance for the two presidents was coincidental, but Obama found himself faced with Bush’s legacy numerous times during the trip, praising the former president’s commitment to Africa.
Bush’s AIDS program cost billions and would be unlikely in the current political climate, said John Campbell, the Ralph Bunche senior fellow for Africa policy studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, a research center.
Obama’s power initiative also might have a far-reaching effect on the continent, Campbell said.
“It’s not as dramatic and it takes a lot longer, but the payoff for the continent could be considerable,” he said.
The faltering health of former South African President Nelson Mandela cast a shadow over the trip, transforming Obama’s visit to the country into a tribute to the anti-apartheid leader who inspired his political career.
Campbell said Obama handled the situation deftly, declining a visit with the hospitalized Mandela out of deference to the ailing former leader’s “peace and comfort.”
Leaders in some other African nations have been criticized in recent weeks for visiting Mandela, and with the large security force required for a presidential trip, an Obama visit might have been viewed as “arrogant and insensitive,” Campbell said.
Instead, Obama met with the former president’s family, paid tribute to his legacy in remarks in Cape Town and visited Robben Island, where Mandela had been imprisoned for 18 years.
The administration acknowledged ahead of the trip that there’d been “great disappointment” on the continent that the first African-American U.S. president hadn’t made Africa a priority in his first term, and Obama told a group of business leaders in Tanzania that he was making the trip early in his second term “because I intend for this to be the beginning of a new level of economic engagement with Africa.”
He pledged to build on the trip, and said his treasury and energy secretaries would visit the region soon; Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker plans a “major trade mission” to Africa, Obama said.
Some U.S. business leaders had expressed disappointment that private companies weren’t more active on the visit; Obama said his administration planned a “major conference” for American investors on doing business in Africa.
Though the president said he considered Africa the “world’s next major economic success story,” the U.S. is playing catch-up with emerging economic powers such as India and China, which overtook the U.S. as Africa’s largest trading partner in 2009.
“Across the board, we want to step up our game,” Obama told the business leaders.
If there was disappointment with the president, it wasn’t apparent by the reception. In Tanzania, crowds lined the main road from the airport to watch his motorcade roar past. And the name of the road is scheduled for a change: It soon will be known as Barack Obama Drive.
VIDEO: Obama vows to help Africa build `Africa for Africans’