DAR ES SALAAM (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama sought to advance a new U.S. economic partnership with Africa during a stop in Tanzania on Monday at the end of a tour of the fast-growing continent where Washington faces competition from China.
Obama’s trip to Dar es Salaam came three months after a visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping, who visited shortly after taking office. Many Africans see the U.S. leader’s three-nation tour of Africa as an attempt to play catch-up.
China has built roads, airports and other infrastructure in Africa, but has had to fend off some criticism for intensive exploitation of its mineral wealth to feed its giant industrial base. Tanzania is in talks with China on plans for a new port.
Obama said in South Africa, the second stop of a tour that began in Senegal, that his country was not threatened by China’s role but told Africans to make sure any investors were giving back to Africa as well as consuming its raw materials.
Apparently trying to regain ground, Washington plans a $7 billion initiative to help tackle Africa’s crippling lack of electrical power. On Tuesday, Obama visits an independent power plan in Tanzania run since 2011 by U.S.-based Symbion, and he said the United States was also drawing private sector commitments worth some $9 billion.
Obama repeated his pledge that the United States wanted to help Africa without being simply a provider of aid.
“Ultimately, the goal here is for Africa to build Africa for Africans,” he told a news conference.
Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete joked that he was satisfied with U.S. support, but was reluctant to say so.
“Is the U.S. doing enough? The U.S. has done a lot. But if I say they have done enough, then the President will not listen to my new requests,” he said, drawing laughter.
Obama launched a new project called Trade Africa during his Tanzania stop that with a focus on the east African trade bloc that has a combined population of 130 million people. The project would later be expanded, the White House said.
Obama also signed an executive order to help reduce trafficking in wildlife to protect species such as elephants and rhinoceroses from decline. Washington will provide new funding of $10 million to work on the issue, the White House said.
Although growing quickly, economists said Tanzania’s economy could expand faster with reliable power and more trade from countries within the African continent.
Tanzanian businesses often complain of the expense of running standby generators and other related costs.
“Electricity supply is very erratic,” Susan Maganga, who runs a hair salon in Dar es Salaam, said as Obama arrived in the commercial capital. “I have to buy petrol for a power generator almost on a daily basis, which is a major drain on my business.”
During a meeting with business executives, Obama acknowledged that the United States must work harder to expand business ties in Africa and promised to increase high-level contacts with the continent to woo business opportunities.
He said he would send his Commerce, Treasury and Energy secretaries on missions to Africa and planned to invite African leaders for a high level summit in Washington.
“Across the board, we want to step up our game,” he told the leaders. “I‘m making this trip early in my second term, because I intend for this to be the beginning of a new level of economic engagement with Africa.”
The president called on Africa to do its part too, saying that consistent rules and speedy work were necessary to create a welcoming business environment. U.S. officials said they would work with African governments to eliminate obstacles to trade, such as by smoothing border crossings.
Obama, whose arrival was marked by a 21-gun salute and crowd-lined streets, will meet his predecessor, George W. Bush, on Tuesday at a wreath-laying ceremony for those killed in the 1998 U.S. embassy bombing in Tanzania. Obama’s engagement in Africa has been compared unfavorably to Bush‘s.
Asked about their meeting, Obama praised his predecessor’s work on HIV/AIDS in Africa.
“I think this is one of his crowning achievements. Because of the commitment of the Bush administration and the American people, millions of people’s lives have been saved,” Obama said.
“We’ve continued that work, and we are going to continue that work.”
Additional reporting by Fumbuka Ng'wanakilala and Drazen Jorgic; Writing by Edmund Blair and Jeff Mason; editing by Ralph Boulton