YOUTH FOCUS: US President Barack Obama (left) with Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu on a visit to the archbishop’s HIV foundation youth centre in Cape Town on Sunday. Picture: REUTERS
YOUTH FOCUS: US President Barack Obama (left) with Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu on a visit to the archbishop’s HIV foundation youth centre in Cape Town on Sunday. Picture: REUTERS

US PRESIDENT Barack Obama on Sunday night used the keynote address of his visit to the University of Cape Town to set out a vision for a new partnership with Africa that would include, in the immediate term, a large US investment in electricity generation in sub-Saharan Africa and a summit of all African leaders with his government next year.

While extremely positive about Africa’s opportunities, Mr Obama was also frank about the continent’s problems, saying that unless Africans could reduce corruption, build genuine democracy and work to eliminate conflict, the continent would not be able to achieve its potential.

The address to a mostly young audience — although it also included several Cabinet ministers, provincial Premier Helen Zille as well as business and academic leaders — was viewed by the US administration as the "framing" speech for Mr Obama’s African policy during the visit.

Mr Obama said his administration sought a new relationship that would go "beyond aid to a partnership between America and Africa that would be a partnership of equals" based on the capacity of Africans to solve their own problems. The new vision rested on three elements: opportunity, democracy and peace, he said.

Such a partnership would "empower Africans to access opportunities". To support this, Mr Obama said he would announce new trade initiatives and also take forward his commitment — given at his meeting with President Jacob Zuma on Friday, to renew and strengthen the African Growth and Opportunity Act. In addition, his administration believed that, to empower individual Africans, access to power was the key to progress.

In what is the biggest announcement of his African tour so far, Mr Obama said his government would invest $7bn in the "Power Africa" initiative, which would generate electricity for sub-Saharan Africa, creating opportunities for everyone from school children to entrepreneurs. The initiative would be a partnership with the private sector and several African governments.

"Access to electricity is fundamental to opportunity in this age. It is the connection that is needed to connect Africa into (the world) … but two-thirds of sub-Saharan Africans don’t have access to power," he said.

The venture will begin in six countries — Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria and Tanzania — to add more than 10,000MW of cleaner, efficient electricity-generation capacity and will increase electricity access by at least 20-million new households and commercial entities, according to the White House.

A partnership with Africa that unleashed growth was achievable, but "progress was only possible when governments exist to serve their people", Mr Obama said to loud applause.

South Africa was an example where freedom had triumphed over tyranny, he said, embodied particularly by the example of Nelson Mandela, who had set an example by serving only one term in office.

Free and fair elections in Ghana and Zambia and the vibrancy of civil society in Senegal were all examples of progress.

"But this work is not completed," Mr Obama said.

In Zimbabwe, for instance, the promise of liberation had given way to the corruption and the collapse of the economy. However, due to regional efforts, Zimbabwe now had a new constitution and an opportunity to move forward, provided the forthcoming elections were free and fair.

Mr Obama said he realised US efforts to encourage African democracy were not always welcome.

"There are some in Africa who say we are intrusive and ask, ‘Why are we meddling?’ as if somehow democracy and transparency are western exports. I disagree.

"Those who make those arguments are usually trying to divert people from their own abuses. Africans should make up their own minds about what serves Africans. We trust your judgment; the judgment of ordinary people. It should not just be Americans who speak up for democracy but Africans too."

The US would also continue to back African efforts for peace on the continent. The US’s role was to "put muscle behind African efforts", which was what it was doing in the Sahel — a belt up to 1,000km wide that spans the 5,400km in Africa from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea — taking in central Africa and Somalia, he said.

He said that next year he would call a summit of all the heads of state across Africa, "to open a new chapter in US-African relations … and figure out how best to work together".

Meanwhile, US administration officials say the $7bn Power Africa venture will complement an additional $9bn in private funds to double access to power in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the White House.

As many as 85% of Africans in rural areas do not have access to power, the National Security Council’s senior director for development and democracy Gayle Smith said. "We’re looking to provide support and partnership so the lights can turn on and stay on."

Experts agree that the lack of electricity is a tremendous hindrance to Africa’s advancement.

"Africa is largely a continent of darkness by night," said an official at a multilateral agency who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Every which way you look at this, Africa is behind the curve and pays more."