Africa summit: Pres. Kikwete seeks greater U.S. involvement in Africa

Tanzania President Jakaya Kikwete talks with The Washington Times at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Northwest.
(Khalid Naji-Allah/Special to The Washington Times)

By Dave Boyer via The Washington Times

As more than 40 African leaders converge on Washington for a three-day summit that begins Monday, President Jakaya Kikwete of Tanzania is among those seeking a deeper commitment from the Obama administration and U.S. corporations to spend more on his country.

“At this summit, you will see now the conspicuous participation of the U.S. private sector,” Mr. Kikwete said in an exclusive interview Sunday with The Washington Times. “We want to see more and more investments and trade from the U.S. to Africa.”

President Obama is hosting the summit, the largest gathering of African heads of state ever in the U.S., to signal the administration’s comprehensive strategy for the continent. Mr. Obama lacks a signature initiative such as President George W. Bush’s program to combat HIV/AIDS in Africa and is instead
trying to emphasize mutually beneficial economic ties.

For Tanzania, a nation of 48 million on Africa’s eastern coast, economic growth means modernizing the country’s agriculture and capitalizing on recent discoveries of oil and natural gas fields. Mr. Kikwete will spend part of the summit meeting with some of the more than 200 U.S. and African CEOs in attendance to lobby them on doing more business in his country in areas ranging from higher-yield seed production to offshore drilling.

“Currently, U.S. private sector investment in Tanzania is $4.5 billion,” said Mr. Kikwete, whose national economy has been growing at an annual rate of about 7 percent. “Trade is not that big — about $300 million. We are saying both in regards to investment and trade, Tanzania can absorb 10 times more.”

Former President Bill Clinton and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg will participate in a U.S.-Africa Business Forum on Tuesday, when Mr. Obama will speak. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker is expected to announce new deals between the U.S. and Africa totaling $1 billion.

Like many other African nations, Tanzania is struggling to ensure that its economic gains reach more of its citizens. In spite of strong growth and major efforts to improve its roads and electrical grid, it ranks as one of the world’s poorest countries, with about 28 percent of the population living in poverty, many of them on small farms.

“Poverty reduction has not been as fast as the economy has been growing,” Mr. Kikwete said. “The explanation is that 70 percent of the population lives in the rural areas. Unfortunately agriculture has not been growing as fast as the other sectors of the economy.”

He said the country is embarking on a “robust program of agriculture transformation” to modernize farming with more tractors, expanded irrigation systems and higher-yielding crops.

Mr. Kikwete said helping small farmers to modernize “is one of the challenges, but we have no option.”

“If you have 70 percent of the people depending on agriculture, and predominantly they are small farmers, any intervention has to take these people into account,” he said.

Before the summit even began, the administration had to deal with fallout from an outbreak in West Africa of the deadly Ebola virus. The presidents of Liberia and Sierra Leone canceled plans to attend the conference, deciding to stay home to grapple with the out-of-control epidemic that has claimed at least 729 lives and infected more than 1,300 people.

Mr. Kikwete received a briefing Saturday at the National Institutes of Health on efforts to combat the Ebola outbreak, including an experimental vaccine that is said to be yielding encouraging results in primates. Although Tanzania is a six-hour plane flight from ground zero of the epidemic, Mr. Kikwete said his government is still taking precautions.

“We are on high alert,” he said. “So far, it’s not a problem in Tanzania. But we have taken precautionary measures. We have set up specific teams of people now doing surveillance. Just in case we get somebody who felt sick and develops symptoms of Ebola, we would be able to handle that case.”

Mr. Obama said health officials are screening travelers headed to the U.S. from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea to see whether anyone is exhibiting symptoms of the illness. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said it does not believe the outbreak presents a significant risk to the U.S.

The president said he’s hosting the summit to move the focus away from traditional avenues of U.S. aid, such as hunger-relief programs.

“We want to do business with those folks,” Mr. Obama said Friday at a news conference. “And we think that we can create U.S. jobs and send U.S. exports to Africa. But we’ve got to be engaged, and so this gives us a chance to do that.”

Mr. Obama will host a dinner Tuesday night at the White House for the heads of state, but the summit will not feature the usual one-on-one meetings that are standard fare for many international conferences. The lack of private time with Mr. Obama has rankled some African leaders, but the White House said it wants to focus on broader relationships.

“Other nations hold summits with African leaders,” said White House Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes. “We very much wanted this summit to be focused on the distinct and unique attributes of the U.S.-African partnership. We engage Africa and African countries as equals, and that’s the spirit in which the president will receive the leaders.”

On Wednesday, the summit will move to the State Department for sessions including regional stability and governing for the next generation. First lady Michelle Obama and former first lady Laura Bush will host a program including topics such as empowering women in Africa.

The White House has excluded from the summit some countries with what it views as the worst records on human rights, such as Sudan and Zimbabwe.