from Africa in Transition

President Obama in Africa: Light Up Africa

July 02, 2013

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Important though President Barack Obama’s evocation of Nelson Mandela’s spiritual and political legacy has been, and powerful though his Africa trip’s symbolic references were–the Door of No Return at Gorée and Robben Island–many friends of Africa will most warmly welcome his Power Africa initiative. During his South Africa stop, he proposed to double access to power in Sub-Saharan Africa. Initially, Power Africa will partner with Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria, and Tanzania. The U.S. government will look to securing some U.S. $7 billion in funding with an additional $9 billion from the private sector. Most of the public-related money will come from the Overseas Private Investment Corporation ($1.5 billion) , the U.S. Export-Import Bank ($5 billion in support of U.S. exports related to power), and the Millennium Challenge Corporation ($1 billion investment in African power systems). Congruent with the president’s emphasis on trade and investment rather than aid, only $285 million would come from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

The need for power is great. About two-thirds of Africa lacks electricity including more than 85 percent of rural dwellers. Unless or until power is adequate, the development of employment-generating jobs that could lift Africa out of poverty hits a wall. The International Energy Agency estimates that it will cost some $300 billion to achieve universal electricity access by 2030. So, Power Africa is a step in the right direction rather than a total solution to Africa’s power needs.

The initial selection of partner countries illustrates some of the challenges of U.S. policy to Africa. President Obama emphasizes good governance and the rule of law. Nigeria and Ethiopia are, respectively, the first and second largest countries in Africa by population, with Nigeria at a staggering 174,507,539. Yet Nigerian security forces are widely criticized for abuse of the civilian population while Ethiopia is, frankly speaking, repressive. Yet Nigeria, Ethiopia, and Kenya have almost half of sub-Saharan Africa’s population. They are crucial to the amelioration of Africa’s power issues. On the other hand, Ghana, Tanzania, and Liberia are African leaders in democratization. But their combined population of 77,451,254 does not reach Nigeria’s.

President Obama is putting his administration’s weight behind power for Africa. Follow-through from the private sector remains to be seen and will be crucial. So too will be Congressional support, or at least acquiescence, during a period of intense partisan division, sequestration, and general concern about the slow rate of American economic recovery.