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Obama ends trip with $7B pledge to broaden electricity in Africa

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By McClatchy Newspapers
Tuesday, July 2, 2013, 9:39 p.m.

President 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, ending his tour of Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania with a pledge to help Africa with a seemingly simple service that has 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 United States is committing $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.

Before the event, Obama appeared with former President George W. Bush, whom he had 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 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 had 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 for African first ladies. They talked about serving as first ladies and poked a little fun at their husbands as they championed efforts to empower women.

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.

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 had 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.

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