WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama wants to persuade Americans to look beyond Africa’s image of hunger and disease as he hosts a first-of-its-kind meeting of leaders of nearly all of Africa’s nations this week.
But as he pushes Americans to invest financially in an up-and-coming Africa, he cannot escape the continent’s recent reputation for violence.
In South Sudan, there’s been a spike in ethnically targeted attacks since December. In Mali, the al Qaida-linked extremists who captured the northern part of the country continue to wreak havoc. And in Nigeria, the Boko Haram terrorist organization is accused of murdering thousands of people and kidnapping nearly 300 schoolgirls.
Peacekeeping was billed as one of a trio of main topics at the three-day U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, which concluded Wednesday, though it was largely overshadowed by economic development and the deadly Ebola outbreak in West Africa.
Obama unveiled more than $33 billion in public and private economic investments in Africa, but he did not announce any major initiatives to combat ongoing threats of terrorism and the rise of extremist groups. Instead, he said the U.S. will continue to be a “reliable partner” by offering training, equipment and money to help African countries counter violence.
The United States will enter into a new $65 million program with six nations to address ongoing threats and contribute another $110 million per year to help African militaries deploy peacekeepers in response to emerging conflicts.
“A lot of the initiatives that we put forward were designed to partner so that countries first and foremost can deal with these problems within their own borders or regionally,” Obama said at a closing news conference late Wednesday. “And the United States doesn’t have a desire to expand and create a big footprint inside of Africa.”
Jennifer Cooke, director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank, said summit organizers had to incorporate security into the agenda even while the main focus of the meeting was to persuade businesses to invest in Africa.
“You can’t look at Africa simply through the commercial lens,” she said. “There are big challenges you can’t ignore.”
Yet even African leaders were torn about how much to emphasize security at the summit.
Tanzania President Jakaya Mrisho Kikwete has spent days trying to convince people that Africa is more safe than before and that the public should stop viewing the problem of one country as the problem of all the continent’s more than 50 countries.
“When you look today at what is happening, the conflict areas in Africa, they don’t compare what the situation was,” Kikwete said. “So I say, unfortunately, this is the good story which is not being told.”
But Tunisia President Mohamed Moncef Marzouki disagreed.
“Africa of course is much more secure than before, but we are still facing challenge, an important challenge, a matter of security, and we have to work together as Africa,” he said.
On Wednesday, Obama participated in three roundtable discussions. The two focusing on economic development and strengthening democracies were open to the public, but the one on peace was not. An administration official with knowledge of the meeting but who was not authorized to speak publicly as matter of practice said the leaders were able to have a more productive discussion because the event was closed.
At least two human rights groups said they were disappointed that African activists were not included in any of the discussions Wednesday, just a day after Amnesty International released information it said could provide new evidence of war crimes in northeastern Nigeria. Shawn Gaylord, advocacy counsel for Human Rights First, a nonpartisan human rights group, said the White House missed “a momentous opportunity.”
In Africa, as around the globe, Obama resists pressure to intervene militarily unless U.S. interests are at risk or Americans are threatened, placing his emphasis instead on training and supporting foreign governments or entities to tackle their own problems.
He said this week that he would like a more explicit plan for how NATO should engage with African countries and regional organizations so the U.S. is not perceived as trying to dominate the continent.
His decision to intervene in Libya in 2011 was an exception, though he only got involved after organizing an international coalition to remove Moammar Gadhafi. No U.S. troops were deployed on the ground in what Obama later called an operation that could be a “recipe for success in the future.” But the country remains mired in chaos and widespread violence, including the killings of the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans in 2012.
“If we’re not there, people think we’re neglecting them. If we’re there, then they think we’re militarizing a region,” Obama said in a recent interview in the London-based Economist magazine. “Right now I think we got it about right. Our theory is that we very much need to partner with African countries, first and foremost, and regional African organizations.”
Since 2005, the U.S. has trained almost a quarter of a million peacekeepers from 25 different African countries. Since Obama took office in 2009, it has contributed nearly $9 billion to United Nations peacekeeping operations on the continent.
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In May, the president called on Congress to support a proposed $5 billion counterterrorism fund to help countries in the Middle East and North Africa that are fighting extremists, including Yemen, which is battling al Qaida.
In private one-on-one meetings, Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry and National Security Adviser Susan Rice addressed the issue of violence with some of the leaders, including those from Libya, this week, according to the White House.
White House officials said they want to help African governments to protect civilians, strengthen security forces that respect human rights and move away from the need for costly outside intervention. They will provide support, such as intelligence gathering, while pushing for democratic institutions and development that can serve as a counterweight to terrorism.
“The United States is not looking to militarize Africa or maintain a permanent military presence,” Rice said last week. “But we are committed to helping our partners confront transnational threats to our shared security. That is why we are stepping up our efforts to train peacekeepers who are professional and effective forces who can secure the region, and by extension the global community, against terrorist threats, and against threats that derive from conflict.”