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The following message is by Stephen Hayes, the Chair of the Washington DC based Corporate Council on Africa (CCA) and disseminated to the organization’s membership, which is comprised of America’s major corporations, with most having business interests between the U.S. and the nations of Africa. 

In the summer of 2013, early in his second term, President Barack Obama announced in dramatic fashion the four guiding principles of his policy towards Africa. He announced the policy initiatives in three different locations: Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania. The four priorities were TradeAfrica, PowerAfrica, Young African Leadership Development and Better Governance, though the fourth was not as clearly defined, other than America would be committed to those countries whose governance was committed to transparency and democracy and to the welfare of its citizenry. I thought then as I do now that the Administration got it almost exactly right on what our priorities towards Africa should be.

Staf and a group of Ghanaians he met en route have spent many months trying to get to Europe. They began their journey in 2013 and have lost some of their number to the harsh conditions of the deserts of Niger and Chad.

There were some Libyans who took off before us - they all died, said Staf, who has travelled to Macedonia from Ghana. “If a fellow traveler’s supply of food or water ran low, others were reluctant to share because of fears for their own survival. This meant watching friends die” says Staf.

We now have had three years to see the progress of the Obama African Initiative. Clearly the most successful of the four has been the Young African Leadership fellows program, the placement of young African leaders selected by the U.S. Government into businesses and organizations in America and in Africa for training and leadership development. More than a thousand young leaders of Africa, future and early present, have been through the program and the quality of participants has proven to be exceptional by all counts. The Corporate Council on Africa itself has been the recipient of some of the young leaders and we maintain contact with those who have worked here. The ultimate success of this program will be seen in the roles that each plays in the development of their respective country, and certainly in the development of their own lives. In the more authoritarian nations, some of the fellows return under a cloud of suspicion, having been hand-picked by the U.S. Government and not of their elders and peers. That was to be expected. Whether a support network of young fellows can be developed remains to be seen, but the program has started well and continues to grow.

As for the other three legs of the Obama African Initiative, the jury is still out, and to expect otherwise in a short time is unrealistic. TradeAfrica was largely an East African initiative, meant to promote regionalization of trade, or to put it simply a larger regional market eliminating many of the obstacles of trade currently hindering African development. The initiators of TradeAfrica originally decided to concentrate on the region it believed had the best chance of success in the shortest period of time: The East Africa Community (EAC) of Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Burundi, South Sudan and Rwanda. The region was most developed as a region, had an overall good history with the United States, especially Kenya, the linchpin of East Africa, and the region was small enough to be manageable compared to the larger African economic blocs. The reasoning was sound, but the solution has so far escaped the impeccable logic creating the decision.

National jealousies and rivalries have burst forth, (one should not be totally surprised), and Tanzania has sought to control its own destiny, rather than be a part of a regional destiny. South Sudan is a nation at war with itself and whether it can even last as a nation is an open question. Uganda and Rwanda have also given signs of going their own separate ways, and Burundi’s development hasn’t kept pace, given its own internal strife and disputes. The ongoing formal dialogue between the East African Community and the U.S. Government has, if not broken down, certainly stalled through the lack of any progress. U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker has attempted to jump start the dialogue again during the UN General Assembly through a meeting of the leaders of East Africa, and perhaps she will be successful. Hope springs eternal, as do regional rivalries apparently. However, the clock is ticking and the Obama Administration will end in three months. Whether these initiatives will continue will be largely to the discretion of the next President. In the meantime, the Administration has recalibrated its TradeAfrica Initiative and is now putting more effort into West Africa and especially Nigeria as well. The Department of Commerce is to be commended for its initiative and perseverance.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for the Administration has been the PowerAfrica Initiative. Three years into the initiative, one that excited many Africans, as well as businesses seeking new markets of power generation, progress has been slow despite the millions the U.S. Government has invested in undergirding a network of support for those seeking to build power plants. There is not a country in Africa that is meeting its current power needs, let alone its future needs. Very few countries are meeting even 50 percent of their current needs. Kenya, one of the most rapidly developing nation in Africa is meeting about 50 percent of present power needs, and this is a limiting factor for growth. This was the case for the PowerAfrica initiative and it remains largely unchanged.

Nigeria is meeting 20 percent of its present-day power needs, and it just announced the collapse of its largest power deal since the onset of PowerAfrica. Local Nigerian media is predicting the collapse soon of nearly all of the privatized generation and distribution companies created in Nigeria to develop more rapidly its power generation. One hopes this talk is hyperbole but if happens it will be the biggest failure for PowerAfrica since its creation three years ago.

The reason for the slow start of PowerAfrica to match reality with rhetoric rests at least as much in Africa as it does in Washington. The Administration, too, must carry some responsibility for the lack of power development in Africa. There has been far too little funding and financing available to make a dent in the power deficit across the continent. USAID certainly has attempted to fill in for the vacuum left by the closure of Ex-Im, but little can replace the importance and potential for financial support from the Export-Import Bank. For many reasons, African bureaucracies have been slow to approve new power projects, and the state of infrastructure throughout the continent adds challenges and time to moving supplies across the continent, especially from one country to another. It can take years to get approval for power development and it takes several more years to see completion and distribution of electric power.

The showcase for PowerAfrica, a power plant in Tanzania, where President Obama first announced his PowerAfrica Initiative, and which Hillary Clinton also visited in 2011, has itself been emblematic of the problems that exist when American companies try to deliver power to the peoples of Africa. The American power company that was selected to manage and build the power supply of Tanzania was met by years of non-payment and acknowledged corruption at high levels of the Tanzanian government. Not since Hillary Clinton visited in 2011 has the government been current in its payments necessary to keep a steady power supply for the entire nation. In May 2016 the Government of Tanzania unilaterally attempted to terminate the contract, and the case was headed to the International Court of Arbitration where it likely would have remained for years. Reportedly a deal has been worked out between involved parties. Still, this is not the poster child for PowerAfrica that President Obama had intended.

Unfortunately, the Tanzania issues are not unique to that country alone. African bureaucracies are notoriously slow in decision-making and businesses risk further reviews of their contracts every time leadership in a nation changes. Continuity of contract from one leader to the next is often a risk for businesses, and given the costs of building a power plant, the risks can be great. Corruption continues to be a force slow to crumble.

Despite much rhetoric, there has been limited key support in Washington for finding financing for power generation companies seeking to invest and work in Africa. Congress has put the Export-Import Bank of the United States in a state of limbo until funding is approved for its operations. This isn’t likely to happen until 2017 when we see the composition of a new Congress, hopefully one that appreciates the purposes of the Bank to America’s international interests. Without guarantees from the Export-Import bank, U.S. banks won’t provide funding for African power plants, deemed a risk for investors. The Administration itself has contributed to slow progress of increasing power supply in Africa through its own policy decisions. The Administration has opted to push ‘green’ power and has chosen to support few power plants deemed as significant contributors to global warming. They have (admirably) chosen to promote solar and geothermal power plants but have remained lukewarm at best to supporting coal-burning power plants, hydroelectric and nuclear power. The Administration’s sentiments are to be praised for its commitment to greener technology and to the reversal of climate change. However, the green technology is still more expensive than traditional power sources, and one cannot produce the amounts of power needed through green technology alone. It will take years for that to happen.

What the next Administration, even a Democratic Administration, chooses to do with PowerAfrica remains to be seen. Many programs are in place and will carry over In any case, but a reevaluation of the effectiveness of such programs will likely be undertaken by any new Administration. If Africa is to develop its power generation infrastructure, an absolute necessity for its development, the early support is more likely to come from China and India, at the expense of U.S. manufacturing and investment. That would be unfortunate for the United States economy. Whatever the next Administration decides to do, the focus on Africa needs to remain on developing electrical power for all.

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