29 July 2011

West Africa: Obama Praises Four African Leaders As Democratic Models

Photo: Samantha Appleton/White House
President Barack Obama with, from left, President Mahamadou Issoufou of Niger, President Boni Yayi of Benin, President Alpha Condé of Guinea, and President Alassane Ouattara of Cote D’Ivoire.

Washington — President Obama told the leaders of Guinea, Côte d'Ivoire, Niger and Benin that the United States will be a "stalwart partner" as the four French-speaking African countries continue their democratization and development.

Obama met with President Boni Yayi of Benin, President Alpha Condé of Guinea, Niger's Mahamadou Issoufou and Alassane Ouattara of Côte d'Ivoire at the White House July 29 and praised all four as leaders who "can serve as effective models" for Africa's democratic progress, which he said is vital to a stable, prosperous and just Africa.

"All these leaders were elected through free and fair elections. They've shown extraordinary persistence in wanting to promote democracy in their countries despite significant risks to their own personal safety and despite enormous challenges," Obama said.

The president said the United States is working with the leaders to help them build strong state institutions, including "effective judiciaries, strong civil societies [and] legislatures that are effective and inclusive," while "making sure that human rights are protected."

The four presidents are "absolutely committed" to ensuring that their countries will see strong democratic practices, economic prosperity and security, Obama said, and he told them, "The United States will stand with you every step of the way."

Bruce Wharton, the State Department's deputy assistant secretary for public diplomacy in the Bureau of African Affairs, said that by inviting the four presidents to Washington, the Obama administration is highlighting the importance of "holding credible elections, building strong democratic institutions and fostering economic development."

"These leaders have recently been elected or re-elected via the democratic process, in some cases successfully overcoming lengthy periods of conflict or disputed rule," he said.

Earlier in the day, the four presidents spoke at an event in Washington hosted by the Corporate Council on Africa (CCA), a trade association that is working to strengthen and facilitate commercial relations between the United States and Africa. That event was preceded by a July 28 panel discussion on democratic progress in Francophone Africa by the four presidents at the United States Institute of Peace.

Speaking at CCA, each leader strongly encouraged more American private investment into their countries to help build infrastructure and spur development, while also acknowledging that an open democratic system run by strong governing institutions is critical to attracting investors.

President Issoufou of Niger said that for there to be more partnership between U.S. and African business entities "we need to offer you more security, more judicial security, and ... establish very strong institutions to protect you."

Echoing President Obama's 2009 speech in Ghana, he said "Africa does not need strongmen, it needs strong institutions [and] strong states." This does not mean militarized states, he said, but rather states that fight corruption, function under the rule of law and are able to provide security for investments.

Issoufou said Niger is establishing a judicial framework to help accomplish this. Under his proposal, foreign investors would be able to help Niger's infrastructure by investing in public entities, such as railroads, and managing that investment until they have earned back more than their initial payments. After that, the entity would be transferred back to the state of Niger, he said.

President Ouattara said Côte d'Ivoire and West Africa have the resources and the people to succeed, but must also create a positive environment for business.

Côte d'Ivoire has had problems with its judicial and security sectors, but Ouattara said they are now being reformed and will offer investors more fair and attractive business opportunities.

Investment and development are important not only for Côte d'Ivoire, but for the whole region, he said, because neighboring countries stand to benefit from another country's prosperity.

Ouattara also praised President Obama for acknowledging that the support of dictatorships does not achieve stability, growth or prosperity. "It's democracy that can lead to prosperity," he said.

President Conde of Guinea said his country is working to overcome its troubled past and has critical infrastructure and development needs where "everything is yet to be done," but added that Guinea's needs and its new governance also offer much economic potential.

"We've known very poor governance. We've known military regimes. And this is the first time that we've had free, open, democratic elections. But coming out of a military regime is quite difficult," he said. "We're still a very fragile country."

He highlighted the need to improve the distribution of electricity across the country, and also urged closer cooperation among Guinea's neighbors. "Rather than have each country reinvent the wheel, we can have a more efficient sharing of assets and organization," he said.

President Yayi of Benin said Africa is the "continent of the future" because of its untapped potential. He said he is committed to reform as his country's head of state.

"This office is the most important because it means that I have nothing left to lose. So I have committed myself to accomplish great reforms for the people of Benin," he said.

His government is working to ensure peace "because without peace one cannot have development." Better governance, he added, will also help to ensure security.

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