Roger Runningen Washington

The US was expanding an initiative to develop and train political and economic leaders in Africa, President Barack Obama said on Monday.

Obama is expanding a programme for young African leaders, and the US Agency for International Development is providing $38 million (R400m) to create leadership centres in Ghana, Kenya, South Africa and Senegal. It is drawing contributions from firms including Microsoft, Dow Chemical and Intel to keep the programmes going.

Addressing 500 young African leaders in Washington, Obama said a prosperous and self-reliant Africa was crucial to global security and economic growth.

“We have to make sure we are seizing the extraordinary potential of Africa,” Obama told the group.

The meeting, which included a question-and-answer session with the president, is a prelude to a three-day summit of US and African leaders next week in Washington.

Obama said he was renaming a scholars programme he announced a year ago for Nelson Mandela as the initiative reflected Mandela’s “optimism, his idealism, his belief in what he called ‘the endless heroism of youth’”. It was “a long-term investment” in Africa and its people, he said.

Under the programme, Africans aged 25 to 35 study at 20 top US universities. It was part of the US investment programme in Africa to strengthen democracy, spark economic growth and boost the odds “for peace and security in Africa”, according to a White House statement yesterday.

Obama cited the work of fellowship members, one of whom was fighting against sex slavery and pushing for women’s rights. Another was working on a programme to help generate electricity so farmers could irrigate crops.

“I want to make sure the US will be your friend and partner every step of the way,” Obama said. “There are ways you can make a difference.”

The regional leadership centres are set to open by next year to provide leadership training, as well as entrepreneurship services, including mentoring, technology and access to capital.

Political turmoil and violence has been a drag on growth for some African economies, though the potential for expansion on the continent has drawn investment.

A McKinsey report released last week said Nigeria had the potential to be one of the world’s top 20 economies by 2030 with a consumer base exceeding the current populations of France and Germany.

Africa’s biggest economy has posted annual growth rates in excess of 4 percent over the past decade. – Bloomberg