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Obama to unveil broad African electrical power initiative

U.S. President Barack Obama participates in a town hall-style meeting with young African leaders at the University of Johannesburg in Soweto
U.S. President Barack Obama participates in a town hall-style meeting with young African leaders at the University of Johannesburg in Soweto

By Mark Felsenthal

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - Pointing to Africa's crippling lack of electrical power, President Barack Obama is due to announce on Sunday a $7 billion initiative over five years to double access to power in sub-Saharan Africa.

"We see this as the next phase in our development strategy and a real focal point in the president's agenda going forward," deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters traveling with the president.

Obama is midway through a three-country tour of Africa and is due to give what aides bill as his fullest description of his vision for the U.S. relationship with the continent on Sunday.

The president has chosen historically resonant locations for the address, and is due to speak at the University of Cape Town after touring the prison on Robben Island. Robert F. Kennedy's 1966 speech at the university linked the struggles against apartheid and the U.S. civil rights movement and was seen as giving encouragement to the movement, while Robben Island is where anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 of his 27 years in jail.

The president will cite South Africa's long struggle to defeat apartheid and the U.S. civil rights movement's success in overcoming racial inequality as models of movements that brought about change in the face of daunting obstacles, aides said. He will call on young Africans to summon similar energy to complete the work of those movements and to firmly establish economic growth, democratic government, and stable societies across the continent.

SIGNATURE PROGRAM

Obama has been faulted for lacking a grand program to benefit Africa like the HIV/AIDS initiative launched by President George W. Bush or the broad reductions of trade barriers achieved by President Bill Clinton.

Many Africans have been disappointed at what they see as Obama's hands-off approach to the continent, noting that his first extended trip the continent has not come until his second term in office despite his African ancestry. Obama's father was a native of Kenya.

The president's aides say he has been held back by the need to wind down two wars and to right the U.S. economy after the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

Despite severe U.S. budget constraints, the power initiative could provide Obama with just such a signature program.

DARKNESS BY NIGHT

Experts agree that the lack of electricity is a tremendous hindrance to Africa's advancement.

"Africa is largely a continent of darkness by night," said an official at a multilateral agency who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Every which way you look at this, Africa is behind the curve and pays more."

Roughly two-thirds of sub-Saharan Africa lacks power, a level that rises as high as 85 percent in rural areas, White House aide Gayle Smith said.

Lack of power inhibits business investment, prevents children from studying after dark, and makes it harder to keep vaccines from spoiling in rural areas, she said.

The United States will initially work with Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria and Tanzania to develop electric power generation, officials said. It will also cooperate with Uganda and Mozambique on oil and gas management.

The program will draw on a range of U.S. government agencies to achieve its goals. For example, the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corp will commit as much as $1.5 billion in finance and insurance to help U.S. companies manage the risks associated with the projects.

Similarly, the U.S. Export-Import Bank will make up to $5 billion available to support U.S. exports to develop power projects, the officials said.

The private sector will also be involved. Officials said General Electric Co has committed to power generation projects in Tanzania and Ghana, officials added.

The president's trip has taken him to Senegal and South Africa and will wind up in Tanzania on Monday and Tuesday. Although concerns over the ailing health of anti-apartheid hero Mandela have overshadowed much of the trip, the president has sounded the theme of Africa's economic potential at every stop.

In keeping with that emphasis, Obama will also announce that he plans to hold a summit of sub-Saharan African leaders in Washington next year.

"It's something other countries have done," Rhodes said. "What we want to do is continue the kind of high-level engagement we've had on this trip."

(Editing by Eric Walsh)

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