WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama called on African nations Wednesday to forcefully tackle health crises, security challenges and government corruption that could stymie the continent’s economic progress, as he concluded an unprecedented summit.
The summit, aimed in part at cultivating an Obama legacy on a continent where his family ties run deep, also marked a rare return to Washington for former President George W. Bush, who launched a $15 billion HIV/AIDS initiative while in office and has made public health issues in Africa a priority since leaving the White House.
Bush’s institute partnered with first lady Michelle Obama to host a daylong event for spouses of the African leaders.
"There’s not many things that convince me to come back to Washington," said Bush, who now lives in Dallas and steers clear of politics. "The first lady’s summit, of course, is one."
While Obama has continued Bush’s signature AIDS program, he has also been seeking his own legacy-building Africa initiatives. This week’s U.S.-Africa summit is seen as a cornerstone of that effort, bringing together leaders from about 50 countries for three days of talks.
A centerpiece of the conference was an effort to recast the U.S. economic relationship with Africa away from humanitarian aid and toward more equal economic partnerships. Obama announced $33 billion in new U.S.
Yet the summit’s final day of discussions underscored the challenges that could undermine that economic growth. African nations are still struggling with the HIV epidemic, malaria, and the current outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus. Government corruption remains a persistent problem. And a surge in violent extremism, particularly in North Africa and the Sahel region, has sparked international concern.
While Obama vowed that the U.S. would be a strong partner in tackling those issues, he emphasized a need for Africa to take the lead, particularly on the security front.
"Today we can focus on how we can continue to strengthen Africa’s capacity to meet transitional threats and in so doing make all of our nations more secure," he said.
During a private session on security, leaders were expected to discuss Boko Haram, the violent Islamist group in Nigeria that was responsible for the kidnapping of more than 200 schoolgirls earlier this year. Some have escaped and returned home, but most remain captive.
As Obama participated in summit meetings, his wife convened a gathering of African first ladies, talking about investments in education, health and economic development. She was joined by Laura Bush, reprising an event the two American first ladies held last summer in Tanzania.
Calling Africa "an underappreciated continent," Mrs. Obama said it was incumbent upon the world to develop a better understanding of what it has to offer.
"This is the beginning of a lot of work that needs to be done," she said.
Mrs. Obama and Mrs. Bush also focused on the need to educate girls. Mrs. Obama noted that 30 million girls in sub-Saharan Africa do not attend school.
"We do need to make sure worldwide that all women are valued," Mrs. Bush said during the rare joint appearance that highlighted the relationship that has developed between the two first ladies.
George Bush also gave his endorsement for efforts to support women in Africa, declaring, "Taking care of women is good politics." He announced that a global health partnership that helped screen more than 100,000 women in Botswana, Tanzania and Zambia for cervical cancer in the past three years was expanding into Namibia and Ethiopia
The effort is part of Bush’s "Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon" women’s health initiative that has been a focus of his post-presidency. He has made frequent trips to Africa since leaving the White House, but he rarely visits Washington and weighs in on political debates even less.
More than $200 million in investments announced during the spouses’ program, including the cervical cancer screenings, will go toward supporting education, health and economic programs benefiting more than 1 million Africans. That includes an expansion of Bush’s HIV/AIDS program aimed at doubling to 300,000 the number of children in 10 priority countries who receive life-saving drugs over the next two years.
A focus on Africa has brought Obama and Bush together in the past. After a scheduling coincidence put them in Tanzania at the same time last summer, they met and laid a wreath in honor of victims of the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombing. Bush and his wife also traveled with the Obamas on Air Force One to South Africa in December for a memorial service honoring South African President Nelson Mandela.
The White House said Obama and Bush had no plans to meet Wednesday. Obama was spending much of the day in summit meetings, then closing the gathering with a late afternoon news conference.