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Africa Seeks More Investment From Asia

African leaders have been in Japan this week to drum up more trade and investment between Africa and Asia. The Africans are hoping to convince Asian government and business leaders the continent offers a friendlier climate for investment than in recent years.

Officials from more than 40 African and 14 Asian countries attended a two-day conference here dedicated to raising Asian support for African development.

The World Bank says that Asian-African trade has been steadily increasing, but at present, only 16 percent of African exports reach Asia.

Addressing the Asia-Africa Trade Investment Conference on Monday, Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki said the situation is changing rapidly on his continent after years of political instability and insecurity.

Olesugun Obasanjo, president of Nigeria and chairman of the African Union, said a combination of improved stability and economic reform on the continent presented fertile ground for investment.

Mr. Obsanjao acknowledged that five years into Nigerian democracy, after decades of military rule, much work was left to reduce corruption and improve his country's infrastructure.

But on Tuesday, he told Japanese business leaders there was no turning back on the reforms and privatization that have begun in Nigeria.

"Unless we reform, we are going to, at best, stagnate, or, at worst, retrogress," he said. "Neither of which we want."

Nigerian Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala told the Japanese businessmen that deregulation had opened new areas of potential investment in her country, including mining, power generation and agriculture.

"Already the Japanese have been helping us with some introduction of rice cultivation, which has been quite successful," said Mr. Okonjo-Iweala. "And agriculture is growing at a relatively fast pace. In fact it is one of the key drivers of economic growth. It's been growing at seven percent per annum."

Both she and President Obasanjo say the recent surge in oil prices has brought the Nigerian treasury some unexpected revenue. But, in another sign of reform, they say the funds will not be spent immediately, as they would have been in the past. They note that Nigeria still owes $34 billion to international lenders, Japan included.

Officials at Japan's Foreign Ministry, one of the sponsors of the conference, say Japan is involved in projects on economic growth or poverty reduction in Ghana, the Ivory Coast, Senegal, Tanzania and Uganda. They say several other Asian nations are looking to invest in mining and manufacturing in Africa.

Japan has been taking a high-profile role in trying to rally the international community to assist Africa. In return, according to diplomats here, the Japanese government expects African nations to support its bid for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council.