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African Leaders Discuss Democracy, Investment with Obama

President Barack Obama in the Cabinet Room of the White House after a meeting with, from left, Malawi President Joyce Banda; Sierra Leone President Ernest Bai Koroma; and Cape Verde Prime Minister José Maria Pereira Neves, March 28, 2013.
It was in front of a crowd of hundreds that leaders of Malawi, Sierra Leone, Senegal, and Cape Verde spoke about the big gains their countries have made in the last few years. For the president of Malawi, Joyce Banda, the hardest thing was restoring relations with global financial institutions like the International Monetary Fund.

"By the time I became president we were off track with the IMF. We had to go back [to them], strengthen governance institutions, make sure that we got the level of comfort we required in order for other donors to come back, including the UK, which had cut off [budget support] to Malawi. We also had to do several things, including to repeal all the laws that I feel were controversial and were against human rights and good governance," she said.

For Senegalese President Macky Sall, who’s only been in power for about 12 months, it’s been a year of economic and political reforms. It may be too early to evaluate the results. His agenda, he said, is still a work in progress.

African Leaders Discuss Democracy, Investment with Obama
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"We are trying to improve governance, we are seeking to increase private investment, and we are trying to strengthen the rule of law and to have an independent justice system." he said.

Sall said Africa has changed for the better over the years.

"The Africa of 2013 has nothing to do with the clichés that are often expressed where you talk about civil wars, coup d’états. Bear in mind that [the West] had your own wars, civil wars, and there were wars in Europe up to 1945," he said. "Africa became independent [only] in the 1960s, so it’s normal there should be some conflicts remaining here and there. We've also had composite borders created by the colonialists. [As for] the overall dynamics of the continent, we are moving toward prosperity, towards democracy."

Sall reminded the audience that Africa’s the cradle of mankind, and can be what he termed magical in terms of diversity, natural and human resources. "It’s well worth visiting," he said, adding that his country’s capital, Dakar, is only a six-hour plane ride from Washington.

Sall’s Sierra Leonean counterpart, Ernest Bai Koroma, told the audience his country is no longer a producer or transit point for blood diamonds. Instead, it’s become an investment destination.

"Sierra Leone is now the place to do business. This has been recognized by the World Bank and the IMF," he said. "Last year, our economy was referred to as [one of the] hottest - a place to do investment. We registered [one of] the highest rates of growth. This is a result of the measures we have taken, the democracy we are building, the openness of our economy and the structures we are putting in place to guarantee that investment is not only attracted but it is also protected."

Prime Minister Jose Maria Neves of Cape Verde said it’s the responsibility of African leaders to develop a clear strategy that takes advantage of all of the continent's assets. The island, located along the Western coast of Africa, is said to be one of the most democratic nations in the region. But in order to sustain a democracy, Neves who spoke through an interpreter, said certain things are needed.

“In order to have development, it’s essential that there is peace and stability, and it’s essential to also have democracy in the countries. There is no development without stability, and there is no development without democracy,” he said, adding that Africa still faces many challenges, but that it’s also the continent of the future.

"It has enormous talent, enormous capabilities. All we need to do is gather all this talent and make it work toward the development of Africa," Neves said.

The African leaders said they came to the United States not as beggars but to showcase a continent on the move. What they want, they said, is a true partnership where everyone benefits.

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    Mariama Diallo

    Mariama Diallo is a senior reporter covering national and world affairs for Voice of America in multiple languages. She was recently the VOA acting bureau chief for the agency's West Africa office. 

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