President Barack Obama celebrated the growth in American economic links with sub-Saharan Africa on Wednesday evening, ahead of his upcoming trip to Ethiopia and Kenya.
Speaking at a White House reception marking the signing of the African Growth and Opportunity Act, Obama said that despite its challenges, Africa is incredibly dynamic and resilient, with extraordinary opportunities for the U.S.
He said the trade law would continue to encourage good governance, labor rights and human rights in Africa.
Obama last month signed a 10-year extension of the country's main trade authority with Africa — a 15-year effort that boosted U.S.-Africa trade to $73 billion last year, with U.S. exports accounting for slightly more than half of that total.
More than 40 sub-Saharan countries are eligible for trade benefits under the law, through which most imports from Africa enter the United States duty-free. Two of the main beneficiaries are oil exporters Angola and Nigeria.
Even as U.S. trade with Africa has grown rapidly, it trails resource-hungry China, now with $200 billion in annual African trade, and the 28-nation European Union with $140 billion.
Obama has made a concerted effort to increase U.S. ties with Africa. Last August, he staged the inaugural U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington.
The U.S. says the Africa trade measure supports an estimated 350,000 jobs. As the trade extension advanced in Congress, U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman and national security adviser Susan Rice said it had "provided vital economic opportunities," helping African companies become more competitive and opening the path for more investments in them.
Witney Schneidman, a former U.S. State Department official for African affairs and now a fellow at Washington's Brookings Institution, said this week that the Obama administration had gone far beyond earlier U.S. efforts at improving ties to the continent.
"No administration prior has really engaged the U.S. and the African private sectors seriously and as constructively as this one has," Schneidman said.
Another Brookings analyst, Amadou Sy, said, "When I think about President Obama's relationship with Africa, I think about two words. One is 'catalytic' and the second one is 'partnership.' "
Human rights groups have criticized Obama's trip to Ethiopia because of the country's handling of political dissent. He will be attending the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in the coming days in Kenya, where his father was born.