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In Africa, President Obama vies with history

Labors to convey pledges

President Obama joined his predecessor, George W. Bush, at a ceremony marking the 1998 embassy attack in Tanzania.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

President Obama joined his predecessor, George W. Bush, at a ceremony marking the 1998 embassy attack in Tanzania.

DAR ES SALAAM, Tanzania — Everywhere he went in Africa, President Obama was competing with history.

There was the heroic leadership of former South African president Nelson Mandela, whose deteriorating health has captured the world’s attention; the legacy in Africa of Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, who created a widely praised program to fight HIV and AIDS on the continent; and the history surrounding Obama himself, America’s first black president and the son of a Kenyan man.

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Against that backdrop, the initiatives Obama promoted on food security, improved health care, and expanded access to electricity appeared small-scale.

The president at times seemed to be trying to will the traveling press corps and the American public to grasp the importance of the ventures. He took jabs at the US media for covering only poverty or war in Africa and made a rare on-the-record appearance before reporters on Air Force One to give an extra boost to his program for reducing hunger.

‘‘I know that millet and maize and fertilizer doesn’t always make for sexy copy,’’ Obama said during an event in Dakar, Senegal, last week. ‘‘If the American people knew the kind of work that was being done as a consequence of their generosity and their efforts, I think they’d be really proud.’’

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The president’s frustration underscored the challenges he faced during his three-country trip, which wrapped up Tuesday in Tanzania. While his Africa policies have the potential to improve the lives of millions of people on the continent, he lacks a signature initiative such as Bush’s anti-AIDS program, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. But with deep family ties to the continent and inevitable comparisons to Mandela’s racial barrier-breaking, the expectations for him among Africans remain exceedingly high.

‘‘Your success is our success. Your failure, whether you like it or not, is our failure,’’ Archbishop Desmond Tutu told Obama during his weekend stop in South Africa.

‘I know that millet and maize and fertilizer doesn’t always make for sexy copy.’

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Perhaps resigned to those high expectations and historic comparisons, Obama at times embraced them during his most significant travel to Africa since taking office.

Despite his policy differences with Bush, Obama repeatedly praised the former president’s work combating HIV and AIDS, while also reminding audiences that his administration has increased the number of people benefitting from that program. During a news conference in Tanzania, Obama said Bush deserved ‘‘enormous credit’’ for saving lives in Africa.

And when a scheduling coincidence put both Obama and Bush in Dar es Salaam on Tuesday for separate trips, the two leaders made a rare joint appearance on foreign soil, laying a wreath at a memorial for victims of the 1998 US Embassy bombing in Tanzania.

Similarly, Obama made Mandela’s legacy a central part of his visit to South Africa, the country the anti-apartheid hero led out of decades of white racist rule. The president made an emotional visit to Robben Island, the prison where Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years in captivity, and met privately with the ailing 94-year-old’s family.

Obama also made fulfilling Mandela’s vision of equality and opportunity for Africa a central theme of the trip’s keynote speech at the University of Cape Town. And he tried to cast his own development agenda in Africa as part of fulfilling that legacy.

The president’s initiatives, though not always splashy or headline-grabbing, have resulted in significant improvements in the lives of many people in sub-Saharan Africa, according to Obama administration figures.

The ‘‘Feed the Future’’ antihunger program that began in 2010 has $3.5 billion in investments from the United States, foreign governments, and private companies and has helped more than 3 million people in Africa increase their food production. Tweaks to Bush’s HIV program have resulted in three times more Africans gaining access to life-saving drugs, bringing the total number to 5.1 million last year. There’s also been a 16 percent drop in childhood mortality since 2008 among 24 high-priority countries receiving US assistance.

Obama also announced during the trip an ambitious venture, dubbed ‘‘Power Africa,’’ aimed at doubling access to electricity in sub-Saharan Africa, a goal officials said could be achieved in about a decade. The United States is making an initial $7 billion commitment.

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