ADDIS ABABA: Barack Obama Tuesday condemned African leaders who refuse to give up power and urged the continent to end “the cancer of corruption,” in the first ever address to the African Unionby a U.S. president.
But Obama said the rest of the world also needed to change its approach to Africa by boosting fair trade and not just providing aid handouts, and vowed that the United States stood with the region to defeat terrorism and end conflict.
Both are key security allies in the fight against Somalia’s Al-Qaeda-affiliated Al-Shabab militants, but they were also challenged on concerns over democracy, human rights and graft. “Africa’s democratic progress is also at risk when leaders refuse to step aside when their terms end,” Obama said, drawing huge applause and cheers from some sections of the audience in the AU’s Nelson Mandela hall.
“No one should be president for life,” he said, explaining that he was personally relishing handing over office in 18 months.
“Now let me be honest with you: I do not understand this. I am in my second term … I love my work, but under our constitution, I cannot run again. I actually think I’m a pretty good president, I think if I ran again I could win, but I can’t,” he said.
“And, I’ll be honest with you, I’m looking forward to life after being president. I won’t have such a big security detail all the time, it means I can take a walk, it means I can spend time with my family.
“The point is I don’t understand why people want to stay so long. Especially when they’ve got a lot of money,” he said, drawing another huge cheer from the hall – packed with diplomats but also many civil society activists.
Obama’s keynote speech also went further on endemic and institutionalized graft, something he also pressed on in Kenya over the weekend.
“Nothing will unlock Africa’s economic potential more than ending the cancer of corruption,” Obama said, before speaking at length of the need for growth to be unlocked by ending discrimination and sexual violence against women and girls.
Obama also outlined how American businesses were increasing U.S. trade with the continent.
Playing up his position as the first-ever African-American U.S. president, he also cast Washington as a trusted partner of the continent, and took a veiled swipe at resource-hungry China – which has massively stepped up its presence in Africa, symbolized by the Chinese-built African Union headquarters where he gave the speech.
“Economic relationships cannot simply be about other countries building infrastructure with foreign labor, or extracting Africa’s natural resources,” Obama said.
“Real economic partnerships have to be a good deal for Africa. They have to create jobs and capacity for Africans. That’s the kind of partnership America offers.”
Obama said the United States was also a solid security partner that would stand by Africa in dealing with terrorism and end conflict. He said continent’s progress will “depend on security and peace.”
“As Africa stands against terror and conflict, I want you to know the United States stands with you,” he said, highlighting threats ranging from Somalia’s Al-Shabab, Boko Haram in Nigeria, insurgents in Mali and Tunisia and the Uganda-led Lord’s Resistance Army rebels in central Africa.
“Many of these groups claim the banner of religion, but hundreds of millions of African Muslims know that Islam means peace. We must call groups like Al-Qaeda, ISIS, Al-Shabab and Boko Haram, we must call them what they are – murderers.”
He said progress against them was being made. “Because of the AU force in Somalia, Al-Shabab controls less territory, and the Somali government is growing stronger. In central Africa, the AU-led mission continues to degrade the Lord’s Resistance Army,” he said.
“In the Lake Chad basin, forces from several nations – with the backing of the AU – are fighting to end Boko Haram’s senseless brutality.”
Many audience members emerged impressed – even if several African leaders may be less happy.
“It was excellent, inspiring,” said Aeneas Chuma, a U.N. worker from Zimbabwe who said he was speaking in his personal capacity. “He touched on all challenges for Africa, like the importance of good governance, the fact that this trend of leaders staying in power cannot continue.”
Addis Ababa university student Anatoli Bulti said Obama’s address was “empowering.”
“He spoke about a lot of issues that don’t usually get addressed in this country: democracy, freedom. Coming from him it gives these issues a lot more weight.”