PRESIDENT Barack Obama Tuesday urged leaders to observe constitutional limits and to allow a regeneration of leadership when their term is over, in an historic address to the African Union.
“When a leader tries to change the rules in the middle of the game just to stay in office, it risks instability and strife, as we’ve seen in Burundi,” Obama said, likening this to changing the rules midstream in a game.
“The law’s the law…no one person’s above the law,” he said, and alluded to the fact that he would step down at the end of his current term, even if he felt he still had more to offer the American electorate.
“But if a leader thinks they’re the only person who can hold their nation together, then that leader has failed to truly build their country.”
He even had time for half-jests: “I don’t understand why people want to stay so long, especially when they have so much money,” he said in Addis Ababa, as he faulted the president’s-for-life outlook.
In a wide-ranging speech, Obama said the United States stood with Africa to defeat terrorism and end conflict, warning that the 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-Shabaab, Boko Haram in Nigeria, insurgents in Mali and Tunisia, and the Uganda-led Lord’s Resistance Army rebels in central Africa.
Obama said the United States was backing AU military efforts and saluting the “brave African peacekeepers” battling militants.
“From Somalia and Nigeria, to Mali and Tunisia, terrorists continue to target innocent civilians,” he said.
“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, ISIL (Islamic State), Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram, we must call them what they are -— murderers.”
But he also said that progress was being made.
“Because of the AU force in Somalia, Al-Shabaab 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.”
He also had a warning: the continent’s economic progress rests on “a fragile foundation” and its governments aren’t fully prepared for “the enormous undertaking” of providing opportunities for a demographic bulge of young people who will need to find work. The continent’s population will double to 2 billion people in the decades to come, many of them under the age of 18.
“Time is of the essence,” Obama said. “The choices made today will shape the trajectory of Africa and therefore the world for decades to come.” The continent’s leaders must do more to strengthen democratic institutions, educate youth including women, combat a culture of bribe-taking and barriers to starting new businesses, and overcome ethnic and tribal strife, he said.
‘Cancer of corruption’
Many of his remarks over the course of his trip were directed at young people and he urged leaders to recognise both their desires and their power. “We need only look to the Middle East and North Africa to see that large numbers of young people with no jobs and stifled voices can fuel instability and disorder,” Obama said.
Essential to making that progress, Obama said, is excising the “cancer of corruption” that is holding back international investment and local growth.
He also took an indirect jab at China, which has been spending on infrastructure projects in many parts of Africa, especially some of the less stable countries rich in resources.
While he previously welcomed China’s involvement in Africa as a way to lift the continent’s economies, he said Tuesday that “economic relationships cannot simply be about other countries building infrastructure with foreign labour or extracting Africa’s natural resources.”
Throughout the trip Obama has used his status as the first American president with African ancestry to both praise Africa’s progress and to prod the continent’s leaders to do more to expand freedom and democracy.