As he concluded his visit to East Africa Tuesday, U.S. President Barack Obama spoke to African leaders in a wide-ranging speech that touched on many of the continent’s most pressing issues.
Obama’s visit to Kenya and Ethiopia culminated Tuesday with a speech at the African Union that called for change, especially among the continent’s cast of long-serving leaders.
“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,” he said, referring to the recent decision by President Pierre Nkurunziza to stretch his term limits to win a third term. “And it’s often just a first step down a perilous path. 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 nation.”
But, he noted, Africa has changed in his lifetime, from a continent of despair and dependence and into one of hope and progress.
“A half century into this independence era, it is long past time to put aside old stereotypes of an Africa forever mired in poverty and conflict,” he said. “The world must recognize Africa’s extraordinary progress.”
Development was a focus of discussions with Ethiopian leaders, and on Tuesday, the president visited a local food factory to see how U.S. development projects have affected Ethiopians’ lives. He smiled and hugged farmer Gifty Jemal Hussein as she told him how access to better seeds improved her corn crop, allowing her to buy a cow, send her children to school and build a better house.
One of Obama’s development initiatives, Feed the Future, focuses on small-scale farmers. The idea, he said, is to work more intelligently with donor funds.
“With just a few smart interventions, a little bit of help, they can make huge improvements in their overall yields,” he said.
In his speech, he also noted that Africa’s positive progress can also lead it astray. Speaking in the lavish, $200 million African Union headquarters, which was built and financed entirely by the Chinese government, he took a subtle jab at the Asian country’s rapid expansion on the African continent.
“When more countries invest responsibly in Africa, it creates more jobs and prosperity for us all,” he said. “But economic relationships cannot simply be about other countries building infrastructure with foreign labor or extracting Africa’s natural resources. Real economic partnerships have to be a good deal for Africa. They have to create jobs and capacity for Africans. That is the kind of partnership America offers.”
Time will tell what effect Obama’s words will have on his counterparts in Africa. But his tour of Kenya and Ethiopia has generated widespread public approval. That was clear by the warm reception he’s received by crowds in both countries.
"I actually think I'm a pretty good president,” he said at the AU. “I think if I ran again, I could win.”
Judging from the audience’s ecstatic response, laughter and applause, he might have a shot here in Africa.
White House correspondent Aru Pande contributed to this report from Addis Ababa