Obama slams African leaders who refuse to stand down
Published 29/07/2015 | 02:30
Barack Obama, the US president, received roars of approval from an audience at the African Union (AU) headquarters when he mocked the continent's leaders who refuse to stand down, telling them "your countries need new blood and new ideas".
The 53-year-old president, who is 18 months from the end of his time in office, said he too thought he was "a pretty good president", quipping: "I think if I ran, I could win. But I can't.
"The law is the law and no one person is the law, not even the president."
Mr Obama praised Nigeria for holding free and fair elections and a peaceful transfer of power, and his hosts on his latest tour, Kenya and Nigeria, for "remarkable gains" in development and democracy.
But he added: "Democracy is not just formal elections. When journalists are put behind bars for doing their jobs, or activists are threatened as governments crack down on civil society, then you may have democracy in name, but not substance.
Nations cannot realise the full promise of independence until they fully protect the rights of their people."
He defended his position as an outsider, saying America never claimed to be "perfect" but pointed out it also contributes funds and support to the continent.
He took a swipe at China, saying: "I know there's some countries that don't say anything and maybe that's easier for leaders to deal with but you're kinda stuck with us, that's how we are."
The speech, Mr Obama's first to the African Union and the last on his historic four-day trip, was his most successful and was met with howls of approval, uproarious laughter, cheers and standing ovations.
Most came not from the floor of the massive hall at the Chinese-built African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa where senior African diplomats sat, but from their upper tiers of the building which held civil society activists, journalists, AU staff, students and government representatives from the 54 countries the body represents. The biggest applause came when he turned to the subject of third terms, which are currently being sought by presidents of countries including Rwanda, Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi.
There, the actions of president Pierre Nkurunziza have sparked a constitutional crisis that has pushed the country back to the brink of civil war.
Naming Burundi in his speech, Mr Obama said no president was indispensable and cited the "lasted legacy" Nelson Mandela left when he stood down peacefully and timorously as South African president.
"When a leader tries to change the rules in the middle of the game just to stay in office, it risks instability and strife," he said. "This is often just a first step down a perilous path.
"Sometimes you'll hear a leader say: 'Well I'm the only person who can hold this nation together.' If that's true then that leader has failed to truly build their nation."
He drew laughter by referring to his own situation: "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, I can spend more time with my family, new ways to serve, and more visits to Africa.
"Your country is better off if you have new blood and new ideas. I'm still a pretty young man but I know that somebody with new energy and insights will be good for my country."
Mr Obama suggested the African Union, which is growing in stature and influence, could take greater leadership on the issue. "It can't just be America that talks about these things. Fellow African countries have to," he said. "We must all raise our voices when universal rights are denied. It's not just a Western idea, it's a human idea."
Speaking afterwards, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the African Union Commission chairman, said she was "pleased" with the issues he raised.
On third terms, she said there wasn't one rule to fit all: "We have various constitutions - some have terms, some have no limits. I thought all he was saying was that when their terms are over, people must respect them," she said.
"Some people may feel it's lecturing but I think he was just saying things that are already in our charter."
Margaret (44), a Ugandan civil servant, applauded his comments. "Our president is seeking a third term and God knows how many US presidents he will see while he's still in office," she said. "He must move on and let us move on."
Akuei Bona Malwal, the South Sudanese ambassador to Ethiopia, said Mr Obama was "right on".
"In Africa now there are enough educated young leaders who should be given a chance to give it a try," he said. "They might make mistakes because of their youth but that's better than making a mistake because they stayed too long.