On Tuesday, President Obama became the first United States President to address the African Union (AU) at its headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, during his official visit to Africa. Embedded within his address were words of support for the growth of Africa’s economy and position in the international realm, but also condemnation for African public officers who refuse to hand over their power and position.
“Africa’s democratic progress is also at risk when leaders refuse to step aside when their terms end,” Obama said. “Now, let me be honest with you -- I do not understand this. I am in my second term. It has been an extraordinary privilege for me to serve as President of the United States. I love my work. But under our Constitution, I cannot run again.”
He continued, “The law is the law. And no one person is above the law. Not even the President.”
President Obama’s AU address implicitly referred to term extensions made by Yoweri Museveni in Uganda, Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, and Paul Kagame in Rwanda. He also explicitly mentioned Burundi, where Pierre Nkurunziza was just won a third term in a widely condemned election.
“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,” Mr. Obama said. “And this is often just a first step down a perilous path. And sometimes you’ll hear leaders 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.”
President Obama made reference to Nelson Mandela and George Washington as individuals who knew who to form a nation’s “lasting legacy” by making proper decisions when in office, but also being willing to step down and transfer power peacefully.
“And just as the African Union has condemned coups and illegitimate transfers of power, the AU’s authority and strong voice can also help the people of Africa ensure that their leaders abide by term limits and their constitutions,” he said.
The speech strained to describe the importance of Africa’s new generation of youth, especially as it opposes older, entrenched politicians. “Old thinking can be a stubborn thing,” Mr. Obama said to the African Union members. “That's one of the reasons why we need term limits -- old people think old ways.”
In Africa, there is a pressing need to “uphold the rule of law.” That rule pertains to term limits, but also to “making sure that capital flows are properly accounted for,” opening Africa’s economic potential by “ending the cancer of corruption,” and looking “internally” because “the biggest markets for your goods are often right next door.”
The rule of law means that corruption will no longer be allowed to deplete money that should be used for education, jobs, and hospitals--which would ultimately grow nations’ economies. Mr. Obama said the rule of law also meant that Africa can “modernize customs and border crossings with the East African Community.”
Furthermore, the speech highlighted the role of democracy outside of official elections. Nation’s should “fully protect the rights of their people,” Mr. Obama said, by barring the government from threatening activists and journalists and letting civilians do their work in an honest, productive way.