Instead, he brought a frank message on democracy, corruption and security that could perhaps be delivered only by a Western leader viewed in Africa as a local son.
“The future of Africa is up to Africans,” Obama said during a trip to Kenya and Ethiopia that concluded Tuesday. “For too long, I think that many looked to the outside for salvation and focused on somebody else being at fault for the problems of the continent.”
The president’s advisers reject the notion that Obama’s policy toward Africa is all talk, pointing to the long-term potential of initiatives to boost power access and food security for millions on the continent. They stress the importance of America’s first black president, one with a sprawling family still living in Kenya, capitalizing on his ability to speak not as a lecturing Westerner, but as someone with a personal stake in the continent’s success.
“He is someone who is broadly respected by not just the leaders, but the peoples of these countries, especially young populations who make up an increasing percentage of these countries,” said Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser. “So, for that reason, I think people pay close attention to what he has to say.”
“That doesn’t mean that they’re going to agree with everything he says, but I think he can lay out a direction that he thinks the U.S.-African partnership can go in,” Rhodes added.
Indeed, Obama closed his East Africa swing with a blunt accounting of the risks facing the fast-growing continent. He compared Africa’s large youth population to the Middle East, warning that without jobs and prospects for the future, young Africans are more likely to be drawn to terrorism. He warned of the “cancer of corruption” that runs rampant through some African governments, a problem he said only the continent’s leaders could solve.
And with high-level African officials in the audience for his remarks at African Union headquarters, he launched a blistering and sometimes sarcastic takedown of leaders who refuse to leave office when their terms end.
“Let me be honest with you — I just don’t understand this,” he said, drawing cheers from many in the crowd. “I actually think I’m a pretty good president. I think if I ran, I could win. But I can’t.”
While those remarks drew cheers from many in the crowd, some African activists greeted his comment one day earlier that Ethiopia has a democratically elected government with scorn and concern. Obama’s remarks came during a news conference with Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn of Ethiopia, whose ruling party won every seat in parliament in May elections.
Obama’s predecessors have also pushed for good governance and respect for human rights in Africa. But none had the instant credibility African leaders confer on Obama, whose visit was heralded as a homecoming.
“It would have been different of course if he was from a different background,” said Amadou Sy, director of the Africa Growth Initiative at the Brookings Institution. “But he’s also one of us.”
Obama barely knew his father, who was born and is buried in Kenya. The younger Obama wouldn’t visit the nation of his father’s birth until he was in his 20s, yet his political rise has been cheered enthusiastically throughout the continent.
Obama’s connections to Africa garnered oversized expectations for what his tenure as U.S. president would mean for the continent. While he’s made four trips to sub-Saharan Africa since taking office — more than any other U.S. president — his foreign policy focus has often been on boosting ties with the Asia-Pacific region and confronting crises in the Middle East.
Obama also faces frequent comparisons to his predecessor George W. Bush, who launched a $15 billion initiative for combating HIV/AIDS in Africa.
“I am really proud of the work that previous administrations did here in Africa, and I’ve done everything I could to build on those successes,” Obama said during a news conference in Kenya Saturday. “This isn’t a beauty contest between presidents.”
At the heart of Obama’s approach to Africa is a belief that the U.S. and other developed nations can no long view the continent simply as a receptacle for billions in international aid. In an era of budget cuts, the president has looked to jumpstart programs that rely heavily on private financing and could eventually be run by African governments or businesses, including his Feed The Future food security program and Power Africa electricity initiative.
Associated Press writer Darlene Superville contributed to this report.
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