Source: The New York Times:
ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — President Obama jabbed at the power structures of Africa on Tuesday by calling for long-entrenched leaders to step down, using off-the-cuff remarks about his own political standing and his stature as the first American president with African roots to try to reshape the continent’s politics.
“I actually think I’m a pretty good president,” Mr. Obama told diplomats from across Africa, departing from his prepared text to present himself as a model for giving up power when term limits are reached. “I think if I ran, I could win.”
“There’s a lot that I’d like to do to keep America moving,” he added.
“But the law is the law, and no person is above the law, not even the president.”
Whether Mr. Obama could actually win another term may provide fodder for political debate at home. He has appeared energized by a string of recent successes, including congressional passage of trade authority, aSupreme Court ruling upholding his health care plan, a nuclear deal withIran and the reopening of diplomatic relations with Cuba. Still, he faces deep opposition among many Americans who are critical of his economic and foreign policies.
But as he wrapped up what may be his final trip to Africa while in office, Mr. Obama used his own tenure to take on one of the continent’s most enduring obstacles to democratic progress: its history of one-man rule by presidents and potentates who enrich themselves and cling to power for years, if not decades, in calcified regimes.
“Nobody should be president for life,” he declared in a speech at the African Union, an umbrella organization. “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 new insights will be good for my country. It will be good for yours, too, in some cases.”
This is a theme that Mr. Obama hit forcefully during his visit to Ghana in 2009, when he declared that “Africa doesn’t need strongmen. It needs strong institutions.” Since then, the debate over inveterate rulers has continued to reverberate across Africa, with startlingly different outcomes.
Just this month, the president of Burundi pushed ahead with elections that gave him a third term in office. In doing so, he threw his nation into upheaval in a move widely regarded as violating the country’s Constitution and a peace agreement that ended a devastating civil war there.
In Rwanda, lawmakers voted this month to support a constitutional change allowing President Paul Kagame a third term.
The government of Burkina Faso collapsed last fall when protesters surged through the streets, denouncing President Blaise Compaoré’s plans to extend his 27-year rule. And in the Democratic Republic of Congo, there are concerns that President Joseph Kabila will try to circumvent the two-term limit outlined in the Constitution by delaying the 2016 presidential election.
Indeed, about half of the more than 50 countries in the African Union have presidents, prime ministers or monarchs who have been in power longer than Mr. Obama, some of them for decades. Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo has ruled Equatorial Guinea since 1979. Robert Mugabe has been in power in Zimbabwe since 1980. Paul Biya has governed Cameroon since 1982. Yoweri Museveni has governed Uganda since 1986. Omar Hassan al-Bashir has governed Sudan since 1989.
On the other hand, there have been transformative moments lately. InNigeria, the continent’s most populous nation, Africans celebrated in the spring when the party that had governed since the end of military rule peacefully stepped down after losing elections, a successful transfer of power in one of the world’s largest democracies. Unable to travel to Nigeria because of security concerns, Mr. Obama decided to mark that transition by playing host to the new Nigerian president, Muhammadu Buhari, in the Oval Office last week before departing for his trip here.
None of the long-ruling leaders Mr. Obama seemed to have in mind were on hand to hear his speech on Tuesday, but representatives of governments from around Africa attended, and it was broadcast live across the continent. The audience interrupted Mr. Obama with applause nearly 75 times, but it cheered and whooped most enthusiastically as he talked about leaders who overstay their welcome.
“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 the nation together.’ If that’s true, then that leader has failed to truly build their nation.”
The crowd cheered even louder when he said that he did not understand why leaders do not step down “especially when they’ve got a lot of money,” again going beyond his prepared text in a knowing reference to African officials who have accumulated great fortunes while in office, often through corruption.
Joseph Atta-Mensah, a Ghanaian who is a policy adviser at the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, said Mr. Obama’s message was critically important. “One of the most important things was, in terms of good governance and institutions, the need for people to leave when their term is up,” he said. “They should leave and allow for new blood. I think that was good.”
Still, some analysts were skeptical about the potential impact of Mr. Obama’s remarks.
“I think it has little direct impact on leaders, who can play up sovereignty,” said Pierre Englebert, an African politics expert at Pomona College. Beyond that, he cited American support for, or silence on, some autocratic African governments. “The U.S. is not consistent in delivering this message, so that weakens it,” he said.
Mr. Obama’s tone on Tuesday was more forceful than when he visitedKenya and Ethiopia earlier on the trip. In Kenya, where the deputy president faces charges of crimes against humanity in the International Criminal Court and the country’s president faced them until December,Mr. Obama preferred to focus on what he saw as movement in the right direction, particularly a five-year-old Constitution meant to resolve disputes that arose out of contested 2007 elections.
As for Ethiopia, where the ruling party and its allies just won 100 percentof the seats in Parliament and where journalists have repeatedly been imprisoned for criticizing the government, Mr. Obama gently urged greater progress while expressing understanding of the country’s difficult history. Aides said that in private, Ethiopia’s leaders were unusually candid in acknowledging flaws in their system and seemed committed to change.
Finding the right balance between advocating democracy and human rights on the one hand, and cultivating cooperation on other issues like economics and security on the other, has been a challenge for Mr. Obama no matter where he travels. He came away with a sour aftertaste following the so-called Arab Spring, when countries in the Middle East and North Africa cast off autocrats only to fail to install successful democracies.
While making his way across East Africa over the last four days, Mr. Obama repeatedly defended his decision to come to Kenya and Ethiopia, which no other sitting president has visited, despite their records. He noted that he has also traveled to China and Russia, which are hardly model democracies.
But he carries special weight in Africa, where he is seen as a favorite son with a symbolic power no predecessor had. When Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the chairwoman of the African Union, introduced him on Tuesday, she said, “Although we welcome you as the president of the United States, we also claim you as our own.”
Mr. Obama understood that. Speaking in Nelson Mandela Plenary Hall, named for the South African freedom fighter turned president, Mr. Obama said Mr. Mandela, like George Washington, understood that leaving office and handing over control peacefully was a powerful legacy.
“Just as the African Union has condemned coups and illegitimate transfers of power, the A.U.’s authority and strong voice can also help the people of Africa ensure that their leaders abide by term limits and their constitutions,” Mr. Obama said.
Understanding that some might see him as lecturing or hypocritical, Mr. Obama made a point of acknowledging American flaws. “Our American democracy is not perfect,” he said. “But one thing we do is we continually re-examine to figure out how can we make our democracy better. And that’s a force of strength for us, being willing to look and see honestly what we need to be doing to fulfill the promise of our founding documents.”
In boasting that he could win another term if the 22nd Amendment did not forbid it, Mr. Obama mirrored comments President Bill Clinton has made. But unlike Mr. Clinton, who often said he would have loved to have remained president, Mr. Obama echoed his immediate predecessor, President George W. Bush, in talking wistfully of what he looks forward to doing once he leaves office. “I’ll be honest with you,” he said, “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 go take a walk. I can spend time with my family. I can find other ways to serve. I can visit Africa more often.”
While in Kenya, Mr. Obama was forced to stay in tightly controlled facilities and settings, unable to visit the village where his family came from or explore Nairobi, which he last visited in 2006. His stepgrandmother told reporters that she urged him to come to the family village to pray at his father’s grave. He later told reporters that a dinner with relatives was spent “begging for forgiveness” that he could not be with them longer.