United States President Barack Obama on Tuesday railed against African dictators and life presidents, saying they
were dragging their countries backwards.
Obey Manayiti/Moses Matenga
The remarks, made during a historic address to the African Union (AU) at its headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, were largely seen as a pointed attack on President Robert Mugabe and his Burundi counterpart Pierre Nkurunziza.
Mugabe, the AU chairman, was excluded from the meeting with Obama currently on a high-profile visit to Africa.
The 91-year-old has been in power since 1980 and speculation is rife he will stand for another term in 2018, which could see him relinquishing power at the age of 99.
Nkurunziza early this month plunged his country into chaos after he insisted on standing for a third term in violation of the Burundi Constitution.
“Nobody should be president for life,” Obama said in a statement punctuated by countless standing ovations.
“And your country is better off if you have new blood and new ideas. I’m still a pretty young man — 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 would be
good for yours too in some cases,” Obama said.
“I don’t understand why people want to stay so long, especially when they have got a lot of money.”
Mugabe, who earns $12 000 a month, has repeatedly denied allegations that he is one of the richest presidents on the continent. However, the First Family does not hide its wide business interests.
Mugabe and his wife last year gave his daughter Bona 55 head of cattle and $100 000 in cash during her wedding held at the First Family’s plush home in Borrowdale Brooke, Harare.
Obama said the AU should be vocal about the need for African leaders to stick to term limits and respect constitutions.
“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,”
Zanu PF spokesperson Simon Khaya Moyo refused to comment on perceptions that Obama’s speech was targeted at Mugabe, among other leaders.
“President Obama has never visited Zimbabwe and I have never seen his statement and I don’t know the audience he was addressing. I want to see the text first,” he insisted.
He said Mugabe was not the only leader in the world who has been in power for a long time.
“We all have different constitutions in the world,” Khaya Moyo said. “The United Kingdom has no term limit, we
have two terms and others don’t.”
But political analysts and opposition parties said Obama’s speech was targeted at Mugabe and other long-time rulers in Africa.
Analyst Charles Mangongera said Obama’s message “rings to the Zimbabwean President and many others on the continent where sitting Presidents behave like monarchic kings”.
“Obviously Obama’s message is targeted at these leaders, but the message tends to find resonance with the younger generation who are fed up with autocratic leaders,” Mangongera said.
“The younger generation will find Obama’s message appealing, while the old league of leaders on the continent will try to evoke Pan-Africanism to say Obama cannot lecture us.”
Another political analyst, Takura Zhangazha, said Obama was passionate about Africa and this was apparent in his speech.
“He was correct to call time on African leaders who undemocratically extend their terms of office or act as life
Presidents,” Zhangazha said.
“This, together with corruption and lack of respect for human rights, is what Obama views as the blight on Africa’s illustrious liberation struggle legacy.”
The main opposition MDC-T said it agreed with Obama’s remarks because the continent needed leadership renewal.
“As the MDC, we fully associate ourselves with President Barack Obama’s remarks,” MDC-T spokesperson Obert Gutu said.
“This is what we have always been saying that there is need for periodic leadership renewal in Africa in general
and Zimbabwe in particular.”
He added: “Surely, it is a gross absurdity for someone to hold onto power for 35 years and still think that they
have something new to offer to their country. No one has got a monopoly of wisdom and leadership qualities.”
MDC international relations secretary Kurauone Chihwayi said leaders who overstayed in power compromised Africa’s future.
“Robert Mugabe is not doing us any favour by overstaying. African leaders should draw lessons from the Obama speech especially President Robert Mugabe, [Rwandan President] Paul Kagame and Nkurunziza. Dictators in Africa have a tendency of pretending to be ‘the chosen ones’, but overstaying leaders should emulate people like the great Nelson Mandela,” Chihwayi said.
“We are challenging Mugabe to step down for new blood. We urge Mugabe to pave way for able leadership. He is too exhausted to deliver jobs and food to the starving citizens. He has failed to arrest corruption and looting by his
own team members.”
Mugabe’s spokesperson George Charamba could not be reached for comment yesterday.
On Monday, Charamba told NewsDay that Mugabe would not lose sleep over Obama’s visit and his exclusion from the meetings.
Mugabe appeared to be defending Nkurunziza during the AU summit in South Africa last month, saying should be allowed to stay if their people still wanted them.
“It is democracy (that) if people want a leader to continue, let him continue,” he said.