By Alister Bull
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Barack Obama criticized Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe on Tuesday and warned Africa not to repeat the mistakes that betrayed the hopes of an “independence generation,” which included his own father.
“I’ll be honest with you. I am heartbroken when I see what has happened in Zimbabwe,” he said at a White House event to discuss the continent’s future.
Obama invited 115 young Africans, selected as the region’s future leaders, to take part in a three-day forum marking the 50th anniversary of independence in many of their countries, while looking toward the next 50 years.
As America’s first black president whose father was Kenyan, Obama’s words carry special weight in Africa and he did not mince them. He urged greater press freedom, said corruption sapped support for foreign aid, and aimed harsh criticism at Zimbabwe’s long-serving president.
“I think Mugabe is an example of a leader who came in as a liberation fighter and, I’m just going to be very blunt, I do not see him serving his people well,” Obama told the meeting in response to a question about sanctions.
The United States and the European Union imposed sanctions on Zimbabwe nearly a decade ago and the restrictions still chafe, with Mugabe demanding that they be lifted. Obama made plain conditions were still not ripe for this to happen.
“In order to do that we’ve got to see some signal it will not simply entrench the same past abuses, but will rather move us in a new direction that will help the people,” he told the audience, many of whom were clad in traditional African garb.
Mugabe was forced into a power-sharing deal last year with opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai that has stabilized the economy after a decade of decline. But his policies are still deterring foreign aid and investment, and Obama sounded skeptical that the power-sharing pact was yielding results.
“Tsvangirai has tried to work — despite the fact that he himself has been beaten, and imprisoned — he has now tried to work to see if there is a gradual transition that might take place. But so far the results have not been what we would have hoped,” the U.S. president said.
Obama said he had deliberately reached beyond the current generation of African leaders to talk to young people who will shape the region’s future and urged they understand corruption was the continent’s enemy.
“If at a time of great constraint, we are coming up with aid, those aid dollars need to go to countries using them effectively,” he said.
In a lighter moment, Obama recalled South Africa’s successful staging of the soccer World Cup as a positive example of moving past white minority rule to democracy.
He spoke candidly of “huge opportunities” Africa had missed and urged the audience to get it right this time.
“When my father traveled to the United States and got his degree in the early Sixties, the GDP of Kenya was actually on par, maybe actually higher, than the GDP of South Korea … Now it is not even close. That is fifty years that was lost in terms of opportunities,” Obama said.
“So fifty years from now, when you look back, you want to make sure the continent hasn’t missed those opportunities as well.”