Tribune Washington Bureau
Posted with permission from Tribune Content Agency

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — President Barack Obama urged African leaders from across the continent Tuesday to fight corruption, violence and human rights violations in a long and winding speech in which he also pointed out the shortcomings of some countries' leaders, including the Ethiopian and Kenyan hosts of his five-day trip to East Africa.

As the first U.S. president to address the 54 nations of the African Union, Obama switched between preaching, cajoling and even joking to make his case for democratic reforms that he argued are crucial to the rise of the continent.

"Africa's progress will depend on democracy because Africans, like people everywhere, deserve the dignity of being in control of their own lives," Obama said. "I'm convinced that nations cannot realize the full promise of independence until they fully protect the rights of their people."

Yet, he went on, the rights to free and fair elections and freedom of speech, press and assembly are denied to many Africans.

In his father's homeland of Kenya, he said, "the remarkable gains that country has made cannot be jeopardized by restrictions on civil society."

Likewise, Ethiopia cannot unleash its full potential "if it jails journalists or restricts legitimate opposition groups from participating in the campaign process."

Leaders of the Central African Republican must commit to "inclusive elections and a peaceful transition," he said. In Mali, he added, a comprehensive peace agreement that has been reached must be fulfilled.

"And leaders in Sudan must know that their nation will never truly thrive so long as they wage war against their own people," he warned. "The world will not forget about Darfur."

The address drew wild cheers and applause at several points, in waves across parts of the audience depending on how fully its members agreed with his calls for freedom for gays and lesbians, an end to female genital mutilation and promotion of full rights for women.

It marked the end of his trip to Kenya and Ethiopia — his fifth to the African continent, the most of any sitting U.S. president. Immediately after delivering the address, he headed for the airport.

As he spoke, he deviated frequently from his prepared remarks, turning one solemn passage about the importance of peaceful transfer of power into a funny riff about how he's turning over his office in 18 months even though he thinks he could win. Many in the audience laughed.

Against a backdrop of crises in Rwanda and Burundi, though, the audience seemed to take the passage seriously. Obama drew the loudest cheers of the day for criticizing African leaders seeking third terms.

The president also veered off script to say he was saying all of these things only as a friend, and not a flawless one.

"This is a conversation we have to have as friends," he said. "American democracy is not perfect."

Success depends on being willing to discuss "what we need to be doing to fulfill the promise of our founding documents," he said.

"We have to be honest," he said, "and strive."