President Obama, whose first political protest as a college student was aimed at the Western oppressors of African nations, told a summit of young African leaders Monday to stop “making excuses” for their continent’s lagging economic development.
Mr. Obama’s about-face came during a town-hall gathering of 500 young African leaders in Washington sponsored by the White House. A young man from Kenya who addressed the president as “your Excellency” asked Mr. Obama when the U.S. would lead other industrialized nations in forgiving African nations of their international debts.
While Mr. Obama said “there’s a discussion to be had” about debt forgiveness, his answer was a far cry from his college days.
“When I was a college student, issues of dependency and terms of trade and legacy of colonialism, those were all topics of fervent discussion,” Mr. Obama acknowledged. “But at some point we have to stop looking somewhere else for solutions, and we have to start looking for solutions internally.”
In 1981, while a student at Occidental College in California, Mr. Obama delivered his first public speech at a rally protesting the college’s investments in companies that were doing business in apartheid South Africa. His speech ended when he was carried off by two students who were pretending to be oppressive Afrikaners.
On Monday, Mr. Obama said African leaders should take the attitude of, “We didn’t get a good deal then, but let’s make sure we’re not making excuses for going forward.”
“There are a lot of countries that are generating a lot of wealth … generating a lot of income … but aren’t putting that money back into villages to educate children,” the president said. “[There are] a lot of countries where the leaders have a lot of resources, but the money’s not going back to health clinics for young mothers.”
“Yes, it’s important for western countries to look at past practices,” he told the audience. “But do not think that is the main impediment at this point why we have not seen greater progress in many countries.”
Introduced to his audience as “the son of a Kenyan,” Mr. Obama announced a commitment of $38 million through the U.S. Agency for International Development to build four “regional leadership centers” in Ghana, Kenya, Senegal and South Africa to promote development and economic opportunity.
The president also renamed the fellowship program to honor the late South African president Nelson Mandela, and said it will be expanded from 500 participants to 1,000 by 2016.
At the start of the town-hall event, a young woman introduced Mr. Obama by telling the audience, “Join me in welcoming the president of the United States. He is the son of a Kenyan!” The crowd in a ballroom of the Omni Shoreham Hotel roared with delight and gave Mr. Obama a standing ovation.
The bonding over Mr. Obama’s African roots continued when a young man from Senegal addressed him as “the first president of Africa.” Mr. Obama, who appeared to have difficulty understanding the young man’s broken English, interrupted him by saying, “I’m sorry. I am the first African-American president of the United States.”
The confusion eventually lifted when it became clear that the young man was asking Mr. Obama how he would address a theoretical president of a “United States of Africa.”
“Great question, even though it took me a while to understand it,” Mr. Obama said. He told the young man that he would emphasize “the issue of governance.”
“If you do not have a basic system of rule of law, of respect for civil rights and human rights, if you do not give people a credible, legitimate way to work though the political process … if there are not laws in place in which everyone is equal under the law … if you do not have an economic system that is transparent and accountable … if you don’t have those basic mechanisms, it is very rare for a country to succeed,” Mr. Obama said.
The president will host a U.S.-Africa summit in Washington next week, billed as the largest gathering ever of African leaders in America.