Obama used his own history of electoral success to rib African leaders who overstay their welcomes by refusing to leave office after their terms expire. In his speech Tuesday at the African Union headquarters, he conceded unfamiliarity with that concept because as a second-term U.S. president, he’s constitutionally barred from running again.
“I actually think I’m a pretty good president,” Obama said. “I think if I ran, I could win. But I can’t!”
That’s just fine with the president. Obama said he’s looking forward to leaving behind the trappings of office, including his presidential security detail, and having more flexibility to do things like travel to Africa after he leaves the White House. He said although he’s still relatively young, he knows a new president with new insights will be good for the U.S.
“The point is, I don’t understand why people want to stay so long,” Obama said with a sly grin. “Especially when they’ve got a lot of money.”
He compared one of his personal heroes, former South African President Nelson Mandela, to America’s first president, George Washington, noting that both were willing to leave office and transfer power peacefully to their successors.
In Rwanda, lawmakers are considering removing presidential term limits from the country’s constitution in a process that could see President Paul Kagame extend his rule beyond two terms. Burundi’s president, Pierre Nkurunziza, was just elected to a third term although he is constitutionally limited to two.
“When a leader tries to change the rules in the middle of the game just to stay in office, it risks instability and strife,” Obama said, citing Burundi as a particular example. “This is often just a first step down a perilous path.”
Obama’s go-to catchphrase in Ethiopia and Kenya has been that “Africa is on the move.” He could also say the continent is taking flight.
Just before boarding Air Force One to go home, Obama stopped to examine “Africa First,” the inaugural Dreamliner aircraft that U.S.-based Boeing Co. delivered to Ethiopian Airlines. The aircraft also known as the 787 is valued at up to $1.3 billion.
Obama was joined on the tarmac by the CEO of Ethiopian Airlines, Tewolde Gebremariam, as well as the country’s prime minister. With bright green umbrellas shielding visitors from the rain, Obama inspected the aircraft — white, with thin red lettering.
Obama lamented to reporters traveling with him that big business opportunities for Boeing and other U.S. companies are at risk because Congress hasn’t reauthorized the Export-Import Bank, a U.S. federal agency that guarantees loans to foreign companies buying American products. The Senate voted late Monday to put the bank’s renewal into a highway bill heading for passage, but the House remains opposed to re-upping the bank, leaving its prospects in question.
“We’ve got to get that done,” Obama said before getting aboard his own ride for the flight back to Washington.
The White House said Ethiopian Airlines was the first airline in Africa to operate the Dreamliner. The airline has been buying Boeing planes since 1960 and now has a fleet of more than 70.
A leading African politician put Obama on notice as she introduced him at the African Union: “Although we welcome you as the president of the United States of America, we also claim you as our own.”
Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, who chairs the African Union Commission, said Africans are proud to be part of the “beautiful tapestry of humanity” in the U.S. She cited their contributions to history, literature, music, sciences, arts and sports.
“Today, there is no America without Africa,” she said.
Just before Obama’s speech — the first by a sitting U.S. president to the AU — Diamini-Zuma had a chance to meet face to face with Obama. As reporters were allowed briefly into the meeting, Obama said he had warned Diamini-Zuma that his speech later in the day might run a little long.
That’s fine, she joked. Africa has waited 50 years for this moment.
The former South African foreign minister and anti-apartheid activist said she hoped the AU wouldn’t have to wait another 50 years for a U.S. president to visit again.
But Obama wasn’t the only politician waxing verbose; Diamini-Zuma’s introduction to Obama’s speech ran more than 25 minutes before she turned over the podium.
An American company and an Ethiopian utility used the occasion of Obama’s visit to announce a deal on renewable energy.
Under the power purchase agreement, the Ethiopian Electric Power Corp. committed to buying the first 500 megawatts from a plant that U.S.-linked Corbetti Geothermal has been developing in Ethiopia. The Corbetti Geothermal Project is expected to consume 4 billion dollars and will generate 1,000 MW of electricity.
Geothermal power plants are built by drilling deep into the ground, not unlike drilling for oil or gas. But instead of burning fossil fuels, geothermal plants capture steam, converting heat from the earth into power. They emit a fraction of the heat-trapping greenhouse gases that conventional coal plants emit.
The project falls under the umbrella of Obama’s Power Africa initiative, which Obama launched in 2013 to try to double access to electricity in sub-Saharan Africa. While in Africa, Obama said the U.S. would continue supporting Ethiopia’s green energy endeavor.