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U.S. President Obama Calls for Reforms, Free Elections in Zimbabwe

U.S. President Barack Obama participates in a town hall-style meeting with young African leaders at the University of Johannesburg Soweto, June 29, 2013.
U.S. President Barack Obama has called on President Robert Mugabe’s government to stop “harassing” its citizens and implement reforms ahead of elections expected later this year.

Speaking Saturday at a joint press conference with South African President Jacob Zuma in Pretoria, Obama said Harare has an opportunity to move to a new phase where, “Zimbabwe can finally achieve all its promise.”

But, he said, that requires free and fair elections and for those currently in power in Zimbabwe to recognize that the interests of all the people are served over the self-interest of individual leaders.

“As the president mentioned we discussed the situation in Zimbabwe and President Zuma has played an important role in the region’s mediation efforts. We agreed that the harassment of citizens and groups needs to stop and reforms need to move forward so the people of Zimbabwe can cast their votes in elections that are fair and free and credible.”

Obama, who’s on a three-day visit to South Africa as part of a week-long visit to the continent, also emphasized the need for term limits for presidents.

Responding to a question from the press on the situation in Zimbabwe, he said the southern African country used to be one of the wealthiest countries on the continent, but that bad governance led to economic disaster. He thanked Zuma for mediating in Harare, saying this has given the country an opportunity to start afresh.

For his part Zuma thanked President Obama for relaxing sanctions on Harare saying this has allowed the economy to rebound.

“Mr. President, we are encouraged by the relaxation of sanctions on Zimbabwe by the U.S. government and urge further steps in this regard as it will strengthen the economy of Zimbabwe,” said Zuma.

Obama said he agreed with Zuma that Zimbabweans should be allowed to cast their votes freely and that the polls be fair and credible.

Who's Obama?

Zanu PF spokesman Rugare Gumbo dismissed Obama’s statement saying only Zimbabweans had the right to chart their destiny.

“Who’s Obama? He’s the President of America. They can do that in American but we have a different situation in Africa,” said Gumbo. “Those who are in power know exactly what their people want like President Mugabe knows what the people of Zimbabwe want.”

He added: “We do not think it is right Heads of State of other countries to try and dictate what is happening in other States. As far as we are concerned President Mugabe has been consistent in establishing true African empowerment which irks many in the West.”

MDC Tsvangirai spokesman Douglas Mwonzora concurred with Obama saying it was time President Mugabe left office after 33 years in power.

“President Mugabe has overstayed his welcome. He has seen five South African presidents from Botha, De Klerk, then Mandela, Mbeki and Zuma,” said Mwonzora. “But he still remains as the only president here in Zimbabwe.”

A Boost to Mentoring Opportunities

Speaking at a town hall meeting in Johannesburg Saturday afternoon, Obama announced the Washington Fellowship for young African leaders, a new flagship program of the President’s Young African Leaders Initiative, known as YALI.

Beginning next year, the program will bring more than 500 young African leaders to the United States each year for leadership training and mentoring. It will also create unique opportunities in Africa for fellows to use their new skills to propel economic growth and prosperity, and strengthen democratic institutions.

Earlier in the day, Obama met with the family of ailing former South African President Nelson Mandela. In a written statement, the president said he hopes that Mandela “draws peace and comfort from the time that he is spending with loved ones,” and he said Mandela’s legacy is one that “we must all honor in our own lives.”

The president said out of respect for the family, he would not seek to see or meet Mandela himself, who is said to be in critical condition at a hospital in Pretoria.

Obama flies on to Tanzania Monday. Over his 3-day visit to that east African nation Obama will meet with President Jakaya Kikwete, and attend a roundtable with African and American business leaders.