During a town hall-style meeting attended by 115 young private and public sector leaders from more than 40 African nations, Obama told the young leaders "the United States wants to be your partner."
"As you work to create jobs and opportunity, America will work with you, promoting the trade and investment on which growth depends," Obama said.
Obama said one reason for holding the forum was to communicate directly with younger people "who may not assume that the old ways of doing business are the ways that Africa has to do business." Another reasons, he said, was so they would get to know each other and "reinforce each other as you are struggling and fighting in your own countries for a better future."
Asked his opinion on non-violence and good governance in the context of democratic principles, Obama answered that conflict and violence scare off investors and create "a vicious cycle."
"So I am a profound believer in not looking at violence as a solution to problems," he said. "And I think the moral and ethical power that comes with nonviolence when properly mobilized is profound."
Obama encouraged the audience to promote transparency and open, civil debate within their organizations, and to include women on equal footing with men. He warned them against becoming like some well intentioned leaders who "end up becoming exactly what they fought against."
That abstract statement became pointedly direct when a question came from a representative of Zimbabwe, where President Robert Mugabe's regime has been heavily criticized for alleged human rights abuses and other problems.
"I'll be honest with you -- I'm heartbroken when I see what's happened in Zimbabwe," Obama said. "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. And the abuses, the human rights abuses, the violence that's been perpetrated against opposition leaders I think is terrible."
The United States must, he said, try to exert leverage on such leaders to change their ways without punishing their citizens.
Likewise, civil strife-torn Somalia "will have enormous support from the people of the United States when it comes to trying to create a structure and framework in Somalia that works for the Somali people," he said.
"I don't think anybody expects Somalia anytime in the next few years to suddenly be transformed into a model democracy," he said. "But certainly what we can do is create a situation where people -- young people are not carrying around rifles, shooting each other on the streets."
In the end, he said, a choice must be made between "more conflict, more bloodshed, less economic development, continued poverty even as the rest of the world races ahead" and "a vision in which people come together for the betterment and development of their own country."
Asked if the United States can be a true partner with countries that are much weaker, Obama answered in the affirmative.
While all countries look out after their own interests, Obama said, "the interests of the United States and the interests of the continent of Africa greatly overlap."
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