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Obama hosts dialogue with young African leaders

By the CNN Wire Staff
  • Obama meets with young African business and civil leaders
  • The meeting highlights the fact that the bulk of Africa's population is under age 25
  • Obama: The U.S. wants to partner with Africa, but Africans need better governance
  • Obama slams Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe and bemoans the situation in Somalia

Washington (CNN) -- President Barack Obama hosted a group of young African business and civil leaders at the White House on Tuesday, part of his administration's outreach to a region of the world often overlooked at the top levels of U.S. diplomacy.

The meeting, a town hall-style forum with more than 100 representatives of 45 Sub-Saharan nations, was also part of a series of events this week helping mark the 10th anniversary of the African Growth and Opportunity Act, enacted in 2000 with the goal of boosting African exports to the United States.

Administration officials also noted that 2010 marks the 50th anniversary of independence for 17 African countries.

A State Department spokesman indicated earlier this week that the young group of White House invitees was meant to reflect the fact that 60 percent of the population of Africa is under age 25. The meeting is an "opportunity to increase economic and social ties between the United States and crucial countries across the continent," he said.

"The world needs your talents and your creativity," Obama told the group. "We want this to be the beginning of a new partnership."

But in terms of fostering political and economic development, he warned, ultimately "we can't do it for you." Africa, he said, remains in serious need of greater transparency and accountability.

"Good governance is at the center of development," he said. Countries across the African continent will continue to suffer from a lack of investment without a "clear rule of law."

Obama touched on a broad range of topics during the forum. Among other things, he praised his predecessor, George W. Bush, for launching the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, which has extended HIV/AIDS treatment to traditionally underserved regions around the world.

"We have built off of that," he said. But any comprehensive solution to Africa's HIV/AIDS epidemic eventually has to focus more heavily on stopping the transmission of the disease. In Africa, he said, that means empowering women.

The president slammed the rule of Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe, who has been accused of vote-rigging, human rights abuses and conducting a brutal political crackdown while seizing land and companies partly to empower black citizens.

"I'm heartbroken when I see what's happened in Zimbabwe," Obama said. "I do not see [Mugabe] serving his people well." The abuse of opposition leaders there "is terrible."

The situation in Somalia, he said, is "equally heartbreaking." There has not been an "effective, functioning government that can provide basic services." He said the country has "been rife with conflict" and is now threatened by "radical extremists."

Obama noted the stark contrast between the recent success of the World Cup in South Africa and the turmoil in Somalia and elsewhere.

The radically different situations illustrate the fact that "for all the great promise that's been fulfilled over the last 50 years ... Africa has also missed huge opportunities for too long," he said.

Obama noted that when his Kenyan father came to the United States in the early 1960s, the gross domestic product of Kenya was roughly equal to South Korea's. "Now it's not even close," he said. "There's no reason why Kenya shouldn't have been on that same trajectory."

"Fifty years from now, when you look back, you want to make sure that the continent hasn't missed those opportunities as well," he said, adding that the "United States wants to listen to you and work with you."

CNN's Alan Silverleib contributed to this report.