ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia—President Barack Obama on Tuesday became the first American president to address the African Union in the institution’s 52-year history, a moment lauded for its historical significance but that also underscored how behind the U.S. is in investing in the continent.
Mr. Obama’s visit was the capstone to a four-day African trip where he pledged enhanced U.S. economic ties. The U.S., however, is playing catch up to other world powers, particularly China, which built the 54-member AU’s headquarters where Mr. Obama spoke.
The president has made the case this week in Kenya and Ethiopia that African economies should embrace the U.S. over other world powers because America’s approach is not simply to give aid but to build the continent’s capacity to flourish on its own.
“Now, the United States isn’t the only country that sees your growth as an opportunity,” Mr. Obama told an enthusiastic audience on Tuesday in a hall named after the late South African leader Nelson Mandela.
“But economic relationships can’t simply be about building other countries’ infrastructure with foreign labor or extracting Africa’s natural resources,” he said. “Real economic partnerships have to be a good deal for Africa—they have to create jobs and capacity for Africans.”
Mr. Obama has also called on African leaders to end widespread government corruption and advance democracy and human rights as part of the continent’s drive toward economic growth. At the same time he used China as an example of how he engages with countries that don’t share U.S. governing values.
“I may interact with a government, out of necessity, where we have common interest,” Mr. Obama told civil society leaders in Kenya on Sunday. “But if there are areas where I disagree, I will also be very blunt in my disagreement. And that’s true whether it’s Russia or China, or some of our European friends, or a great friend like Kenya.”
On Tuesday, Mr. Obama received some of his most enthusiastic applause for sharp comments on democracy, particularly his calls for African leaders who cling to power without term limits.
“We all know what the ingredients of real democracy are. They include free and fair elections, freedom of speech and the press, freedom of assembly,” Mr. Obama said. “Democracy is not just formal elections.”
Mr. Obama singled out Ethiopia as a burgeoning democracy that held elections without violence. He did not, however, repeat his characterization of Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn as “democratically elected.”
In May, Mr. Desalegn extended his party’s 40-year old rule in the country by winning 100% of parliament’s seats: All 547 legislators in the Ethiopian parliament are members of the ruling party and rights grips say opposition activists and media have been muzzled.
Mr. Obama’s decision to engage with leaders such as Mr. Desalegn rather than isolate them is fundamental to his approach to foreign policy and an acknowledgment that if he doesn’t another country will.
“These countries have options,” said a senior administration official traveling with the president. “It’s not as if they have nowhere to go. This is the world as it is, and engagement is our best lever.”
Mr. Obama used a personal anecdote to argue why term limits can benefit a democracy.
“I actually think I’m a pretty good president. I think if I ran I could win,” Mr. Obama said, referring to a third term. “But I can’t.”
The trip was a personal journey for Mr. Obama as the first African-American U.S. president, whose father was born in Kenya. His familial ties to Africa and the story of his ascent to the presidency gave added weight to his words for many Africans.
Mr. Obama, in Kenya and Ethiopia, focused on his two signature Africa initiatives: a program for African farmers, Feed the Future; and one called Power Africa that’s designed to expand access to electricity on the continent. He noted on Tuesday his plans to host a U.S.-Africa Business Forum next year focused on trade and investment.
“America’s approach to development—the central focus of our engagement with Africa—is focused on helping you build your own capacity to realize that vision,” Mr. Obama said.
He described engaging young Africans as the most urgent challenge facing the continent, given the growth in population and the spread of terrorist groups such as Somalia-based al-Shabaab.
Security threats are among Mr. Obama’s most pressing challenges in engaging Africa. Mr. Obama said this fall he’ll host a summit at the United Nations aimed at strengthening international support for peacekeeping, including in Africa.
“The choices made today will shape the trajectory of Africa for decades to come,” Mr. Obama said. “As you build the Africa you believe in, you will have no better partner and friend than the United States of America.”