Obama, who was in South Africa on the second leg of his Africa trip, said economic recovery had given Zimbabwe an opportunity to advance but only if upcoming elections were “free and fair.”
President Robert Mugabe, at 89 Africa’s oldest leader, is seeking to extend his three-decade rule in elections scheduled for July 31. But the opposition wants to delay the poll to allow reforms designed to prevent a repeat of the bloodshed that marred the 2008 election.
“Zimbabweans have a new constitution. The economy is beginning to recover. So there is an opportunity to move forward,” Obama said in a televised speech at the University of Cape Town during his three-nation Africa visit.
“But only if there is an election that is free and fair and peaceful so that Zimbabweans can determine their future without fear of intimidation and retribution,” Obama said.
Speaking at a media briefing after bilateral talks with President Jacob Zuma on Saturday Obama said: “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”.
Mugabe, in power since 1980, has been accused by critics of rigging elections and driving the economy into near ruin by scaring off investors with polices such as the seizure of white-owned farms for redistribution to landless blacks.
After a decade of contraction which saw the domestic currency rendered worthless by hyper-inflation, the economy has been growing again, in part because Zimbabwe has dumped its own dollar in favour of the U.S. dollar.
“Zimbabwe … used to be one of the wealthiest countries on the continent. And that governance has led to an economic disaster,” he said.
“It’s not starting to come back. And thanks to the work of people like President Zuma, there’s an opportunity now to move into a new phase where perhaps Zimbabwe can finally achieve all its promise.
“But that requires fair and free elections, and it requires those currently in power in Zimbabwe to recognize that the interest of all people have to be served there.”
The European Union (EU), the US as well as Australia have partially relaxed the sanctions to reward the country for a series of reforms that include the new constitution.