Washington (AFP) - US President Barack Obama kicked up a major outreach to Africa on Monday by urging youth leaders to build a "prosperous and self-reliant" future for the continent built on civil rights and the rule of law.
Speaking a week before almost all of Africa's leaders descend on Washington for a summit, Obama said the future stability of the world depends on progress on what is still the poorest continent.
"The security and prosperity and justice that we seek in the world cannot be achieved without a strong and prosperous and self-reliant Africa," Obama told 500 young Africa students and activists.
"Next week I'll host a truly historic event, the US-Africa Leaders Summit," he said. "It will be the largest gathering any American president has hosted with African heads of state and government."
Next week's meeting will attract 50 African leaders to Washington -- almost all of them, apart from pariah figures like Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, Sudan's Omar al-Bashir and Eritrea's Issaias Afeworki.
The International Monetary Fund forecasts that the economies of sub-Saharan Africa will grow at an average of 5.4 percent this year and 5.8 the next, faster than the global average.
Many countries are growing from a low base, however, and others face population growth greater than their economic progress.
The United States, still the world's largest economy, is only Africa's third largest trade partner after the European Union -- some of whose members have post-colonial ties with African nations -- and China, which is hungry for the continent's natural resources.
Obama, born in the United States to a Kenyan father and American mother, is the first US president of part African descent, but has sometimes been accused of neglecting relations with the continent.
He announced the summit in June last year during his first major tour of African countries -- South Africa, Senegal and Tunisia -- a rare foray for a president who has focused on Asia and the Middle East.
Aside from the 2013 tour, Obama has made only two trips to sub-Saharan Africa during his presidency: one brief stopover in Ghana in July 2009 and a visit to South Africa for Nelson Mandela's funeral.
- 'Extraordinary potential' -
This despite the fact that his 2008 election as America's first black president was greeted by many on the continent, and particularly in his father's native Kenya, as a great opportunity.
Asked by a member of the Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders what Africa can do, Obama stressed the importance of the "rule of law, of respect for civil rights and human rights."
Obama acknowledged that Washington was often forced to address "crises and challenges in other parts of the world that often dominate our headlines."
But he insisted that "we have to make sure that we're seizing the extraordinary potential of today's Africa, which is the youngest and fastest growing of the continents."
And he urged the young African future leaders to spurn corruption, respect women's rights -- including by ending the "barbaric" practice of female genital mutilation -- and building the rule of law.
"If you don't have a basic system of rule of law, of respect for civil rights and human rights, if you don't respect basic freedom of speech and freedom of assembly ... it is very rare for a country to succeed over the long term," he said.