JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama said on Sunday Zimbabwe's economic recovery gave the southern African country an opportunity to advance but only if upcoming elections were "free and fair."
Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe, at 89 Africa's oldest leader, is seeking to extend his three-decade rule in elections scheduled for July 31. 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.
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 favor of the U.S. dollar.
Obama said in Zimbabwe, "the promise of liberation gave way to the corruption of power and then the collapse of the economy."
Obama is visiting Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania on his African trip.
(Reporting and writing by Ed Stoddard; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)