Obama “Moonwalking” Human Rights in Africa?
The great American poet Walt Whitman said, “Either define the moment or the moment will define you.” Will the election of Uhuru Kenyatta as president of Kenya define President Barack Obama in Africa or will President Barack Obama use the election of President Kenyatta to define his human rights policy in Africa?
Following the presidential election in late December 2007 and the Kenya Electoral Commission’s hurried declaration of incumbent President Mwai Kibaki as the winner, supporters of opposition presidential candidate Raila Odinga in the Orange Democratic Movement alleged widespread electoral fraud and irregularities. For nearly two months following that election, ethnic violence and strife in Kenya raged resulting in more than 1200 deaths, 3,500 injuries, and the displacement of over 350,000 persons and destruction of over 100,000 properties.
In March 2011, Uhuru Kenyatta was indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) on various counts of crimes against humanity arising from the post-election violence. The details of the ICC charges against Kenyatta and other defendants are set forth in exhaustive detail in a 10-count indictment.Kenyatta allegedly conspired, planned, financed, and coordinated violence against the supporters of Odinga’s Orange Democratic Movement. He allegedly “controlled the Mungiki organization” and directed the commission of murders, deportations, rapes, persecutions, and other inhumane acts against civilians in the towns of Kibera, Kisumu, Naivasha, and Nakuru. Kenyatta’s trial is scheduled to start at The Hague on July 9. Kenyatta’s election running mate and vice president-elect William Ruto as well as other top Kenyan officials are part of different ICC cases. Ruto’s trial has been postponed to May 28.
Kenyatta and Ruto are presumed innocent until proven guilty. Kenyatta’s lawyer Steven Kay claimed the ICC charges were “determined on false evidence, evidence that was concealed from the defense and the facts underlying the charges have been put utterly and fully in doubt.”
U.S. efforts to ensure free and fair elections in Kenya after 2008
The U.S. was among the first nations to recognize the validity of Kenya’s 2007 presidential election. At the time, U.S. State Department Spokesman Robert McInturff announced, “The United States congratulates the winners and is calling for calm, and for Kenyans to abide by the results declared by the election commission. We support the commission’s decision.” But U.S. validation of that election was completely unwarranted since there was substantial credible evidence of rampant electoral fraud and vote rigging in favor of Kibaki and considerable doubt about the neutrality and integrity of the Kenya Electoral Commission.
Over the past two years, the U.S. has made significant investments to promote free and fair elections in Kenya and prevent a repetition of the 2007 violence. According to the U.S. State Department, “since 2010, the U.S. Government has contributed more than $35 million to support electoral reform, civic education, and elections preparation in Kenya. In addition, since 2008, we have provided more than $90 million to support constitutional reform, conflict mitigation, civil society strengthening, and youth leadership and empowerment, all of which contribute significantly to the goal of free, fair, and peaceful elections in Kenya.”
Obama’s defining moment in Africa?
The March 2013 presidential election in which Kenyatta won by a razor thin margin of 50.7 percent is not entirely free of controversy. Raila Odinga, who received about 43 percent of the votes, has rejected the outcome of the election and filed action in court alleging collusion between the Kenyatta and the electoral commission, not unlike what happened in 2007. This time around, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry offered only half-hearted congratulations and assurances to the people of Kenya and applauded the fortitude of those who counted the ballots. But his congratulatory statement belied an apparent disappointment as manifested in his omission of the names of the election victors. “On behalf of the United States of America, I want to congratulate the people of Kenya for voting peacefully on March 4 and all those elected to office… I am inspired by the overwhelming desire of Kenyans to peacefully make their voices heard… We … will continue to be a strong friend and ally of the Kenyan people.”
Prior to the election, it seemed President Obama and his top African policy man Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson were playing a bit of the old “good cop, bad cop” routine. President Obama in a special video message to the people of Kenya said that though he is proud of his Kenyan heritage “the choice of who will lead Kenya is up to the Kenyan people. The United States does not endorse any candidate for office…” He assured Kenyans that they “will continue to have a strong friend and partner in the United States of America.” But Johnnie Carson who was also a former U.S. ambassador to Kenya, was more blunt in hinting to Kenyans that their “choices have consequences”. Carson hectored Kenyans that they “should be thoughtful about those they choose to be leaders, the impact their choices would have on their country, region or global community.” Does that mean electing ICC suspects in crimes against humanity could bring about crippling sanctions?
What is good for the goose is good for the gander?
Now that Kenyatta and Ruto are elected, will the U.S. do what it did with Omar al-Bashir of the Sudan, another notorious suspect indicted by the ICC? Or will Kenyatta and his government receive special dispensation from sanctions and other penalties?
Carson argued that Kenya and the Sudan are two different situations. “I don’t want to make a comparison with Sudan in its totality because Sudan is a special case in many ways.” What makes Bashir and Sudan different, according to Carson, is the fact that Sudan is on the list of countries that support terrorism and Bashir and his co-defendants are under indictment for the genocide in Darfur. Since “none of that applies to Kenya,” according to Carson, it appears the U.S. will follow a different policy.
U.S. Secretary of State Kerry seemed to provide a more direct response in his “congratulatory” statement in explaining why Kenya will get special treatment. “Kenya has been one of America’s strongest and most enduring partners in Africa… and [the U.S] will continue to be a strong friend and ally of the Kenyan people.” That is diplomatese for “we will continue with business as usual in Kenya” come hell or high water at the ICC. Carson’s predecessor, Jendayi Frazer, cut to the chase: “Kenyatta knows that he needs the United States, and the United States knows it needs Kenya… And so I suspect that while it might be awkward, there won’t be a significant change in our policy stances toward Kenya or theirs toward us.”
A double standard of U.S. human rights policy in Africa?
It seems the U.S. has a double standard of human rights policy in Africa. One for those the U.S. does not like such as Bashir and Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, and another for those it likes like the late Meles Zenawi, Paul Kagame, Yuweri Museveni and now Uhuru Kenyatta.
Following Bashir’s ICC indictment in 2009, Ambassador Susan E. Rice, U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations, demanded his arrest and prosecution: “The people of Sudan have suffered too much for too long, and an end to their anguish will not come easily. Those who committed atrocities in Sudan, including genocide, should be brought to justice.” Just before her resignation last month, U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton urged: “Governments and individuals who either conduct or condone atrocities of any kind, as we have seen year after year in Sudan, have to be held accountable.” The U.S. has frozen the assets of individuals and businesses allegedly controlled by Mugabe’s henchmen because the “Mugabe regime rules through politically motivated violence and intimidation and has triggered the collapse of the rule of law in Zimbabwe.”
Legend has it that President Franklin D. Roosevelt once said of Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza that “Somoza may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.” Despite lofty rhetoric in support of the advancement of democracy and protection of human rights in Africa, the United States continues to subsidize and coddle African dictatorships that are as bad as or even worse than Mugabe’s. The U.S. currently provides substantial economic aid, loans, technical and security assistance to the repressive regimes in Ethiopia, Congo (DRC), Uganda, Rwanda and others. None of these countries hold free elections, allow the operation of an independent press or free expression or abide by the rule of law. All of them are corrupt to the core, keep thousands of political prisoners, use torture and ruthlessly persecute their opposition.
No case of double standard in U.S. human rights policy in Africa is more instructive than Equatorial Guinea where Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo has been in power since 1979. Teodoro Obiang is said to make Robert Mugabe “seem stable and benign”. The U.S. maintains excellent relations with Teodoro Obiang because of vast oil reserves in Equatorial Guinea. But all of the oil revenues are looted by Obiang and his cronies. In 2011, the U.S. brought legal action in federal court against Teodoro Obiang’s son Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue to seize corruptly obtained assets including a $40 million estate in Malibu, California overlooking the Pacific Ocean, a luxury plane and super-sports cars worth millions of dollars. In describing the seizure action, U.S. Assistant Attorney General Lanny A. Breuer crowed, “We are sending the message loud and clear: the United States will not be a hiding place for the ill-gotten riches of the world’s corrupt leaders.” (Ironically, U.S. law requires the U.S. to return any assets or proceeds from an asset forfeiture court action to the government from which it was stolen. In other words, the assets or proceeds from the forfeiture action against son Teodoro Nguema Obiang will eventually be returned to father Teodoro Obiang Nguema!!!)
But the U.S. has not touched any of the other African Ali Babas and their forty dozen thieving cronies who have stolen billions and stashed their cash in U.S. and other banks. For instance, Global Financial Integrity reported in 2011 reported that “Ethiopia, which has a per-capita GDP of just US$365, lost US$11.7 billion to illicit financial outflows between 2000 and 2009. In 2009, illicit money leaving the economy totaled US$3.26 billion, which is double the amount in each of the two previous years…” Is there really any one wonder who in Ethiopia has the ability to amass such wealth or “illicitly” ship it out of the country and where much of that cash is stashed? Suffice it to say that the dictators in Ethiopia, Rwanda, Uganda… may be kleptocrats, criminals against humanity, genociders, election thieves, torturers, abusers of power… , but they are OUR kleptocrats, criminals against humanity…”
Does the Obama Administration have a (African) human rights policy?
If anyone is searching for the Obama Administration’s global or African human rights policy, s/he may (or may not) find it in the recent statements of Michael Posner, the Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor of the United States. Posner said American human rights policy is based on “principled engagement”: “We are going to go to the United Nations and join the Human Rights Council and we’re going to be part of iteven though we recognize it doesn’t work… We’re going to engage with governments that are allies but we are also going to engage with governments with tough relationships and human rights are going to be part of those discussions.” Second, the U.S. will follow “a single standard for human rights, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and it applies to all including ourselves…” Third, consistent with President “Obama’s personality”, the Administration believes “change occurs from within and so a lot of the emphasis… [will be] on how we can help local actors, change agents, civil society, labor activists, religious leaders trying to change their societies from within and amplify their own voices and give them the support they need…” But does “engagement” of African dictators mean sharing a cozy bed with them so that they can suck at the teats of American taxpayers to satisfy their insatiable aid addiction?
Since 2008, the U.S. Government has spent $125 million to support electoral reform, civic education, constitutional reform, conflict mitigation, civil society strengthening, and youth leadership and empowerment for free democratic elections in Kenya. But just north of the Kenyan border in Ethiopia, how much has the U.S. invested to support electoral reform, civic education, civil society strengthening, etc., has the U.S. invested? (That is actually a trick question. Civil society institutions are illegal in Ethiopia and no electoral reform is needed where the ruling party wins elections by 99.6 percent.)
In May 2010 after Meles Zenawi’s party won 99.6 percent of the seats in parliament, the White House issued a Statement expressing “concern that international observers found that the elections fell short of international commitments”; but the statement unambiguously affirmed that “we will work diligently with Ethiopia to ensure that strengthened democratic institutions and open political dialogue become a reality for the Ethiopian people.” To paraphrase William Buckley, “I won’t insult the intelligence of the White House by suggesting that they really do believe the statement they had issued.”
“There’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain…”
There is a great moral irony in the Obama Administration’s human rights policy in Africa. The President seems to believe that he is moving the African human rights agenda forward while appearing to be backsliding metaphorically similar to Michael Jackson’s “Moonwalk” dance. My humble personal view, (with all due respect to President Obama and his office and mindful of my own full support for his election in 2008 and re-election in 2012), is that President Obama needs to straight walk his human rights talk, not “moonwalk” it. I feel he does not have the confidence in the power of American ideals that I have as a naïve academician and lawyer. He is in an extraordinary historical position in world history as a person of color to advance American ideals in convincing and creative ways. But it seems to me that he has chosen to stand his ground on expediency with little demonstrated faith in American ideals. He now finds himself on a tightrope of moral ambiguity, which impels his hand to choose expediency over consistency of ideals and principles every time he deals with African dictators. He has chosen the creed of realpolitik at a time in global history when the common man and woman stand their ground on principle and ideals of human dignity.
In the “Arab Spring”, ordinary Tunisians, Egyptians, Syrians, Yemeni’s and others who have always faced privation, oppression, corruption and destitution rose up and stood their ground on the principle of human dignity and the rights of Man and Woman. They wanted basic human dignity more than loaves of bread. It is true that one cannot eat dignity like bread nor drink it like milk. But dignity is like oxygen. It is the essence of human existence. If one cannot breathe, one can neither eat nor drink. Human beings without dignity merely exist like the beasts of the wilderness — aimless, purposeless, meaningless, desultory, fearful and permanently insecure.
It seems to me President Obama has crossed over from the strength of American ideals to the weakness of political expediency. He has chosen to overlook and thereby excuse the cruelty and inhumanity of Africa’s ruthless dictators, their bottomless corruption and their endless crimes against humanity. He says he will “engage” African dictators on human rights. Some “engagement” it is to wine, dine and lionize them as America’s trade partners and “partners on the war on terror”! But the real terror is committed by these dictators on their own people every day as they smash and trash religious liberties, steal elections, jail journalists, shutter newspapers, fill their jails with political prisoners and so on. “Engagement” of African dictators for the sake of the war on terror and oil has created a monstrous moral complacency which tolerates and justifies the ends of evil for the illusion of good.
In his first inaugural speech, President Obama served notice to the world’s dictators: “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” In July 2009, in Ghana, President Obama told Africa’s “strongmen” they are on the wrong side of history: “History offers a clear verdict: governments that respect the will of their own people are more prosperous, more stable, and more successful than governments that do not…. No person wants to live in a society where the rule of law gives way to the rule of brutality and bribery. That is not democracy, that is tyranny, and now is the time for it to end… Make no mistake: history is on the side of these brave Africans [citizens and their communities driving change], and not with those who use coups or change Constitutions to stay in power. Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions.”
Senator Obama before becoming president said: “[Reinhold Niebuhr] is one of my favorite philosophers. I take away [from his works] the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. I take away … the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard.”
Perhaps President Obama has forgotten his philosophical roots. But Niebuhr’s philosophy has special relevance in dealing with not only the evils of communist totalitarianism but also the evils of dictatorships, criminals against humanity, kleptocrats, abusers of power and genociders in Africa today. I wish to remind President Obama of his words in his first inauguration speech: “Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake.”
If I had a chance to have a word or two with President Obama, I would ask him eight naïve questions:
1) On which “side of history” are you?
2) If “Africa does not need strongmen”, why does America need them?
3) Why does America support governments that “do not respect the will of their own people” and as a direct result have made their countries failed states (not “prosperous, successful and stable ones”)?
4) Why can’t you help ordinary Africans “end tyranny” in the continent?
5) When will you stop “moonwalking” your human rights talk and actually straight walk your eloquent talk in Africa?
6) What are you prepared to do in the next four years about the “serious evil” of dictatorship, corruption and abuse of power in Africa and stop using the war on terror and oil as an excuse for “cynicism and inaction” ?
7) Do you think the people of Africa will render a “verdict” in your favor (assuming you care)?
8) When will you start living up to the “ideals that light up the world” and give up “expedience”?
Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam teaches political science at California State University, San Bernardino and is a practicing defense lawyer.
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