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U.S. Africa Policy: Empty Words, Emptier Promises

Alemayehu G. Mariam

(This is the second installment in a series of commentaries I pledged to offer on U.S. policy in Africa under the heading “The Moral Hazard of U.S. Policy in Africa”. In Part I,  I argued that democracy and human rights in Africa cannot be subordinated to the expediency of “engaging” incorrigible African dictators whose sole interest is in clinging to power to enrich themselves and their cronies.)

African Status Quo Broken

When U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton made a brief stop at the African Union summit meeting in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia a couple of weeks ago, she was talking my language: human rights, democracy, rule of law, accountability, transparency and the rest of it. She announced to the coterie of African dictators that the “status quo had broken” and she had come to talk to them about how they can regain democracy, achieve economic growth, and maintain peace and security.

Clinton said democracy in Africa is undergoing trial by fire despite a few successes in places like “Botswana, Ghana, and Tanzania.” She told the swarm of jackbooted African dictators that their people are gasping for democracy: “[W]e do know that too many people in Africa still live under longstanding rulers, men who care too much about the longevity of their reign, and too little about the legacy that should be built for their country’s future. Some even claim to believe in democracy – democracy defined as one election, one time.” She said Africa’s youth are sending a “message that is clear to us all: The status quo is broken; the old ways of governing are no longer acceptable; it is time for leaders to lead with accountability, treat their people with dignity, respect their rights, and deliver economic opportunity. And if they will not, then it is time for them to go.” The alternative for Africa’s “long standing rulers who hold on to power at all costs, who suppress dissent, who enrich themselves and their supporters at the expense of their own people” is to face the types of “changes that have recently swept through North Africa and the Middle East. After years of living under dictatorships, people have demanded new leadership; in places where their voices have long been silenced, they are exercising their right to speak, often at the top of their lungs.”

U.S. Sounding Like a Broken Record

For some time now, President Obama, Secretary Clinton and other top U.S. officials have been doing the same song and dance about dictatorship and poor governance in Africa.  In July 2009 in Ghana, President Obama declared, “Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions.” Today Secretary Clinton says: “Good governance requires free, fair, and transparent elections, a free media, independent judiciaries, and the protection of minorities.”

Two years ago, President Obama lectured African dictators: “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.” Today Secretary Clinton sarcastically notes, “Too many people in Africa still live under longstanding rulers… [who] believe in democracy – democracy defined as one election, one time.”

Two years ago, President Obama berated African 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.” Today Secretary Clinton warns the same dictators, “If you do not desire to help your own people work and live with dignity, you are on the wrong side of history.”

Two years ago, President Obama threatened African dictators: “I have directed my administration to give greater attention to corruption… People everywhere should have the right to start a business or get an education without paying a bribe. We have a responsibility to support those who act responsibly and to isolate those who don’t, and that is exactly what America will do.”  Today Secretary Clinton pleads with the same dictators: “We are making [corruption] a priority in our diplomatic engagement, and we look to our partners to take concrete actions to stop corruption.”

Last year, President Obama told a delegation of African youths: “Africa’s future belongs to its young people… We’re going to keep helping empower African youth, supporting education, increasing educational exchanges… and strengthen grassroots networks of young people…” Today Secretary Clinton laments, “A tiny [African] elite prospers while most of the population struggles, especially young people…”

When it comes to Africa, the Obama Administration is increasingly sounding like a broken record.

Empty Words and Emptier Promises

The U.S. has been talking a good talk in Africa for the last two years, but has not been walk the walk; better yet, walking the talk. Following the May 2010 “elections” in Ethiopia in which dictator Meles Zenawi claimed a 99.6 percent victory, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State P.J. Crowley said, “We value the cooperation that we have with the Ethiopian government on a range of issues including regional security, including climate change. But we will make clear that there are steps that it needs to take to improve democratic institutions.” The U.S. “clearly” took no action as Ethiopia has become a veritable police state behind a veneer of elections.

Following the rigged elections in Uganda in February 2011, Crowley said, “Democracy requires commitment at all levels of government and society to the rule of law, freedom of speech and assembly, independent media, and active civil society.” The U.S. promptly congratulated Yoweri Museveni on his election victory and conveniently forgot about the rule of law and all that stuff.

Following the elections in Cote d’Ivoire last November and Laurent Gbagbo’s refusal to step down (calling it a “mockery of democracy”) Crowley said, “The U.S. is prepared to impose targeted sanctions on Ivory Coast’s incumbent President  Gbagbo, his immediate family and his inner circle, should he continue to illegitimately cling to power.” The U.S. imposed a travel ban, but that did not matter much since Gbagbo had no intention of leaving the Ivory Coast. Months later he was collared and dragged out of his palace like a street criminal.

In July 2009, the White House in a press statement said, “The United States is concerned about the recent actions of Niger’s President Mamadou Tandja to rule by ordinance and decree and to dissolve the National Assembly and the Constitutional Court as part of a bid to retain power beyond his constitutionally-limited mandate.” The U.S. took no action against Tandja, but Niger’s military did.

A couple of weeks ago, Ali Bongo Ondimba of Gabon visited the U.S. and received a warm reception at the White House which put out a press statement applauding the “the important partnership between the United States and Gabon on a range of critical regional and global issues.” Ali is the son of the notorious Omar Bongo who ruled Gabon with an iron fist for 42 years before his death in 2009.

Not long ago, Crowley called Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea a “dictator with a disastrous record on human rights.” Nguema’s son, Teodorin frequently travels to his $35 million-dollar mansion in Malibu, California flying in his $33 million jetliner and tools around town in a fleet of luxury cars. He earned a salary of $6,799 a month as agriculture minister. Forbes estimates his net worth at $600 million.

America Should Stop Subsidizing African Kleptocracies

The U.S. should stop subsidizing African kleptocratic thugtatorships through its aid policy and hit the panhandling thieves in the pocketbook.  In one of my weekly commentaries in November 2009 (“Africorruption, Inc.”), I argued that the business of African governments is corruption. Most African “leaders” seize political power to operate sophisticated criminal enterprises to loot their national treasuries and resources.   As Geroge Ayittey, the distinguished Ghanaian economist and arguably one of the “top 100 public intellectuals worldwide who are shaping the tenor of our time” recently noted, Africa’s “briefcase bandits” run full-fledged criminal enterprises. Sani Abacha of Nigeria amassed $5 billion, and the Swiss Supreme Court in 2005 declared the Abacha family a “criminal enterprise”. Omar al-Bashir of the Sudan has stashed away $7 billion while Hosni Mubarak is reputed to have piled a fortune of $40 billion. In comparison, Ayittey says, “The net worth of 43 U.S. presidents from Washington to Obama amounts to a measly $2.5 billion.”

Foreign aid is known as the perfect breeding ground for corruption in Africa.According to the Brussels Journal (“Voice of Conservatism in Europe”), “Most serious analysts of the failures of development aid [in Africa], including a number of government commissions, not only identified corruption in recipient governments as a reason the aid programs failed but, in fact, found the projects actually fueled additional corruption and increased the plight of the people.” Africa’s thugtators not only siphon off foreign aid targeted for critical school, hospital, road and other public works and community projects to line their pockets, they also use the aid they receive to fortify their regimes and suppress the democratic aspiration of the people. In its October 2010 report on Ethiopia, Human Rights Watch reported:

Foreign aid has become one of the government’s most effective tools in suppressing and punishing criticism. Human Rights Watch’s research found that local officials often deny assistance to people they perceive as political opponents – including many who are not actually involved in politics at all. Impoverished farmers know they risk losing access to aid which their livelihoods depend on if they speak out against abuses in their communities. Most respond by staying quiet; aid discrimination has made freedom of speech a luxury many Ethiopians quite literally cannot afford.

Simply stated, an endless supply of the hard earned cash of American Joe and Jane Taxpayer is making it possible for African thugtators to cling to power and crush the legitimate aspirations of African peoples. The thugtators know that as long as billions of American taxpayer dollars (free money) keep flowing into their pockets, they do not have to do a darn thing to improve governance, respect human rights or institute accountability and transparency.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder told a gathering of African dictators in Uganda in 2010 that “the U.S. Department of Justice is launching a new Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative aimed at combating large-scale foreign official corruption and recovering public funds for their intended and proper use.” More power to Holder. It is great to grab the corrupt and thieving African dictators and their cronies in the U.S. as they launder hundreds of millions of dollars every year buying businesses and homes and making “investments”. But it is more important to hold them accountable for the billions of aid dollars they receive from U.S. every year.

If the Obama administration is committed to battling corruption as ‘one of the great struggles of our time’, as it has so often declared, it needs to undertake a thorough and complete investigation of aid money given to African dictators. In November 2009, U.S. State Department spokesman Ian Kelley stated that the U.S. is investigating allegations that “$850 million in food and anti-poverty aid from the U.S. is being distributed on the basis of political favoritism by the current [Ethiopian] prime minister’s party.” There exists no official report in the public domain today concerning the outcome of that investigation. (If any such report exists, we are prepared to scrutinize it.) In the absence of evidence to the contrary, one must logically assume that no one for sure knows what happened to the USD$850 million handed over to Zenawi. Since the State Department does not seem to be up to the job of investigating aid-related corruption allegations in Ethiopia, it is appropriate for the General Accounting Office (the independent nonpartisan Congressional watchdog) to undertake a full investigation of the Human Rights Watch allegations.

When the U.S. hands out billions of dollars of free money to countries like Ethiopia without any meaningful accountability and discernable performance requirements, the effect on governance and observance of human rights is disastrous as evidenced in the fact that Zenawi used American aid money to suppress dissent and steal elections in 2010. In Ethiopia, where aid constitutes more than 90% of the government budget, establishing the scope of corruption in aid is absolutely necessary. Such accountability could have a huge impact not only on improving governance in Ethiopia but also in all other U.S. aid recipient countries on the continent.

Corruption is fundamentally a human rights issue. As Peter Eigen, founder and chairman of Transparency International has argued:

Corruption leads to a violation of human rights in at least three respects: corruption perpetuates discrimination, corruption prevents the full realisation of economic, social, and cultural rights, and corruption leads to the infringement of numerous civil and political rights. Beyond that, corruption undermines the very essence of the rule of law and destroys citizens’ trust in political leaders, public officials and political institutions.”

By turning a blind eye to endemic aid-related corruption, the U.S. is unintentionally promoting disregard for human rights protections and undermining the growth of democratic institutions and institutionalization of the rule of law and good governance in Ethiopia and the rest of Africa. When foreign aid provides 90 percent of the regime’s budget in Ethiopia, is it any wonder that Zenawi’s regime “won” the May 2010 “elections” by 99.6 percent?

As the old saying goes, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” I regret to say that aid given to Africa with the best of intentions in the name of the most generous people in the history of the world has made the continent a heaven for bloodthirsty dictators and hell for the vast majority of poor Africans. I wonder if the American people would tolerate and approve of the the crimes that are being committed in Africa using their hard earned dollars year after year if we took it upon ourselves to educate them!

Previous commentaries by the author are available at: and



11 thoughts on “U.S. Africa Policy: Empty Words, Emptier Promises

  1. Better we Ethiopians do our homework first. We should not expect US to lead change in Africa. It can only provide support when we are ready to ignite and manage change. We must be able to present ourselves as a viable alternative first; instead of being critical of what others, to whom Ethiopians’ interest is secondary, are doing’. How can US align itself with a fragmented opposition group who are not able to create a common ground to work together? I think, when seen in the US eyes Ethiopian opposition groups are difficult to work with. They are not able to exercise democratic values in managing their differences.

  2. Yes, brother president Barrack Obama and Sister foreign Minister Hilary Clinton may sound like broken tape recorders simply because they are in positions of duties from where they are forced to sound like a broken tape recorder but yet disseminating very important symbolic messages even within that new broken record communication phenomena.

    On the other hand I must also admit the fact that we are also acting and repeating ourselves just like broken tape recorders and often thinking within the box without connecting theory with practical activities and application on the ground as to make a difference and produce change from the previous conditions. While it is perfectly okay to be aware of others (US policy) we also need to be aware of ourselves and our actions.

    Self awareness and other awareness will surely bring about most of the necessary changes we are talking about.

    The Tunisians, the Egyptians, the Yemenis, the Syrians, etc. did not go to ask permission from the good brother and the good sister as tradition demands but independently took their nature given rights in to their own hands, placing tyrants in jails and against the stone walls while regaining their humanities and dignities by their own sustained efforts. Only after the dramatic fact, both brother president and sister foreign minister joined the party of the winners and the winning future which in itself is really okay.

    Here I only mean that primarily we Ethiopians need to use our huge existing dormant potential engines of change both theoretically and practically on the ground while seeking outside support as complementary inputs.

    Even the great GOD helps those who are dedicated and willing to help themselves! The age of the free manna dropping from the heavens above is long over. As far as the generous mother nature is concerned, it has given us a beautiful strategic tropical land area with abundant human and natural resource variations and diversities leaving us to do all the positive wonders in the world. Correcting wrongs and doing the right and the common good is our natural duty! :)

  3. #4 Minnesota,

    If you are even a nominally self respecting creature you would follow your own home grown and home made policy just like the Tunisians, Egyptians and the rest rather than endless dependency and helplessly waiting for the free Manna from the heavens above to keep freely dropping in to your lazy sloth open mouth.

    Ethiopia with its abundant human and natural resources possess huge amounts of untapped and dormant capacities even to dramatically change the entire face of the Horn of Africa as a whole not only that of Ethiopia and the 90 million Ethiopians alone. Why do you think that all types of wealth sniffing mafia fortune hunters and land grabbers are flocking to Ethiopia day and night?

    Ethiopia’s single most problem is its unfortunate fate of being dictated by a ruthless minority impoverishing medieval style tyrants and its bad corrupt governance. What Ethiopians need is to rise up from the ashes and bring about a democratic egalitarian representative good government and good governance that provides modern day welfare, broad based well-beings and justice for all, regardless of religion, region, ethnicity, gender, inter-generational gaps, educational levels, etc. Araat Nettib. :)

  4. Just look at the diparities in the US foreign policies (words and actions) in two countries: LIBYA and SYRIA, full of mysterious contradictions,shames, silences and quandaries. When it comes to justice, it should have been the White House which must be questioned under the International Criminal Court. Because, as the writer points out, American free money is the real cause of human tragedies in this countries!!

  5. I would like to reiterate over and over again. Until we are up and strong we can not speak about other African nations as each nations have different relationships with Western world. In fact, we will be shutting down our opportunity to transform Ethiopia if we entangle ourselves with other nations. Let us clean our own house and yard first before speaking for other African nations as African nations such as Ghana are even stronger than Ethiopia. Focus on Ethiopia’s issue. When we talk about on behaf of other nations it means, what we are telling the West is that Ethiopia is not only entrenched with her own problem, she is also involved in other nations issues. We cannot be leaders of other nations when we ourselves are incapapble of being a leader within our Ethiopian community. Besides, unless the West is responsible Weyane in helping arms and intelligence against the Ethiopian people which we can criticize them about, again, it is our own self sacrifice that is required like Tunisia and Egypt did. If we are not capable of doing that, it is against Western policy to get involved unless your nation has resources period. So let us not be broken record begging the West to do something about it. They won’t in fact, they have already declared they don’t care about the people but they care the Rennaisance leders, Meles and Issayas, that should be a message to you. Besides, when have you heard the West being consistent on its rhetoric and actions when it comes to developing nations? It should be evidence for you to ignore such rhetoric and focus on what we Ethiopians can do.


    You have surpassed the oppression of Ethiopian people compared to what Haile Selassie and Mengistu did. Really? Which leader of a nation have you not heard fighting rebels that threaten the nation go after attack, still goes on Turkey against Kurds, India against small factions around its borders such as Kashmere, etc, etc. Any leader is to be commended when rebels threaten nations, fortuantely for you, you have won that is why you are talking the way you talk. Your narrow mind says it all, Ethiopians are to be blamed for the past leaders therefore, you will continue to oppress 80million people because of Selassie and Mengistu, do you think you will survive and for how long? We also know you are following the footstep of Rwanda, that the Tutsis still manage to oppress the majority Hutus and you think that is the best model. Continue drumming the ethnic issue and you are ready to justify if anything happens to you because you are ready to kill for oppressing and racism against Ethiopan people, like Gadaffi, you will awaity crimes against humanity that is all I have to say.

    Long live to All Ethiopian people and down with TPLF/Shaebia

  6. Let me first say that Professor Alemayehu is the one consistent voice that has been on these forums to expose the weyane regime of Legese zenawi.And I salute you for your determination, insistence in the fight against tyranny.Neverthless, though the general theme of your discourse supports the notion that the U.S administration more often has been preaching democracy, freedom, rule of law in Africa only in words while at the same time arming and sustaining the very tyrants that are responsible for terrorizing their citizens, has some validity, it is one side of the story. We are always in greater need to have the balance of truth in any discourse. In this case there are two sides to the story. We cannot stress one side of the fact, and neglect the other side of the truth; such assessment will be counterproductive, and misleading.

    In your piece you have stressed how the U.S policy has failed to deliver what it promises. Professor, you know very well the U.S does not have a reckless policy to invade, and remove any regime because that state is dictatorial. There is always a ground for U.S involvement against a foreign state. One of those commonly occurring conditions is the availability of vibrant political party opposed to the regime. Unfortunately, more than anything else the Ethiopian people’s struggle for democracy and freedom has been indefinitely postponed, primarily, not because the failure of the U.S to stop supporting the Legese regime as you asserted, but because of the immature and infantile character of some Ethiopian opposition LEADERS, and the sectarian nature of the movement they are leading.Now,in your view, in the absence of such a unified opposition to the regime what do you really expect the U.S to have done to the Ethiopian people. Bear in mind, the idea that the any form of government is preferable that a nation without a government to deal with has some form of logic behind it.
    More than anything else the Ethiopian opposition is at a cross road, and is in need of mastering the art of working, cooperating and and reaching shared goal of solving the country’s pressing problems.
    No matter how one looks at it, it seems to me an infantile, and selfish behavior for any leader to leave one political party go to found of his own. I believe ,may be for political correctness, you deliberately avoided this painful situation and attempt to blame the U.S administration for a fault what is rightly ours.Professor,we need to be able to tell the truth at all-time even it hurts. If we advocate in principle the interest of Ethiopia as primal core value, then we need to hold accountable those leaders who for one way or another fail to deliver a leadership caliber. The Ethiopian people care less about the stature or ambition different Ethiopian personnel; what they care the most is to be free from yolk of tyranny.
    Professor, if you want to be consistent, you owe it to yourself, address this aspect of the problem in one of your piece. The Ethiopian people as far back demand the leaders of different organizations to form a unified core. That is our people want UDJ, EPRP, MEDIHIN, G-7 to form single core, and be able to reach a consensus with other political organizations to form solidarity against the regime. If we do our part, the U.S will without any doubt will prefer to work along with strong opposition.

  7. Like everyone else who stands for human justice and fairness, it’s really painful to watch the live video(all credits to ER staffs & other media outlets)regarding the genoicidal situations in Ogaden. Before, woyane used to acuse derg of such same crimes and now the crel history is repeating itself. Oh! King Of The Pop, your voice of reason “we are the children. we are the world” is dearly missed again! In fact, that’s precisely why this kind of shoking and horrific scene worried us Eritreans most; the dreaded prospect of Eritrea becoming another sorry land of bloody warlords and suffering, failed state. Anyway, thanks for the excellent piece prof, Al. PEACE&LOVE!

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