Alemayehu G. Mariam
Waiting for the Dawn of “Africa’s Spring” in 2012? How about an “Ethiopian Tsedey” in 2012?
In 2011, we witnessed the “Winter of Arab” discontent made glorious by an “Arab Spring” followed by an increasingly hot “Arab Summer” and deeply troubled “Arab Fall”. Bashir al-Assad continues to massacre his people by the dozens daily in plain view of Arab League “observers”. The Egyptian junta is increasingly baring its teeth and mauling protesters guarding the Egyptian Revolution, and raiding the offices of human rights organizations in that country. The U.S. and Saudi Arabia “arm-twisted” Ali Saleh in Yemen to accept a deal to give up power in “return for immunity from prosecution” (he will not face justice for any of his crimes) and “medical care” in the U.S. When tens of thousands of Yemenis expressed outrage over the deal, Saleh unleashed his Republican Guardsmen who responded with the usual deadly gunfire. Tunisia, the cradle of the “Arab Spring”, is wobbling on its feet as the Constitutional Assembly approved a new caretaker government tasked with drafting a new constitution to replace the original one that has been in place since independence in 1956. Libya’s National Transitional Council is facing the daunting task transitioning Libya from Gadhaffi’s madcap Jamahiriya system (“direct rule of the masses”) to a functioning multiparty democracy against a backdrop of entangled tribal politics.
Is an “African Spring” Looming on the 2012 Horizon?
No one predicted an “Arab Spring” last Fall, and hazarding a prediction of the arrival of “Africa’s Spring” this Winter may be like predicting the arrival of the Spring season by watching the proverbial groundhog watching his shadow. Is an “African Spring” looming on the 2012 horizon? There is a short and a long answer to this question. The short answer was provided by Albert Camus, the French philosopher and Nobel laureate, in his book “The Rebel”, over one-half century ago. “Africa’s Spring”, like the “Arab Spring”, will arrive when Africans rebel. “What is a rebel?”, asked Camus.
A man who says no… A slave who has taken orders all his life suddenly decides that he cannot obey some new command. What does he mean by saying ‘no’? He means, for example, that ‘this has been going on too long,’ ‘up to this point yes, beyond it no’, ‘you are going too far,’ or, again, ‘there is a limit beyond which you shall not go.’ But from the moment that the rebel finds his voice—even though he says nothing but ‘no’ —he begins to desire and to judge. The rebel confronts an order of things which oppresses him with the insistence on a kind of right not to be oppressed beyond the limit that he can tolerate.
In other words, “Africa’s Spring” will arrive when enough Africans wake up, stand up and say, “No! Enough is Enough!”
The Power of the Powerless is the Power to Say “No, Enough is Enough!”
Africa’s great independence struggle against colonialism was essentially a reification (realization) of the rallying cry, “No! Enough is enough!”: Enough of colonial exploitation, colonial dehumanization, colonial discrimination, colonial segregation, colonial division, colonial ethnic fragmentation, colonial polarization and colonial corruption. In his independence speech in 1957, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, the leader of the first sub-Saharan African colony to gain independence declared, “We have awakened. We will not sleep anymore. Today, from now on, there is a new African in the world!” A succession of “new Africans” followed in Guinea, Cameroon, Togo, Mali, Madagascar and 39 others countries on the continent.
If there is to be an “African Spring” in 2012, there must be “new Africans” in Africa who must awaken from the forced hibernation of dictatorship and oppression, stand up and say to the ruthless dictators, “No! Enough is enough!”. Enough of African dictators exploiting Africans, dehumanizing them, dividing and ruling them, ethnically balkanizing, polarizing and fragmenting them, and enough of robbing them — of elections, the public treasury and peace of mind (terrorizing them) — blind.
The Calculus of an “African Spring”
In his study of resistance and rebellion, MIT professor Roger D. Petersen asked: “How do ordinary people rebel against powerful and brutal regimes?” Petersen was interested in understanding “ordinary people and the roles they come to play during times of rebellion and resistance against powerful regimes.” He wanted to know how and why do individuals (not the “nation”, the “people”) decide to take a variety of risks by participating in a struggle against an oppressive regime.
Using an interdisciplinary approach, Petersen examined the threshold or decision points of an individual within the broader context of his community and socio-economic system. Petersen identified seven threshold points of individual roles in a rebellion against or in collaboration with an oppressive regime. At Zero level, the individual remains neutral and does nothing for or against the repressive regime or the uprising/ rebellion. At Plus one, the individual is engaged in relatively low risk anti-regime activities such as attending mass rallies and protests, graffiti writing, passing out or seeking out anti-regime literature and participating. At Plus two, the individual becomes involved in locally based armed resistance units or providing direct support for such a unit. At Plus three, the individual becomes part of an armed resistance group.
Conversely, individuals may also collaborate with oppressive regimes. At Minus one level, the individual is involved in low level cooperation with the repressive regime by participating in such activities as officially sponsored mass rallies and working in some capacity for the repressive regime. At Minus two level the individual could be involved in locally based armed militia units organized to protect the regime. At Minus three level, the individual participates in extreme actions such as extrajudicial killings and torture on behalf of the regime or chooses to join the regime’s armed and security forces.
Facing extreme repression, individuals undergo a dual-stage process “moving first from neutrality to acts of nonviolent resistance and then to participation in community-based rebellion organization.” Petersen concluded that “whether individuals come to act as rebels or collaborators, killers or victims, heroes or cowards during times of upheaval is largely determined by the nature of their everyday economic, social, and political life, both in the time of the upheaval and the period prior to it.”
African Dictators’ Calculus of Individual Control
African dictators are fundamentally “briefcase bandits”, as George Ayittey describes them. These dictatorships function essentially as Mafioso-type criminal syndicates and cartels and are run and operated by and for members of the dictators’ families, friends, cronies, tribal, ethnic and religious group members. Stated simply, African dictatorships are kleptocracies or thugtatorships whose principal aim is to cling to power so that they can freely plunder the public treasury and the national economy. They cling to power by disempowering individuals and denying and violating their human rights, including universally-recognized and internationally guaranteed rights of self-expression and due process of law.
The power of fear is the supreme power in the hands of African dictators. The entire society is monitored by a vast network of secret police enforcers and informants (police state) who operate completely outside of constitutional or other legal constraints. For instance, dictator Meles Zenawi assured high level American policy-makers that “We will crush them [opposition leaders] with our full force, and they will vegetate like Birtukan (Midekssa) in jail forever.” Uganda’s dictator Yoweri Museveni echoed the same message when he told a press conference: “There will be no Egyptian-like revolution here. We would just lock them up. In the most humane manner possible, bang them into jail and that would be the end of the story.” Such resolute expressions of brutalization are intended to strike fear and trepidation in the heart of every individual in society. The message is clear: Resistance by any individual is futile. All resistance will be crushed.
African dictators understand that charismatic and ideologically driven individuals and small dissident circles are often “first actors” in the streets and catalysts for uprisings and rebellions. They understand that such dissidents could lead large numbers of dissatisfied citizens cross the bridge of fear to the land of freedom. They do not want a repetition of the Bouazzi syndrome in Tunisia. When Yenesew Gebre, a young Ethiopian teacher in Southern Ethiopia burned himself to death protesting human rights violations, the dictatorship paraded his alleged family members on the airwaves to testify that Yenesew was crazy as a loon. Yenesew was only mad as hell at those who had denied him his basic human rights. Gadhaffi said the young people protesting his regime were dope fiends who were being manipulated by outside forces.
Africans dictators maintain their kingdoms of fear through a system of informants, secret police forces and security agents. They create and maintain a pervasive climate of fear and loathing in society, and use every means at their disposal to completely disempower, disenfranchise and dehumanize the individual. They penetrate every nook and cranny of society to monitor fully the activities of each individual and household. Spies and informants are planted in village-level organizations, schools, universities, civil and religious institutions, the bureaucracy and military and beyond. Dr. Negasso Gidada, former Ethiopian president and presently the leader of the Unity for Democracy and Justice Party, has documented that in his parliamentary election district “the police and security offices and personnel collect information on each household using structures called “shane” in which five households are grouped together under a leader who has the job of collecting information on them. Each household is required to report on guests and visitors, the reasons for their visits, their length of stay, what they said and did and activities they engaged in…” Robert Mugabe’s notorious Central Intelligence Organization maintains a similar system of monitoring and surveillance. The irony of it all is that African dictators who rule by fear and are feared by the people in turn fear the people who fear them.
One of the prominent Founders of the American Republic said, “This will be the best security for maintaining our liberties. A nation of well-informed men who have been taught to know and prize the rights which God has given them cannot be enslaved. It is in the religion of ignorance that tyranny begins.” Africa’s dictators understand that an ignorant population is the most fertile soil upon which they can plant themselves and flourish. Controlling a society teeming with ignorant individuals is much easier than controlling a nation of well-informed and inquisitive men and women. “Ignorance is bliss,” is the slogan of the high priests of African dictatorships. They toil to keep their subject population as ignorant as possible while providing and reserving extraordinary educational and learning opportunities for themselves and their supporters. It is a well-known fact that a young person in Ethiopia is unlikely to have access to higher education unless s/he becomes a party member and supporter of the dictatorship. Upon graduation, civil service jobs are generally off limits to non-party members. Banks will favor party members in giving out loans for business enterprises or other ventures over all others. African dictatorships aim to entrench themselves by cultivating their own enlightened elites while plunging the rest of society in a state of blissful ignorance.
On the other hand, African dictators will spare no effort to keep the population ignorant and benighted. They shutter independent newspapers and block any potential sources of critical information, including filtering of internet communication to prevent dissemination of critical information and jamming of external radio and television broadcasts. Zenawi jammed the broadcasts of the Voice of America (Amharic program), an official agency of the U.S. Government, by claiming that the VOA was advocating genocide. “Ethiopia has the second lowest Internet penetration rate in sub-Saharan Africa (only Sierra Leone’s is lower).” Equatorial Guinea’s dictator Teodoro Obiang Nguema has done exactly the same thing by banning the independent press and blocking the foreign media. Such extreme actions are taken to keep individuals in society dumb, dumbfounded, uninformed, unenlightened and ignorant.
George Ayittey’s “Law” on Defeating African Dictatorships
George Ayittey, the distinguished Ghanaian economist argues that African dictatorship says African dictators cannot be defeated through “rah-rah street demonstrations alone.” To purge Africa from the scourge of dictatorships, Ayittey says three things are required:
First, it takes a coalition to organize and coordinate the activities of the various opposition groups. It is imperative that you have a small group of people– call them an elders’ council to coordinate the activities– [composed] of eminent and respectable personalities who have no political baggage. They must be able to reach out to all the opposition groups. We formed one in Ghana called the Alliance for Change… Second, you got to know the enemy, his modus operandi, his strengths and weaknesses… You find his weaknesses and exploit it…. All dictators [operate] by seiz[ing] the civil service, media, judiciary, security forces, election commission and control the bank. They pack these institutions with their cronies and subvert them to serve their interests. For a revolution to succeed, you have to wrest control of one of more of these institutions. Third, you have to get the sequence of reform correct…
Last year, there were ten elections in Africa. The dictators won all ten… Why? Because the opposition was divided. In Ethiopia, for example, there were 92 political parties running to challenge the dictator Meles Zenawi… It shouldn’t be this way. The council should bring all of the opposition into an alliance…
Before an “African Spring”, an African Reawakening From Hibernation
The power of the powerless individual is the power to say “No. No More! No Way. No How! Enough is Enough!” As Prof. Petersen suggests, each individual has a tipping point when s/he will fight or collaborate. For Bouazizi in Tunisia and Yenesew in Ethiopia, they reached their individual tipping points and, tragically, burned themselves to death. The question for every African living under a dictatorship is not whether to remain neutral (for there can be no neutrality in the face of evil), but whether to become or not to become part of a system of oppression, brutality and injustice. The university professor makes that choice when s/he waxes eloquent justifying that dictatorship is indeed democracy. The judge makes that choice when s/he imposes a judgment directed by the political bosses. The police or security officer makes that choice when s/he is ordered to shoot innocent civilians. The soldier make that choice when s/he occupies a village in search of “rebels.” The bureaucrat makes that choice when s/he uses official power to empower the powerful and disempower the powerless. The man and woman in the street will make that choice every day in everything s/he does and thinks about.
Kwame Nkrumah was right when he declared in 1957, “We have awakened. We will not sleep anymore. Today, from now on, there is a new African in the world!” Nkrumah himself, the international symbol of African freedom and Pan-Africanism, could not bear to see an awakened Africa. In 1964, he declared himself president-for-life, banned opposition parties and jailed labor and opposition party leaders and judges. Justifying his dictatorial actions he wrote, “Even a system based on a democratic constitution may need backing up in the period following independence by emergency measures of a totalitarian kind.” The great Nkrumah was fatally infected by the terminal disease known as “absolute power”. But Nkrumah was right before he started roller skating on the wrong side of history; and like all dictators who came after him, he underestimated the will and resistance of individual citizens and their ability to unite and wrest their freedom.
All African dictators mistake decades of fear-enforced silence for surrender and resignation. Their arrogance blinds them to the palpable anger, loathing and pent-up rage of their citizens. They ignore and sneer at the immutable law of history: “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” Africa’s Spring will arrive when Africans “have awakened; [when Africans] will not sleep anymore; [when] today, from now on, there is a new African in [Africa]” who is willing to stand up and say, “No! Enough is enough!”.
Previous commentaries by the author are available at: www.huffingtonpost.com/alemayehu-g-mariam/ and http://open.salon.com/blog/almariam/
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: www.huffingtonpost.com/alemayehu-g-mariam/ and http://open.salon.com/blog/almariam/
By Alemayehu G. Mariam
Note: This is the fourth installment in a series of commentaries I intend to offer on U.S. foreign policy (or lack thereof as some would argue) in Ethiopia. In this piece, I argue that the Obama Administration’s recently announced Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative to go after corruption in Africa and elsewhere could prove to be an extraordinarily effective tool to improve human rights on the continent. By focusing on corruption, the Obama Administration could reasonably demand good governance practices of African “leaders” while maintaining cooperation on counter-terrorism and security issues.
The Africa Kleptocracy Project
In June 2008, when presidential candidate Barack Obama was a few months away from electoral victory, I warned those dictators who survive by pickpocketing the American tax payer of the arrival of a “new sheriff” in town and advised them to clean up their acts and “shape up”: “A new sheriff is coming to town. He does not carry a six-shooter but carries a law book. And he’s laying down the law for all the tin-pot dictators of the world.” In April 2009, I “read the tea leaves” again and urged Africa’s panhandling dictators to “ride out before the big roundup” because the “new sheriff and posse are in town.” I am glad to say I read the tea leaves just right.
Barack’s Posse was a little late but finally showed up in Kampala, Uganda last week to lay down the law to Africa’s top kleptocrats (thieves masquerading as “heads of state”) gathered at their annual summit. President Obama’s “undersheriffs”, Attorney General (A.G) Eric Holder and Johnnie Carson, U.S. Assistant Secretary for African Affairs, told the huddled kleptocrats that a special Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative (KARI) has been established in the U.S. Justice Department to recover the money they and their criminal cohorts have stolen from their citizens and restore it to its intended use:
I am pleased to announce 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: for the people of our nations. We’re assembling a team of prosecutors who will focus exclusively on this work and build upon efforts already underway to deter corruption… I know that prosecution is not the only effective way to curb global corruption. We will continue to work with your governments to strengthen the entire judicial sector… We must also work with business leaders to encourage, ensure and enforce sound corporate governance. We should not, and must not settle for anything less… As many here have learned — often in painful and devastating ways — corruption imperils development, stability, competition and economic investment. It also undermines the promise of democracy… Like President Obama, I believe that the 21st century will be shaped by what happens here in Africa. Your security and prosperity, the health of your people and the strength of your civil society, will have a direct and profound impact on the world’s communities and on the advancement of human rights and human progress everywhere.
A couple of months ago, A.G. Holder addressing the 35-nation Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris said:
Put simply, corruption undermines the promise of democracy. It imperils development, stability and faith in our markets. And it weakens the rule of law. Corruption erodes, even destroys, the faith of citizens in their governments. As I speak, a corrupt official somewhere is enjoying undeserved and illegal proceeds. He may be driving a brand-new luxury car. She may be filling her off-shore bank account with tainted cash. They may be traveling first-class on all-expenses-paid holidays. Bribery in international business, for example, may center on shell companies and wire transfers, but no matter where — or how — it happens, the corrosive result is the same: stymied development, lost confidence and distorted competition. The result is unfairness, not justice; the consequence is economic decay, not development.
African Kleptocrats as Organized Criminals (Mafia)
In my commentary “Africorruption, Inc.”, I argued that the business of African governments is corruption. In other words, the majority of African “leaders” seize political power to operate sophisticated criminal enterprises to loot their national treasuries and resources. President Obama’s approach to dealing with corrupt African governments is consistent with the informed view that corruption is not only the lifeblood of African dictatorships but also the most important single factor that accounts for gross violations of human rights and violent suppression of democratic institutions on the continent. Just like any organized criminal enterprise, be they street-level or Mafia-style gangsters, African kleptocrats have used threats, fear, intimidation and violence to maintain and perpetuate their corrupt financial empires. In that context, A.G. Holder’s announcement was nothing short of breathtaking. It was as though he was addressing the national convention of the “Commissione” of all the Mafia families from New York City, Chicago, Detroit, Miami, Atlantic City, Las Vegas, St. Louis, Los Angeles and Philadelphia. In Kampala, he was talking directly to the African equivalents of the Godfathers of the Bonnano, Columbo, Gambino, Genovese, and Lucchese crime families in one place. It was almost surreal.
Though A.G. Holder told the African kleptocrats that he has a posse of special corruption prosecutors saddled up, he omitted telling them what tools he would be using to bring them to justice. They can rest assured that he will be coming after them armed with the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (commonly referred to as the RICO Act or RICO; 18 U.S.C. § 1961–1968). RICO was originally enacted to prosecute the Mafia and others actively engaged in organized criminal activity. Over the years its use has been expanded to cover corporate and other crimes; and now its application is likely to be expanded even further to go after the corrupt and thieving African dictators who launder hundreds of millions of dollars every year in the U.S. buying businesses and homes and making “investments” in legitimate commercial enterprises. Section 1962 of RICO provides in part:
(a) It shall be unlawful for any person who has received any income derived, directly or indirectly, from a pattern of racketeering activity… to use or invest, directly or indirectly, any part of such income, or the proceeds of such income, in acquisition of any interest in, or the establishment or operation of, any enterprise which is engaged in, or the activities of which affect, interstate or foreign commerce. (b)… through a pattern of racketeering activity… to acquire or maintain, directly or indirectly, any interest in or control of any enterprise which is engaged in, or the activities of which affect, interstate or foreign commerce… (c) It shall be unlawful for any person employed by or associated with any enterprise engaged in, or the activities of which affect, interstate or foreign commerce, to conduct or participate, directly or indirectly, in the conduct of such enterprise’s affairs through a pattern of racketeering activity… (d) It shall be unlawful for any person to conspire to violate any of the provisions of subsection (a), (b), or (c) of this section.
Simply stated, African kleptocrats who rob their nations blind and bring their stolen loot to the U.S. to launder it will be tracked down and forced to disgorge and face jail time as well. What is potentially devastating to African kleptocrats is the fact that a RICO charge could be brought not only against them, but also their associates, business partners, investors, and any others in the U.S. or elsewhere who “directly or indirectly” facilitate their criminal enterprises. The penalties are severe: up to $25,000 and 20 years in prison per racketeering count. The racketeers must give up all of the gains from the criminal activity including the hundreds of millions tucked away in U.S. banks. RICO also allows private individuals damaged by the racketeer to file a civil suit and collect treble (three times) damages if they are successful. Proving a RICO charge in court is considered to be relatively easy as it focuses on “patterns” of behavior as opposed to criminal acts. Since conspiracy is one of the charges that could be brought in a RICO case, the kleptocrats’ underlings, accountants, business associates and partners and collaborators could be prosecuted.
Fixing Human Rights Violations by Prosecuting Kleptocrats
A.G. Holder says the Obama Administration is committed to battling corruption as “one of the great struggles of our time.” Holder’s words, if translated into concrete action could have a huge impact not only on governance in Africa but also in improving human rights protections. Corruption is fundamentally a human rights issue. As Peter Eigen, founder and chairman of Transparency International has argued, “[C]orruption 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.”
The fascinating thing about the Obama Administration’s approach is its creative use of U.S. criminal statutes to deal with African dictators as organized criminal enterprises. Simply stated, the Administration has decided to deal with African dictators as Mafia bosses! If the U.S. could effectively investigate, vigorously prosecute and aggressively seize the assets of Africa’s kleptocrats, the continent may finally begin to see significant improvements in human rights and governance, a dramatic reduction in corruption and generate significant resources from recovered assets for investment in infrastructure and other social programs for the African population.
As I have previously documented, Transparency International [TI] (the global coalition against corruption) in its 2009 Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) again bestowed upon Africa the dubious honor of being Kleptocracy Central, the continental home of the world’s most corrupt governments in the world. Leading the parade of kleptocracies are the regimes in Ethiopia, the Sudan, Zimbabwe, Equatorial Guinea, Kenya and the warlords of Somalia. These countries scored an atrocious 3.0 or less on the index. In certain countries, the corruption trend appears to be irreversible. For instance, in 2002, Ethiopia received a dismal score of 3.5 on the corruption index. In 2009, eight years after the ruling regime had established the “Federal Ethics and Anti-corruption Commission” (FEAC) with great fanfare and after periodic reports of “major accomplishments” in combating corruption, Ethiopia’s score dropped to an abysmal 2.7.
Publicly-owned assets are acquired in Ethiopia by regime-supporters or officials through illegal transactions and fraud. Banks loan millions of dollars to front enterprises owned by regime officials or their supporters without sufficient or proper collateral. Businessmen must pay huge bribes or kickbacks to participate in public contracting and procurement. Those involved in the import/export business complain of shakedowns by corrupt customs officials. The judiciary is thoroughly corrupted through political interference and manipulation as evidenced in the various high profile political prosecutions. Ethiopians on holiday visits driving about town complain of shakedowns by police thugs on the streets. Even the U.S. State Department spokesman Ian Kelley stated last year 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 prime minister’s party.”
Over the past three years, high profile corruption cases in Ethiopia have been reported in the media. In one case, it was established that “USD$16 million dollars” worth of gold bars simply walked out of the bank in broad daylight. The official “anti-corruption” agency described the heist as a “huge scandal that took place in the Country’s National Bank and took many Ethiopians by surprise [in which] corruptors dared to steal lots of pure gold bars that belonged to the Ethiopian people replacing them with gilded irons… Some employees of the Bank, business people, managers and other government employees were allegedly involved in this disastrous and disgracing scandal.” In another case involving a telecommunications deal with the Chinese, a high level regime official was secretly tape recorded trying to extort kickbacks for himself and other regime officials. The same “anti-corruption” agency reported that “there was another big corruption case at the Ethiopian Telecommunications Corporation that took many Ethiopians by surprise” which involved the “competitive tendering for the supply of telecommunication equipment.” After an investigation, FEAC “found out that nearly 200 million USD has been lost to corruption through the entire fraudulent and corrupt process.” No high level official in good standing with the regime has ever been investigated or prosecuted for corruption.
The poor and powerless bear the brunt of corruption in Africa. The devastating impact of corruption on the continent’s poor becomes self-evident as political leaders and public officials siphon off resources from critical school, hospital, road and other public works and community projects to line their pockets. As for President Obama, it seems that he has finally found the silver bullet to deal with Africa’s corrupt thugs. In a pun, no more cash and KARI for Africa’s kleptocrats.
To be continued….
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