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.
Previous commentaries by the author are available at:
Amharic translations of recent commentaries by the author may be found at:
Note: In ongoing commentaries, the author examines the Obama Administration’s policy in Africa.
Moral Hazard and Moral Bankruptcy
The concept of ‘moral hazard’ in politics may be used to explain a situation in which a government is insulated and immunized from the consequences of its risky, reckless and incompetent behavior. For instance, a regime that is heavily dependent on the safety net of foreign aid, sustained infusion of multilateral loans and perpetual supply of humanitarian assistance will behave differently if it were left to its own devices to deal with the consequences of a mismanaged economy, debilitating corruption and proliferating poverty. Many African regimes today simply avoid the demands of good governance, ignore the rule of law and commit gross violations of human rights in the belief that Western aid, particularly American taxpayer handouts, will always bail them out of their chronic budget deficits and replenish their empty grain silos. Stated simply, Western taxpayer dollars provide the fail safe insurance policy for the survival and persistence of failed regimes in Africa.
By shifting the risk of economic mismanagement, incompetence and corruption to Western donors, and because these donors impose no penalty or disincentive for poor governance, inefficiency, corruption and repression, African regimes are able to cling to power for decades abusing the human rights of their citizens and stealing elections. Western donors continue to bail out failed African states for two reasons. First, the iron fisted African dictators make excellent business partners. Recent Wikileaks cablegrams have documented that the most important objective for Western policy makers in Africa is to support a strongman who can guarantee them stability so that they can continue to do business as usual. Basically, they want a “guy they can do business with.” Second, Western donors believe that the few billions of aid dollars given every year to guarantee “stability” in African countries is more cost effective than helping to nurture a genuinely democratic societies in Africa. The moral hazard in Western policy comes not just from the fact that they provide fail-safe insurance to repressive regimes but also from the rewards of increasing amounts of aid and loans to buffer them from a tsunami of democratic popular uprising. As we have recently seen with Ben Ali in Tunisia, Hosni Mubark in Egypt and Gadahafi in Libya, supporting “strongmen” in Africa will at best produce the illusion of stability, control and permanence for the West. But turning a blind eye to gross human rights violations and complicity in the denial of democratic rights to African peoples is irrefutable evidence of moral bankruptcy.
Obama’s Foreign Policy in Africa
In 2008, when then-Senator Obama was campaigning for the presidency, his advisor on Africa, Witney W. Schneidman, laid out the candidate’s fundamental policy objectives for Africa. Schneidman argued that “Barack Obama understands Africa and its importance to the United States” and “to strengthen our common security, we must invest in our common humanity.” Unquestionably, Senator Obama was a man of little talk and lots of action. He aggressively promoted human rights and accountability throughout the continent. He co-sponsored major legislation to help end genocide in Darfur (Darfur Peace and Accountability Act of 2006), vigorously advocated for a no-fly zone in Darfur (not so in Libya today), secured funds to facilitate free and fair elections in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, helped bring Liberian warlord Charles Taylor to justice and worked to develop a coherent strategy for stabilizing Somalia.
Senator Obama was a straight-talker. In 2006, he visited Kenya and “spoke truth to power” “about the corrosive impact of corruption.” He visited Kibera, Kenya, a 2.5 square kilometer tract of urban land and the second largest slum in Africa and home to an estimated 1.2 million people. He told the proudly delirious mass of poor people, “I love all of you, my brothers — all of you, my sisters”. He embraced the wretched of Kibera: “Everybody in Kibera needs the same opportunities to go to school, to start businesses, to have enough to eat, to have decent clothes.” After the 2007 Kenya elections, Senator Obama rolled his sleeves and for “18 months worked with the Kenyan leadership to help resolve the post-election crisis in that country.” He called out Robert Mugabe for stealing elections in Zimbabwe and condemned his gross human rights violations. In South Africa, he “demanded honesty from the government about HIV/Aids.” He went into “refugee camps in Chad, where he heard first-hand about the experiences of Sudanese women who had been forced from their homes and had their families torn apart, and worse, by Khartoum’s genocidal policies.”
In America, Senator Obama made a “strong effort to reach out to first, second and third generation Africans who have become American citizens to encourage them to be part of the effort that will elect Barack Obama president of the United States.” He actively sought the support of Ethiopians. His campaign specifically called on the “10,000 Ethiopian-Americans in Virginia to help turn that state blue on November 4th.”. On November 4, 2008, Ethiopian Americans came out by the tens of thousands and helped turn Virginia blue.
When Senator Obama became President, his “Africa Agenda” revolved around three basic objectives: 1) “accelerate Africa’s integration into the global economy”, 2) “enhance the peace and security of African states” and 3) “strengthen relationships with those governments, institutions and civil society organizations committed to deepening democracy, accountability and reducing poverty in Africa.” Over the past two years, what we have seen in Africa is a whole lot of deepening repression, human rights violations and corruption in Africa. We have seen very little “accountability, democracy building, the rule of law, judicial reform” and the rest of it.
Much to our dismay, upon becoming President Mr. Obama morphed from a “confrontor” to an accommodator of Africa’s notorious human rights violators. He began preaching and issuing moral pleas to “strongmen” in an effort to redirect them from their evil ways and be nice, and not nasty, to their peoples. From day one, President Obama began soft-pedaling. In his inaugural speech, his message to those stealing elections and committing crimes on their citizens was a bit disarming: “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.” We thought promising rewards to practitioners of corruption and deceit was rather odd; but we deciphered the hidden message: If Africa’s dictators unclench their fists and became nice, American taxpayers will lay some cold hard cash on their open palms. In other words, it is possible to buy off these dictators into becoming nice guys.
In April 2009, President Obama told the Turkish Parliament that the “choices that we make in the coming years will determine whether the future will be shaped by fear or by freedom; by poverty or by prosperity; by strife or by a just, secure and lasting peace.” He told them that “freedom of religion and expression lead to a strong and vibrant civil society” and “an enduring commitment to the rule of law is the only way to achieve the security that comes from justice for all people.” In July 2009, in Ghana, President Obama went on the rhetorical offensive and told Africa’s “strongmen” that they have been driving on the wrong side of history for so long that they are headed straight for history’s dustbin. “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.” In the same month, U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, in a major speech at Georgetown University, announced that the Obama Administration’s approach to “putting our principles into action” meant demanding accountability in American global human rights policy. She warned the world that “we must be wary of the steel vise in which governments around the world are slowly crushing civil society and the human spirit.”
In December 2009, Secretary Clinton offered further enlightenment on U.S. human rights policy: “It is crucial that we clarify what we mean when we talk about democracy, because democracy means not only elections to choose leaders, but also active citizens and a free press and an independent judiciary and transparent and responsive institutions that are accountable to all citizens and protect their rights equally and fairly.” She said the “first pillar” of this policy is “accountability”, which means “governments [must] take responsibility by putting human rights into law and embedding them in government institutions; by building strong, independent courts, competent and disciplined police and law enforcement.”
In April 2010, U.S. Assistant Secretary of African Affairs Johnnie Carson speaking at the Second Annual Africa Focus at Harvard University amplified on the meaning of accountability: “A key element in Africa’s transformation is sustained commitment to democracy, rule of law, and constitutional norms…. African countries need civilian governments that deliver services to their people, independent judiciaries that respect and enforce the rule of law, professional security forces that respect human rights, strong and effective legislative institutions, a free and responsible press, and a dynamic civil society.”
In May 2010, in a keynote speech at the 35-nation Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder railed against “corruption [which] weakens the rule of law, undermines the promise of democracy, imperils development and stability and faith in our markets.” In July 2010, Holder and Johnnie Carson, announced at the African Summit in Kampala, Uganda that the U.S. is launching a special Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative to catch and prosecute corrupt foreign individuals and institutions operating in the U.S.
Egypt proved to be a test case for President Obama’s policy in Africa. In June 2009, in a speech given at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, President Obama told the young people of his
unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose…. You must maintain your power through consent, not coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise; you must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party.
In February 2011, when Egyptian students took the streets seeking to remove Mubarak after three decades of rule by state of emergency and replace it with a “government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people”, President Obama was visibly hesitant and wavering. He seemed to stand aloof and not with the young people of Egypt making history. He waffled on the issue of Mubarak’s departure from power and could only offer abstract moral exhortations against “violence” while calling for an “end to the harassment and detention” and the need to create a “process that is broadly inclusive of the Egyptian opposition.” Only after Mubarak took off for Sharm-el-Sheikh did President Obama step forward to take a stand: “For in Egypt it was the moral force of nonviolence, not terrorism, not mindless killing, but nonviolence, moral force that bent the arc of history toward justice once more.” He was effusive in his praise of Egyptian youth: “It’s [Egypt’s] young people who’ve been at the forefront. A new generation, your generation, who want their voices to be heard….America will continue to do everything that we can to support an orderly and genuine transition to democracy in Egypt.”
Backing Up Talk With Action
President Obama is a source of great pride for Africans on the continent and others scattered in the Diaspora. That pride carries with it extraordinarily high expectations for U.S. policy in Africa. His writings and speeches demonstrate that he is very knowledgeable, well-informed and passionate about Africa; and his African ties are deep, strong and genuine. His involvement with Africa dates back to his student days in the early 1980s at Occidental College in California protesting apartheid. Africans would like to seek qualitative changes in U.S. policy towards Africa.
The President’s Africa policy pivots on a strategy of “constructive engagement” of African “leaders”. One cannot clap with one hand alone. There is overwhelming evidence to show that most African leaders are only interested in clinging to power cushioned by the financial support of American taxpayers. They are not interested in engaging America on what matters most to Americans – democracy, freedom, human rights, the rule of law, accountability, transparency and the like. President Obama, on the other hand, has partners right here in the U.S. of A who are willing to engage him on issues of democracy, freedom and human rights in Africa. They are the tens of thousands of Ethiopians who helped turn Virginia blue for him; they are the multitudes of Nigerians in Ohio and Somalis in Minnesota and other Africans throughout the U.S. who opened their wallets, canvassed the precincts and stood in line for hours that cold November morning in 2008 to make Senator Obama President Obama. Democracy, freedom and human rights in Africa cannot be subordinated to the expediency of “engaging” incorrigible African leaders whose sole interest is in clinging to power to enrich themselves and their cronies. Like charity, we believe, constructive engagement should begin at home.
The weekly commentaries of the author are available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/alemayehu-g-mariam/
Alemayehu G. Mariam
Sudan’s Best and Worst of Times
It is the best of times in the Sudan. It is the worst of times in the Sudan. It is the happiest day in the Sudan. It is the saddest day in the Sudan. It is referendum for the Sudan. It is requiem for Africa.
South Sudan just finished voting in a referendum, part of a deal made in 2005 to end a civil war that dates back over one-half century. The Southern Sudan Referendum Commission (SSRC) says the final results will be announced on February 14; but no one really believes there will be one united Sudan by July 2011. By then, South Sudan will be Africa’s newest state.
In a recent speech at Khartoum University, Thabo Mbeki, former South African president and Chairperson of the African Union High-level Implementation Panel on Sudan, alluded to the causes of the current breakup of the Sudan: “As all of us know, a year ahead of your independence, in 1955, a rebellion broke out in Southern Sudan. The essential reason for the rebellion was that your compatriots in the South saw the impending independence as a threat to them, which they elected to oppose by resorting to the weapons of war.” There is a lot more to the South Sudanese “rebellion” than a delayed rendezvous with the legacy of British colonialism. In some ways it could be argued that the “imperfect” decolonization of the Sudan, which did not necessarily follow the boundaries of ethnic and linguistic group settlement, led to decades of conflict and civil wars and the current breakup.
Many of the problems leading to the referendum are also rooted in post-independence Sudanese history — irreconcilable religious differences, economic exploitation and discrimination. The central Sudanese government’s imposition of “Arabism” and “Islamism” (sharia law) on the South Sudanese and rampant discrimination against them are said to be a sustaining cause of the civil war. South Sudan is believed to hold much of the potential wealth of the Sudan including oil. Yet the majority of South Sudanese people languished in abject poverty for decades, while their northern compatriots benefitted disproportionately.
Whether the people of South Sudan will secede and form their own state is a question only they can decide. They certainly have the legal right under international law to self-determination, a principle enshrined in the U.N. Charter. Their vote will be the final word on the issue. The focus now is on what is likely to happen after South Sudan becomes independent. Those who seem to be in the know sound optimistic. Mbeki says, “Both the Government of Sudan and the SPLM have made the solemn and vitally important commitment that should the people of South Sudan vote for secession, they will work to ensure the emergence and peaceful coexistence of two viable states.” The tea leaves readers and pundits are predicting doom and gloom. They say the Sudan will be transformed into a hardline theocratic state ruled under sharia law. There will be renewed violence in Darfur, South Kurdofan and Eastern Sudan. There will be endless civil wars that will cause more deaths and destruction according to the modern day seers.
To some extent, the pessimism over Sudan’s future may have some merit. Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir’s told the New York Times recently about his post-secession plans: “We’ll change the Constitution. Shariah and Islam will be the main source for the Constitution, Islam the official religion and Arabic the official language.” Bashir’s plan goes beyond establishing a theocratic state. There will be no tolerance of diversity of any kind in Bashir’s “new Sudan”. He says, “If South Sudan secedes, we will change the Constitution, and at that time there will be no time to speak of diversity of culture and ethnicity.” Bashir’s warning is not only shocking but deeply troubling. The message undoubtedly will cause great alarm among secularists, Southern Sudanese living in the north who voted for unity and Sudanese of different faiths, viewpoints, beliefs and ideologies. In post-secession Sudan, diversity, tolerance, compromise and reconciliation will be crimes against the state. It is all eerily reminiscent of the ideas of another guy who 70 years ago talked about “organic unity” and the “common welfare of the Volk”. Sudanese opposition leaders are issuing their own ultimata. Sadiq al-Mahdi, leader of the Umma Party, issued a demand for a new constitution and elections; in the alternative, he promised to work for the overthrow of Bashir’s regime. Other opposition leaders seem to be following along the same line. There is a rocky road ahead for the Sudan, both south and north.
From Pan-Africanism to Afro-Fascism?
The outcome of the South Sudanese referendum is not in doubt, but where Africa is headed in the second decade of the 21st Century is very much in doubt. Last week, Tunisian dictator Ben Ali packed up and left after 23 years of corrupt dictatorial rule. President Obama “applauded the courage and dignity of the Tunisian people” in driving out the dictator. Ivory Coast’s Laurent Gbagbo is still holed up in Abidjan taunting U.N. peacekeepers and playing round-robin with various African leaders. Over in the Horn of Africa, Meles Zenawi is carting off businessmen and merchants to jail for allegedly price-gouging the public and economic sabotage. What in the world is happening to Africa?
When African countries cast off the yoke of colonialism, their future seemed bright and limitless. Independence leaders thought in terms of Pan-Africanism and the political and economic unification of native Africans and those of African heritage into a “global African community”. Pan-Africanism represented a return to African values and traditions in the struggle against neo-colonialism, imperialism, racism and the rest of it. Its core value was the unity of all African peoples.
The founding fathers of post-independence Africa all believed in the dream of African unity. Ethiopia’s H.I.M. Haile Selassie, Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta, Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere, Guinea’s Ahmed Sékou Touré, Zambia’s Kenneth Kaunda and Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser were all declared Pan-Africanists. On the occasion of the establishment of the permanent headquarters of the Organization for African Unity (OAU) in Addis Ababa on May 25, 1963, H.I.M. Haile Selassie made the most compelling case for African unity:
We look to the vision of an Africa not merely free but united. In facing this new challenge, we can take comfort and encouragement from the lessons of the past. We know that there are differences among us. Africans enjoy different cultures, distinctive values, special attributes. But we also know that unity can be and has been attained among men of the most disparate origins, that differences of race, of religion, of culture, of tradition, are no insuperable obstacle to the coming together of peoples. History teaches us that unity is strength, and cautions us to submerge and overcome our differences in the quest for common goals, to strive, with all our combined strength, for the path to true African brotherhood and unity…. Our efforts as free men must be to establish new relationships, devoid of any resentment and hostility, restored to our belief and faith in ourselves as individuals, dealing on a basis of equality with other equally free peoples.
Pan-Africanism is dead. A new ideology today is sweeping over Africa. Africa’s home grown dictators are furiously beating the drums of “tribal nationalism” all over the continent to cling to power. In many parts of Africa today ideologies of “ethnic identity”, “ethnic purity,” “ethnic homelands”, ethnic cleansing and tribal chauvinism have become fashionable. In Ivory Coast, an ideological war has been waged over ‘Ivoirité (‘Ivorian-ness’) since the 1990s. Proponents of this perverted ideology argue that the country’s problems are rooted in the contamination of genuine Ivorian identity by outsiders who have been allowed to freely immigrate into the country. Immigrants, even those who have been there for generations, and refugees from the neighboring countries including Burkina Faso, Mali, Guinea and Liberia are singled out and blamed for the country’s problems and persecuted. Professor Gbagbo even tried to tar and feather the winner of the recent election Alassane Ouattara (whose father is allegedly Burkinabe) as a not having true Ivorian identity. Gbagbo has used religion to divide Ivorians regionally into north and south.
In Ethiopia, tribal politics has been repackaged in a fancy wrapper called “ethnic federalism.” Zenawi has segregated the Ethiopian people by ethno-tribal classification like cattle in grotesque regional political units called “kilils” (reservations) or glorified apartheid-style Bantustans or tribal homelands. This sinister perversion of the concept of federalism has enabled a few cunning dictators to oppress, divide and rule some 80 million people for nearly two decades. South of the border in Kenya, in the aftermath of the 2007 elections, over 600 thousand Kenyans were displaced as a result of ethnic motivated hatred and violence. Over 1,500 were massacred. Kenya continues to arrest and detain untold numbers of Ethiopian refugees that have fled the dictatorship of Meles Zenawi. What more can be said about Rwanda that has not already been said.
It is not only the worst-governed African countries that are having problems with “Africanity”. South Africa has been skating on the slippery slope of xenophobia. Immigrants from Mozambique, Malawi, Zimbabwe and Ethiopia have been attacked by mobs. According to a study by the Southern African Migration Project (SAMP): “The ANC government – in its attempts to overcome the divides of the past and build new forms of social cohesion… embarked on an aggressive and inclusive nation-building project. One unanticipated by-product of this project has been a growth in intolerance towards outsiders… Violence against foreign citizens and African refugees has become increasingly common and communities are divided by hostility and suspicion.” Among the member countries of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), South Africans expressed the harshest and most punitive anti-foreigner sentiments in the study. How ironic for a country that was under apartheid less than two decades ago.
Whether it is the “kilil” ideology practiced in Ethiopia or the “Ivorite” of Ivory Coast, the central aim of these weird ideologies is to enable power hungry and bloodthirsty African dictators to cling to power by dividing Africans along ethnic, linguistic, tribal, racial and religious lines. Fellow Africans are foreigners to be arrested, jailed, displaced, deported and blamed for whatever goes wrong under the watch of the dictators. The old Pan-African ideas of common African history, suffering, struggle, heritage and legacy are gone. There is no unifying sense African brotherhood or sisterhood. Africa’s contemporary leaders, or more appropriately, hyenas in designer suits and uniforms, have made Africans strangers to each other and rendered Africa a “dog-eat-dog” continent.
In 2009, in Accra, Ghana, President Obama blasted identity politics as a canker in the African body politics:
We all have many identities – of tribe and ethnicity; of religion and nationality. But defining oneself in opposition to someone who belongs to a different tribe, or who worships a different prophet, has no place in the 21st century…. In my father’s life, it was partly tribalism and patronage in an independent Kenya that for a long stretch derailed his career, and we know that this kind of corruption is a daily fact of life for far too many.
For what little it is worth, for the last few years I have preached from my cyber soapbox against those in Africa who have used the politics of ethnicity to cling to power. I firmly believe that our humanity is more important than our ethnicity, nationality, sovereignty or even Africanity! As an unreformed Pan-Africanist, I also believe that Africans are not prisoners to be kept behind tribal walls, ethnic enclaves, Ivorite, kilils, Bantustans, apartheid or whatever divisive and repressive ideology is manufactured by dictators, but free men and women who are captains of their destines in one un-walled Africa that belongs to all equally. “Tear down the walls of tribalism and ethnicity in Africa,” I say.
It is necessary to come up with a counter-ideology to withstand the rising tide of Afro-Fascism. Perhaps we can learn from Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s ideas of “Ubuntu”, the essence of being human. Tutu explained: “A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.” I believe “Ubuntu” provides a sound philosophical basis for the development of a human rights culture for the African continent based on a common African belief of “belonging to a greater whole.” To this end, Tutu taught, “Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.” More specifically, Africa.
“Afri-Cans” and “Afri-Cannots”
As for South Sudan, the future holds many dangers and opportunities. Africans have fought their way out of colonialism and become independent. Some have seceded from the post-independence states, but it is questionable if they have succeeded. How many African countries are better off today than they were prior to independence? Before secession? As the old saying goes: “Be careful what you wish for. You may receive it.” We wish the people of South and North Sudan a future of hope, peace, prosperity and reconciliation.
I am no longer sure if Afri-Cans are able to “unite for the benefit of their people”, as Bob Marley pleaded. But I am sure that Afri-Cannot continue to have tribal wars, ethnic domination, corruption, inflation and repression as Fela Kuti warned, and expect to be viable in the second decade of the Twenty-First Century. In 1963, H.I.M. Haile Selassie reminded his colleagues:
Today, Africa has emerged from this dark passage [of colonialism]. Our Armageddon is past. Africa has been reborn as a free continent and Africans have been reborn as free men…. Those men who refused to accept the judgment passed upon them by the colonisers, who held unswervingly through the darkest hours to a vision of an Africa emancipated from political, economic, and spiritual domination, will be remembered and revered wherever Africans meet…. Their deeds are written in history.
It is said that those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it. I am afraid Africa’s Armageddon is yet to come. Africa has been re-enslaved by home grown dictators, and Africans have become prisoners of thugs, criminals, gangsters, fugitives and outlaws who have seized and cling to power like parasitic ticks on a milk cow. Cry for the beloved continent!