Flight of the Eagle and pursuit of the Dragon
In June 2011, during her visit to Zambia U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton pulled the alarm bell on a creeping “new colonialism” in Africa. While dismissing “China’s Model” of authoritarian state capitalism as a governance model for Africa, she took a swipe at China for its unprincipled opportunism in Africa. “In the long-run, medium-run, even short-run, no I don’t [think China is a good model of governance in Africa]…We saw that during colonial times, it is easy to come in, take out natural resources, pay off leaders and leave, …And when you leave, you don’t leave much behind for the people who are there. We don’t want to see a new colonialism in Africa…”
It seems the Eagle has finally taken a good look at the sidewinding Dragon eating its lunch in Africa. The U.S. is in stiff competition not only in Africa but also in the “world’s least explored” country. Clinton minced no words in telling the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, “We are in a competition for influence with China; let’s put aside the moral, humanitarian, do-good side of what we believe in, and let’s just talk straight realpolitik… Take Papua New Guinea: huge energy find … ExxonMobil is producing it. China is in there every day in every way, trying to figure out how it’s going to come in behind us, come under us.”
For the past decade, the U.S. has been nonchalant and complacent about China’s “invasion” and lightning-fast penetration of Africa. It was a complacency born of a combination of underestimation, miscalculation, hubris and dismissive thinking that often comes with being a superpower. But the U.S. is finally reading the memo.
Meanwhile, China is zooming along the African highway of “opportunism” with steely resolve and an iron fist sheathed in velvet gloves lined with loans, aid and expensive gifts. In July 2012, Chinese President Hu Jintao at the Opening Ceremony of the Fifth Ministerial Conference of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation proudly proclaimed his country’s economic prowess in Africa. “China’s trade with and investment in Africa have been expanding. In 2011, our two-way trade reached 166.3 billion U.S. dollars, three times the figure in 2006. Cumulative Chinese direct investment in Africa has exceeded 15 billion U.S. dollars, with investment projects covering 50 countries.” He added, “China and Africa have set up 29 Confucius Institutes or Classrooms in 22 African countries. Twenty pairs of leading Chinese and African universities have entered into cooperation under the 20+20 Cooperation Plan for Chinese and African Institutions of Higher Education.”
In 1980, China’s total economic investment in Africa hovered around $USD1 billion; and 20 years later rose only to $USD10 billion. In 2010, China and Ghana signed infrastructure-related loans, credits and made other arrangements valued at about $15 billion. In 2009, China signed a $6 billion loan agreement with the Democratic Republic of the Congo for infrastructure projects. In 2010, Chinese banks extended nearly $9 billion in loans and other types of financing to Angola for various projects. The Angolan government in turn used its oil credit line to commission the State-owned China International Trust and Investment Corporation to build a ghost town outside of the capital at a cost of $USD3.5 billion. (To see the video of the Angolan ghost town click here.) In 2011, Chinese firms accounted for 40% of the corporate contracts in Africa compared to only 2 percent for U.S. firms. According to a report issued by the South African Institute of International Affairs, between 2003-2009, there were between 583,050–820,050 Chinese living, working and doing business in 43 African countries. Today China is Africa’s largest trading partner as the U.S. recedes fast in the rear view mirror.
If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, is it a duck?
China’s official policy statement on its trade and aid relationship with Africa derives from the first of the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence. China “respects African countries’ choice in political system and development path suited to their own national conditions, does not interfere in internal affairs of African countries, and supports them in their just struggles for safeguarding their independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity.” China rejects accusations of neocolonial ambitions in Africa. President Hu Jintao explained that Africa and China are building a “new type of China-Africa strategic partnership… China and Africa have deepened practical economic cooperation featuring mutual benefit.”
But many critics are quick to point out that China’s assertion of a “strategic partnership” cleverly camouflages its calculated strategic ambition to suck out African natural resources on a long-term basis, cultivate African markets as dumping grounds for its cheap manufactured goods and gradually impose its hegemony over the continent. The policy of “noninterference” is said to be an elaborate and shameless ploy used by China to pacify and anesthetize witless African dictators and secure lucrative long-term contracts for raw materials.
Kwame Nkrumah coined the term “neo-colonialism”, the eponymous title to his book, to describe the socio-economic and political control exercised by the old colonial countries and others to perpetuate their economic dominance in the former colonies through their multinational corporations and other cultural institutions. He wrote, “Neo-colonialism is also the worst form of imperialism. For those who practise it, it means power without responsibility and for those who suffer from it, it means exploitation without redress. In the days of old-fashioned colonialism, the imperial power had at least to explain and justify at home the actions it was taking abroad. In the colony those who served the ruling imperial power could at least look to its protection against any violent move by their opponents. With neo-colonialism neither is the case...”
Is there Chinese “neocolonialism” in Africa? Is China exercising “power without responsibility” in Africa “causing exploitation without redress” for Africans?
China is in Africa in full force with traders, investors, lenders, builders, developers, laborers and others. But gnawing questions linger. For instance, is China’s “gift” of the $USD200 million African Union (AU) building in Addis Ababa in 2011 a public demonstration of its good faith, good will and good works in Africa or a subtle hint of its neocolonial ambitions and hegemonic designs? Is China’s aid for the construction of roads, rail lines, bridges, dams and other public works projects evidence of an altruistic commitment to improve communication and commerce within Africa or a calculated strategy to further facilitate China’s deep penetration into the African hinterlands for raw materials (not unlike the European colonialists who built rail lines and ports to export Africa’s mineral wealth)? Is China fully supporting corrupt-to-the-core African dictators because it does not want to “interfere” in local politics or is “noninterference” its way of maintaining a chokehold on African dictators to protect its long-term interests in Africa? Does China want to do business in Africa in the short term and control its destiny in the long term?
In my column, “The Dragon’s Dance with Hyenas”, I suggested that Africa’s dictators could not be more happy with their “new strategic partnership” with China. They claim that China is not only a good friend but also the great rescuer of Africa from the ravenous and crushing jaws of neocolonialists, imperialists, neoliberals and other such nasty creatures. AU president in 2011, Teodoro Obiang Nguema, the ruthless and corrupt dictator of Equatorial Guinea since 1979, even saw “a reflection of the new Africa, and the future we want for Africa” in the Chinese-built 20-story AU glass tower. The late Meles Zenawi saw China leading Africa on a long march out of the winter of despair and desperation in to the spring of hope and renaissance. He proclaimed China brings to Africa a “message of optimism, a message that is out of the decades of hopelessness and imprisonment a new era of hope is dawning, and that Africa is being unshackled and freed…”
I disagreed with Meles Zenawi when he said he saw the “rise of Africa” and an “African Renaissance” reflected in the glass tower. I peeked behind the façade of that shiny edifice and saw standing “a giggling gang of beggars with cupped palms, outstretched hands, forlorn eyes and shuffling legs looking simultaneously cute and hungry and begging” and unable to pony up the chump change needed to put up a building that is to become their world stage.
The “China Model” and China as an ideal(less) partner for African dictators
African dictators talk about the “China Model” as a solution to Africa’s economic problems in much the same way as African sorcerers invoke voodoo incantations to heal those possessed by evil spirits. But the Chinese reject the notion of a “China Model”. Liu Guijin, China’s special representative on African affairs offered an official disclaimer. “What we are doing is sharing our experiences. Believe me, China doesn’t want to export our ideology, our governance, our model. We don’t regard it as a mature model.”
No African dictator has gone beyond phrase mongering to explain how the “China Model” applies to Africa. But the general idea in championing the “China Model” (“Beijing Consensus”) is that Africa can be successful without following the “Washington Consensus” (a set of ten policies supported by the U.S. and the international lending institutions including “fiscal discipline (limiting budget deficits), increasing foreign direct investments, privatization, deregulation, diminished role for the state, etc.). China presumably became a global economic power in just a few decades by pursuing state controlled capitalism instead of free market capitalism, avoiding political liberalization, giving a commanding role for the ruling political party in the economy and society, heavily investing in infrastructure projects, engaging in trial and error economic experimentation, etc.
African dictators believe they can achieve a comparable level of economic development by copycatting China. For Meles Zenawi and his disciples, the “China Model” is the magic carpet that will transport Ethiopia from abysmal underdevelopment and poverty to stratospheric economic growth and industrialization. African dictators are particularly enamored with the “China Model” because China achieved its economic “miracles” in a one-party system that has a chokehold on all state institutions including the civil service and the armed and security forces and by instituting a vast system of controls and censorship that keeps the people from challenging the government or learning about alternatives.
In reality, the “China Model” for African dictators demonstrates not so much the success of authoritarian state capitalism but the triumph of praetorian klepto-capitalism – a form of militarized kleptocratic capitalism in which African dictators and their cronies control the state apparatus and the economy using the military and security forces. African dictators in Ethiopia, Uganda, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Equatorial Guinea, etc. rule by coercion and their coercive power derives almost exclusively from their control and manipulation of the military, police, and security forces, party apparatuses and bloated bureaucracies which they use for political patronage. They have successfully eliminated rival political parties, civil society institutions and the independent press.
The “China Model” is the ultimate smokescreen for African Dictators, Inc. It provides a plausible justification for avoiding transparent and accountable governance, competitive, free and fair elections and suppression of free speech and the press. Simply stated, the “China Model” in Africa is a huge hoax perpetrated on the people with the aim of imposing absolute control and exacting total political obedience while justifying brutal suppression of all dissent and maximizing the ruling class’ kleptocratic monopoly over the economy.
Could the “China Model” work in Africa?
Stripped off its hype, the “China Model” in Africa is the same old one-man, one-party pony that has been around since the early days of African independence in the 1960s. Time was when Zenawi, Museveni and Kagame were crowned the “new breed of African leaders” (by neoliberal imperators Bill Clinton and Tony Blair) and given a free pass to suck at the teats of neoliberal cash cows such as the World Bank and the IMF. Today these dictators heap contempt on “neoliberalism” as a “band-aid” approach to development, criticize the “gunboat diplomacy” of the U.S. (whose hard working taxpayers have shelled out tens of billions of dollars to shore up these dictatorships in the last decade) and tongue-lash “extremist neo-liberal” human rights defenders and advocates for slamming them on their atrocious human rights record and mindboggling corruption. If neoliberalism did not work in Africa, why should the “China Model” work?
Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery but flattery does not get you anywhere in economic development. The great absurdity of all African dictators is that they believe they can copycat “word-for-word” ideas and practices from different countries, systems and cultures and make it work in Africa. For instance, in February 2012, Meles Zenawi literally believed he had the most perfect antiterrorism law in the entire world. He told his rubberstamp parliament with great pride and gusto, “In drafting our anti-terrorism law, we copied word-for-word the very best anti-terrorism laws in the world. We took from America, England and the European model anti-terrorism laws. It is from these three sources that we have drafted our anti-terrorism law. From these, we have chosen the better ones.”
One cannot pirate, copycat or cut-and-paste an economic model in the same way as one would make knockoffs of famous fashion accessories, popular brands of electronics or machine parts. But African dictators believe they can cut-and-paste the “China Model” in Africa and create economic miracles. But what they have succeeded in creating is the optical illusion of economic development by constructing shiny glass buildings and fancy roadways that go nowhere while sucking their national economies bone dry. As Global Financial Integrity concluded, “The people of Ethiopia are being bled dry. No matter how hard they try to fight their way out of absolute destitution and poverty, they will be swimming upstream against the current of illicit capital leakage.” That is what the “China Model” means in Ethiopia, and for that matter in much of Africa where it is followed.
Fightin’ Eagle in Africa?
So far we have heard a screaming Eagle grousing about the unfair advantage, immorality, amorality, opportunism and new colonialism of the Dragon. But will we ever see a fightin’ Eagle standing up to a fire-breathin’ Dragon in Africa and “win”?
The U.S. “battle plan”, other than the “moral, humanitarian, do good” human rights rhetoric, is to do too little too late. In 2000, the U.S. enacted The African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA)followed by the Africa Investment Incentive Act of 2006 to substantially expand preferential access for imports into the U.S. from designated Sub-Saharan African countries. These laws were intended to be substitutes for a Free Trade Agreement and enable reforming African countries the most liberal access to the U.S. market. By creating effective partnerships with U.S. firms and encouraging African governments to reform their economic and commercial regimes, the U.S. hoped to change and improve its long-term trade relations with Africa and open vast opportunities for Africans. As of 2011, U.S. trade with sub-Saharan Africa accounts for about 3 percent of total U.S. imports and 1 percent of U.S. exports. Oil makes up more than 90 percent of the $44 billion generated by U.S. imports from the AGOA countries. These laws have produced little success in achieving their aims.
Earlier this month, U.S. Senator Chris Coons, Chairman, Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on African Affairs released a report (“Embracing Africa’s Economic Potential”) which underscored the “clear and pressing need for increased U.S. economic engagement in sub-Saharan Africa.” The Report argued that “increased trade facilitates growth for U.S. businesses as well as our African partners, simultaneously strengthening our own economy and Africa’s emerging markets.” It made several recommendations urging the development of a comprehensive strategy for increased U.S. investment in Sub-Saharan Africa, reauthorization and strengthening of the AGOA, removal of economic barriers and engagement of the African diaspora community in the United States. It will be hard to fight a Dragon with Eagle feathers!
How about an “Africa Model”?
I like to ask naïve questions. For instance, I ask not why China built the African Union Hall but why 53 plus African countries could not chip in or borrow the chump change needed to build the most symbolic building on the continent representing the independence, unity and hope of all African peoples? By the same token, I do not ask why an increasing number of African countries choose to follow the “China Model” but rather why they avoid following an African model such as the “Ghana’s Model”?
I am a big fan of Ghana. In July, 2009, in one of my weekly commentaries I asked one of my naïve questions: “What is it the Ghanaians got, we ain’t got?”. I argued that present day Ghana offers a reasonably good, certainly not perfect, template of governance for the rest of Africa. Ironically, it is to Ghana, the cradle of the one-man, one-party rule in Sub-Saharan Africa, that the rest of Africa must now turn to find a model of constitutional multiparty democracy.
Ghana today has a functioning, competitive, multiparty political system guided by its 1992 Constitution. Political parties have the constitutional right to freely organize and “disseminate information on political ideas, social and economic programs of a national character”. Tribal and ethnic parties are illegal in Ghana under Article 55 (4). That is the secret of Ghana’s political success. The Ghanaians also have an independent electoral commission (Art. 46) which is “not subject to the direction or control of any person or authority” and has proven its mettle time and again by ensuring the integrity of the electoral process.
Ghanaians enjoy a panoply of political, civil, economic, social and cultural rights. There are more than 133 private newspapers, 110 FM radio stations and two state-owned dailies in Ghana. Ghanaians express their opinions without fear of government retaliation. The rule of law is upheld and the government follows and respects the Constitution. Ghana has a fiercely independent judiciary, which is vital to the observance of the rule of law and protection of civil liberties. Political leaders and public officials abide by the rulings and decisions of the courts and other fact-finding inquiry commissions.
It is possible to do business with China without following the “China Model.” Ghana has done billions of dollars worth of business with China without using the “China Model”. In 2012, Ghana snagged a loan from China for a cool USD$3 billion. In 2010, Ghana signed deals with China for various infrastructure projects valued at about $15 billion. Ghana is proof positive that Africa can do business with China without becoming “Western” China. Ghana is certainly not a utopia, but she is living proof that multiparty constitutional democracy can help salvage African countries like Ethiopia from political and economic dystopia. Why not adopt the “Ghanaian Model” continent wide?
“Let’s put aside the moral… and just talk straight realpolitik”
As Secretary Clinton rhetorically urged, “Let’s just talk straight realpolitik.” In international politics, there are no moral standards. The rule is might and self-interest makes right. That principle of international amorality has been taught since the ancient Greek historian Thucydides described relations between nations as anarchic and immoral. The world is driven by competitive self-interest. Machiavelli and Hobbes warned against mixing morality in the relations between nations as did Hans Morgenthau in the mid-20th Century. He wrote, “Universal moral principles cannot be applied to the actions of states in their abstract universal formulation, but that they must be filtered through the concrete circumstances of time and place.” International amorality has its own virtues. Zeng Huacheng, a counselor at the Chinese Embassy in Ethiopia says, “It’s not China versus America. It’s whatever helps the Ethiopians. If we don’t help, Africans will suffer.” So also said the fox guarding the hens in the henhouse, “I am here only to protect and serve you.”
There is an old African saying that when two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers. What could happen when the Dragon and the Eagle fight in Africa? Who is likely to win? Not to worry. There will be no fight as there was no fight at the Berlin Conference in 1884; only a gentlemen’s agreement.
I believe there will be a great struggle for the destiny of Africa – a destiny that beckons Africa to take the low road of developmental thralldom and another that summons Africa to rise up and follow the high road to freedom. That struggle will be decided in a contest between the powers of “greedom” and the powers of freedom.
Will Africa’s destiny be determined by the Dragon, the laughing-to-the-bank hyenas, the Eagle or the people of Africa? The dragon is symbol of power and strength. The Emperor of China used the image of the dragon to project his imperial ambitions and domination. The Eagle represents freedom. The Eagle can freely sweep into the valleys below or fly upward into in to the boundless sky. The hyena thrives on carrion. But the African people have the power of freedom in their hands and in their souls.
Speaking truth to power means speaking truthfully to power and letting the chips fall where they may. I see great similarity in what the Chinese and the U.S. are doing in Africa. China gives money, loans, aid and gifts to corrupt-to-the core African governments. Doesn’t the U.S.? The only difference is that China is honest about it. China does not speak with forked tongue. It does not talk our ears off about human rights violations and crimes against humanity and turn around and reward the criminals with billions of dollars in aid and loans. For China, there is no human rights, it’s all strictly business. Aah! But isn’t U.S. talk of human rights in Africa as beautiful as the sight of the Bald Eagle in flight against the background of snow-capped mountains and the deep blue sky? But the U.S. first minds its business before minding African human rights. I am afraid human rights in Africa for both countries is a simple issue of mind over matter. They mind their businesses, don’t mind African dictators and the human rights of Africans don’t matter!
Perhaps the answer to the question of Africa’s destiny was given long ago by the man elected as the “Father of African Unity” at the 1972 Ninth Heads of States and Governments meeting of the Organization of African Unity (OAU). H.I.M. Haile Selassie at the 1963 inaugural O.A.U. Summit told his fellow African heads of state:
… Africa was a physical resource to be exploited and Africans were chattels to be purchased bodily or, at best, peoples to be reduced to vassalage and lackeyhood. Africa was the market for the produce of other nations and the source of the raw materials with which their factories were fed…
…The answers [to the continent’s problems] are within our power to dictate. The challenges and opportunities which open before us today are greater than those presented at any time in Africa’s millennia of history. The risks and the dangers which confront us are no less great. The immense responsibilities which history and circumstance have thrust upon us demand balanced and sober reflection. If we succeed in the tasks which lie before us, our names will be remembered and our deeds recalled by those who follow us. If we fail, history will puzzle at our failure and mourn what was lost… May [we]… be granted the wisdom, the judgment, and the inspiration which will enable us to maintain our faith with the peoples and the nations which have entrusted their fate to our hands.
Thus spoke the African Lion!
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:
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:
Ethiopian Muslims engaged in the moral equivalent of an anti-Apartheid movement?
In her recent commentary in the New York Review of Books, “Obama: Failing the African Spring?”, Dr. Helen Epstein questioned the Obama Administration for turning a blind eye to human rights violations in Africa, and particularly the persecution of Muslims in Ethiopia. She argued that “After more than four years in office… Obama has done little to advance the idealistic goals of his Ghana speech.” In fact, she finds the Administration playing peekaboo with Paul Kagame, the Rwandan dictator and puppet master of M23 (the rebel group led by Bosco Ntganda under indictment by the International Criminal Court) which has been wreaking havoc in Goma, (city in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo) and Youweri Museveni, the overlord of the corruptocracy in Uganda. Dr. Epstein is perplexed by President Obama’s lofty rhetoric and his paralysis when it comes to walking the talk in Ethiopia:
Perhaps most worrying of all is the unwillingness of Obama and other Western leaders to say or do anything to support the hundreds of thousands of Muslim Ethiopians who have been demonstrating peacefully against government interference in their religious affairs for more than a year. (The Ethiopian government claims the country has a Christian majority, but Muslims may account for up to one half of the population.) You’d think a nonviolent Islamic movement would be just the kind of thing the Obama administration would want to showcase to the world. It has no hint of terrorist influence, and its leaders are calling for a secular government under the slogan ‘We have a cause worth dying for, but not worth killing for.’ Indeed, the Ethiopian protesters may be leading Africa’s most promising and important nonviolent human rights campaign since the anti-apartheid struggle.
Is Dr. Epstein correct in her profound observation that the Ethiopian Muslim “protesters may be leading Africa’s most promising and important nonviolent human rights campaign since the anti-apartheid struggle.” Are the Muslim protests that have been going on for nearly two years the moral equivalent of an anti-Apartheid movement in Ethiopia? Is Obama failing an Ethiopian Spring?
The importance of religious freedom to Americans and in U.S. foreign policy
Religious freedom is arguably the most important cornerstone of all American liberties. Promoting religious freedom worldwide is so important that the U.S. Congress passed the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (IRFA)affirming religious freedom enshrined in the U.S. Constitution and in various international instruments, including Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The Obama Administration’s record on international religious freedom in general has been deplorable. In 2010, Leonard Leo, chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom Commission openly complained that the Administration is ignoring religious persecution throughout the world to the potential detriment of U.S. national security. “We’re completely neglecting religious freedom in countries that tend to be Petri dishes for extremism. This invariably leads to trouble for us… Regrettably, this point seems to shrink year after year for the White House and State Department.”
The Obama Administration’s disregard for religious freedom and tolerance of religious intolerance and persecution throughout the world is incomprehensible given the centrality of religious freedom and separation of religion and government in the scheme of American liberties. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the foundation of all American liberties, first and foremost prohibits government involvement in religion in sweeping and uncompromising language: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” The “establishment” clause guarantees government neutrality by preventing government establishment of religious institutions or support for religion in general. The “free exercise” clause protects against religious persecution by government.
In the 1796 “Treaty of Peace and Friendship between the United States of America and the Bey and Subjects of Tripoli of Barbary”, the U.S. formally affirmed to the world the sanctity of religious freedom in America without regard to doctrine or denomination: “As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion, — as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Musselmen, — and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.” (Art. 11.)
Many of the American Founding Fathers including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin were deeply suspicious of government involvement in religion, which they believed corrupted religion itself. George Washington championed separation of religion and state when he wrote, “I beg you be persuaded that no one would be more zealous than myself to establish effectual barriers against the horrors of spiritual tyranny, and every species of religious persecution.” Thomas Jefferson believed religion was a personal matter which invited no government involvement and argued for the “building a wall of separation between Church & State”. Jefferson wrote, “Among the most inestimable of our blessings is that … of liberty to worship our Creator… a liberty deemed in other countries incompatible with good government and yet proved by our experience to be its best support.” James Madison, the “father of the U.S. Constitution” was a staunch defender of religious diversity: “Freedom arises from the multiplicity of sects, which pervades America and which is the best and only security for religious liberty in any society.” President John Adams minced no words when he wrote, “Nothing is more dreaded than the national government meddling with religion.”
President Barack Obama himself made it crystal clear that he personally disapproves of government’s involvement in religion or government imposition of religious orthodoxy on citizens. “I am suspicious of using government to impose anybody’s religious beliefs -including my own- on nonbelievers.” In his first inauguration speech, President Obama declared, “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.”
The right of freedom of religion is the quintessential “rights of man” and an “ideal that still lights the world”. Yet, neither President Obama personally nor his Administration collectively have made any statements or taken any action concerning religious persecution in Ethiopia. It seems President Obama has given up the “ideal” of religious freedom for “expedience’s sake”. Such facile expedience is difficult to comprehend because President Obama was a constitutional lawyer before he became president.
It seems the President Obama now prefers a foreign policy based not on principle and the ideals of the Constitution but rather one based on expediency. It is more expedient for President Obama to have drone bases in Ethiopia than to have bastions of religious freedom. It is more expedient to sacrifice human rights at the altar of realpolitik than to uphold the right of Ethiopians to worship at the altar of their faiths. It is more expedient to chase after terrorists in the name of counterterrorism while sharing a bed with state terrorists. It is more expedient to tolerate dictatorship than to uphold the fundamental rights of citizenship. It is more expedient to support a benighted police state that to use American “ideals that still light the world” to enlighten it.
Why is the Obama Administration tone-deaf and bat-blind about religious freedom in Ethiopia given the established fact that the ruling regime in that country has engaged in egregious religious persecution with reckless abandon. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent body constituted by the Congress and the President of the United States to monitor religious freedom worldwide, recently reported:
Since July 2011, the Ethiopian government has sought to impose the al-Ahbash Islamic sect on the country’s Muslim community, a community that traditionally has practiced the Sufi form of Islam. The government also has manipulated the election of the new leaders of the Ethiopia Islamic Affairs Supreme Council (EIASC). Previously viewed as an independent body, EIASC is now viewed as a government-controlled institution. The arrests, terrorism charges and takeover of EIASC signify a troubling escalation in the government’s attempts to control Ethiopia’s Muslim community and provide further evidence of a decline in religious freedom in Ethiopia. Muslims throughout Ethiopia have been arrested during peaceful protests: On October 29, the Ethiopia government charged 29 protestors with terrorism and attempting to establish an Islamic state.
U.S. foreign policy of expediency in Africa
Expediency has been a guiding principle in American foreign policy in Africa for quite a while. “Expediency” emphasizes “pragmatism” or “realpolitik” over principles and ideals. It is an approach that dictates consideration of each case in light of prevailing circumstances. Expediency subordinates values, ideals and principles to particular political or strategic objectives. Expediency justifies full support for blood thirsty African thugs just to advance the national interest in global “war on terror”. Expediency sacrifices principles and ideals on the altar of hypocrisy. Expediency has allowed the Obama Administration to pump billions of America taxpayer dollars to strengthen the iron fist of Meles Zenawi and his cronies in the name of fighting the so-called war on terror while preaching a hollow sermon of human rights to ordinary Africans.
What is most disconcerting is the fact that President Obama speaks with forked tongue. In Accra and Cairo, he hectored African dictators and made promises and affirmations to the people of Africa: “Development depends on good governance… We must support strong and sustainable democratic governments… Repression can take many forms, and too many nations, even those that have elections, are plagued by problems that condemn their people to poverty… That is not democracy, that is tyranny, even if occasionally you sprinkle an election in there…” He spoke of a “new partnership” with Africa, but his Watusi dance partners were Kagame, Museveni, Zenawi and their ilk.
As a strong supporter of President Obama and one who sought to exhort and mobilize Ethiopian Americans to support his election and re-election, I feel pangs of conscience when I say the President has been a poor advocate of American ideals in U.S. foreign policy in Africa. He has hectored ordinary Africans and African dictators about the need to be “on the right side of history”. For four years, President Obama has talked a good talk to Africans that America symbolizes freedom, liberty and democracy. But when it comes to walking the talk, we see him sitting in a wooden wheel chair that ain’t going nowhere fast. This paralysis has created a monumental crises of credibility for the President personally. Few Africans believe he is on their side and even fewer believe he is on the right side of history. But they do see him standing side by side with African dictators.
But could there really be expediency in dealing with blood thirsty African dictators? President Obama knows Ethiopia is a virtual police state. He knows elections are stolen there in broad daylight as those in power claim victory by a margin of 99.6 percent. He knows thousands of political prisoners languish in Ethiopian jails considered by international human rights organizations to be among the most inhumane in the world. He knows civil society institutions in that country have been wiped out of existence. He knows opposition parties, the press and dissidents have been crushed. He knows of the crimes against humanity that have been and continue to be committed in the Ogaden region, in Gambella, the Omo region and many other parts of the country. He knows about religious persecution. President Obama personally knows that 193 unarmed protesters were massacred and 763 wounded following the 2005 elections and that no one has been brought to justice for those crimes against humanity. That crime against humanity is on par with the Sharpeville Massacre of March 21, 1960 in South Africa in which South African police slaughtered 69 unarmed black protesters in the township of Sharpeville and wounded 180.
It is said that politics makes for strange bedfellows. But must the Obama Administration get in bed with those who have committed the most heinous crimes against humanity in the 21st Century? Is it worth sacrificing American ideals to coddle and consort with brutal African dictators just to get drone bases?
Can Ethiopian Americans hold the Obama Administration accountable?
Yes, we can! The International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (Public Law 105-292) [IRFA] was enacted to promote religious freedom as a foreign policy of the United States, and to advocate on behalf of persons and groups facing religious persecution throughout the world. Very few people are aware that IFRA came into being as a result of the religious persecution of a Christian Ethiopian man named Getanah Metafriah who was “imprisoned and tortured by the Communist rulers of Ethiopia for talking about Jesus.” Getanah’s cause “manage[d] to help start a grassroots movement to publicize religious persecution abroad” eventually leading to the passage of IRFA.
IFRA requires that the United States designate as “country of particular concern” (CPC) those countries whose governments have engaged in or tolerated systematic and egregious and “particularly severe violations of religious freedom” and prescribes sanctions against such countries. IRFA provides the President 15 options ( 22 U.S.C. § 6445(a)(1)-(15)) to consider against states violating religious freedom including demarches (diplomatic protest) , private or public condemnation, denial, delay or cancellation of scientific or cultural exchanges, cancellation of a state visit, withdrawal or limitation of humanitarian or security assistance, restriction of credit or loans from United States and multilateral organizations, denial of licenses to export goods or technologies, prohibition against the U.S. government entering into any agreement to procure goods or services from that country, or “any other action authorized by law” so long as it “is commensurate in effect to the action substituted.” Once a state is designated a CPC, the President is required by law to conduct an annual review, no later than September 1 of each year, and to take one or more of the actions specified in IRFA.
Based on the USCRIF (a body auhtorized by IFRA) report cited above, there is no question that the regime in Ethiopia meets the IRFA criteria of engaging in “systematic, ongoing, and egregious” violations of the religious liberty of Ethiopian Muslims. It is noteworthy that the 2012 Annual Report of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom March 2012 (covering April 1, 2011 – February 29, 2012)) documenting serious abuses of freedom of thought, conscience, religion, and belief around the world does not include religious persecution of Muslims in Ethiopia (which was reported by USCRIF in Novemeber 2012).
The first action Ethiopian Americans who believe in religious freedom in Ethiopia should take in an organized and collective manner is to file a request, (and if necessary a demand) that USCRIF amend or append to its 2012 report religious persecution and government interference in the profession and practice of the Islamic and Christian faiths in Ethiopia and make recommendations to the Secretary of State (SoS) for sanctions or alternative actions. In the alternative, they should insure that the violation is reported in the 2012-2013 USCRIF report with recommendations to the SoS for appropriate action. The SoS is required by IRFA to take “into consideration the recommendations of the Commission [USCRIF]” in formulating subsequent action.
By having USCRIF amend or append to its report and submit appropriate recommendations, Ethiopian Americans concerned about religious freedom in Ethiopia will have a legal basis to demand that the President “take all appropriate and feasible actions authorized by law to obtain the cessation of violations” (22 U.S.C. § 6445(a)(1)-(15)) or make Presidential certification and issue a waiver. In other words, the President would be in a position to take action or not to take action because taking action would be against U.S. “national security”. Either way, the Obama Administration could be held accountable under IFRA. No doubt, any such organized effort by Ethiopian Americans will stir the hornet’s nest of the K Street lobbyists who will rub their palms with glee and grin ear to ear as they come to feast at the trough of poor Ethiopian taxpayers.
The second action Ethiopian Americans who believe in religious freedom in Ethiopia should take is to establish an interfaith council to work on broader issues of religious freedom in Ethiopia. In my July 2012 commentary “Unity in Divinity”, I argued that a threat to the religious liberty of Muslims is a threat to the religious freedom of Christians. I urged Ethiopian “Christian and Muslim religious leaders [to] play a critical role in preventing conflict and in building bridges of understanding, mutual respect and collaborative working relations…” I suggested the establishment of “interfaith councils” patterned after those in the U.S. “These [interfaith] councils bring diverse faith communities to work together to foster greater understanding and respect among people of different faiths and to address basic needs in the community. Many such councils go beyond dialogue and reflection to cooperative work in social services and implementing projects to meet community needs. They stand together to protect religious freedom by opposing discrimination and condemning debasement of religious institutions and faiths. There is no reason why Ethiopians could not establish interfaith councils of their own.”
I reiterate my call for interfaith councils to bring together members of the two faith communities in the United States, and possibly elsewhere, for collective action. Religious freedom in Ethiopia is not an issue that concerns only Muslims. It is of equal concern and importance for Christian Ethiopians who have undergone similar egregious interference in the selection of their religious leadership just recently.
What is needed is sincere and open dialogue and interaction between Ethiopian Americans who are Christians and Muslims to advance the cause of religious liberty and equality for all in unity. Members of these two faith communities must come together in a historic meeting and develop a joint agenda to guarantee and safeguard their religious freedom, overcome any traces of sectarianism and reaffirm their long coexistence, diversity and harmony in a unified country based on the rule of law. They must jointly develop principles of cooperation and coordination. They must develop solidarity which can withstand narrow sectarian interests and the whims and personalities of those in leadership positions. They must relate with each other in the spirit of mutual respect, trust and co-operation and find ways to deepen and strengthen their relations.
Perhaps such dialogue may not come so easily in the absence of existing institutions. It may be necessary for leaders of both faiths to join together and establish a task force to study the issues and make recommendations for the broadest possible dialogue between Ethiopian American Muslims and Christians in America. Christian and Islamic spiritual authorities and laymen should be encouraged to work together not only to defend each other on matters of religious liberty but also to propose long term solutions to reduce the dangers of sectarianism, fanaticism, conflict and misunderstanding and institute a permanent dialogue between members of both faiths. There is no reason why an interfaith council cannot organize joint conferences, meetings, workshops, seminars, press conferences and informational campaigns in the media in both faith communities. The Ethiopia of tomorrow can be built on a strong foundation of dialogue of Muslims and Christians today. Dialogue is a precursor to national reconciliation.
From expediency to consistency
The Obama Administration must do a lot more to improve human rights in Africa. President Obama must not only talk a good talk, he must also walk the talk. But with religious liberty, he must walk the talk and follow the letter and spirit of IFRA. If he does not, he would have betrayed not only the ideals of the Founding Fathers and the Constitution but also disregarded the law he is sworn to uphold. There is no reason why the Obama Administration cannot find a harmonious convergence of national security and human rights in Africa. When America cannot lead by ideals it will be forced to follow up by exacting ordeals.
Are the Ethiopian Muslim protesters leading Africa’s most promising and important nonviolent human rights campaign since the anti-apartheid struggle? Yes, they are!!!
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: