Thursday, February 28, 2013
Obama: Failing the African Spring?
Helen Epstein America’s new drone base in the West African city of Niamey, Niger, announced by the White House on Friday, further expands our counter-terrorism activity in Africa. It’s also consistent with the militaristic emphasis of the Obama administration’s engagement with the continent. This may help contain the spread of jihadist violence in specific cases, but by failing to address persistent abuses of human rights by our African military allies, America is also undermining its own development investments that are intended to lift millions of people out of poverty and ensure the continent’s peace, stability, and economic growth. The administration’s neglect of human rights in Africa is a great disappointment, since the president began his first term by laying out ambitious new goals for the continent. In July 2009, when his presidency was only six months old, Barack Obama delivered a powerful speech at Cape Coast Castle in Ghana, the point from which millions of African slaves were shipped across the Atlantic. He called on African countries to end the tyranny of corruption that affects so many of their populations, and to build strong institutions that serve the people and hold leaders accountable. The speech seemed to extend the message of his much-discussed Cairo address a month earlier, in which he called for a new beginning for Muslim relations with the West, based on non-violence and mutual respect. Many thought that the policies of the new president, himself of Kenyan descent, would depart from those of the Bush administration, which provided a great deal of development aid to Africa, but paid scant attention to human rights. After more than four years in office, however, Obama has done little to advance the idealistic goals of his Ghana speech. The US finally suspended military aid to Rwanda last year, after it was forced to accept evidence of Rwandan support for the brutal Congolese rebel group M23, but has otherwise ignored the highly problematic human rights situation in that country. In Uganda, the US looked on for years as President Yoweri Museveni’s cabinet ministers gorged themselves on American and other foreign aid intended for impoverished farmers, war victims, roads, and health care. US diplomats have recently begun expressing support for Uganda’s many oppressed civil society groups, but one wonders what took them so long. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that Uganda is a vital US military ally in Somalia, where Ugandan troops helped oust the Islamic militant group al-Shabbab from Mogadishu last year. Meanwhile, Kenya, another important US ally in Somalia that is soon to be receiving drones from the Pentagon, is preparing for national elections on March 4. But some observers say the country is more violent now than it was in 2007, when post-election ethnic clashes left 1000 people dead and caused economic chaos across East Africa. Presidential candidate Uhuru Kenyatta and his running mate William Ruto have both been indicted by the International Criminal Court for crimes connected with those events. It’s not clear what the US will do if Kenyatta wins, but it often seems as if Obama will work with any African leader who furthers America’s military aims, regardless of how that leader treats his own people. And then there is Ethiopia. Today, Western nations give $3.5 billion a year in aid to Ethiopia, most of it for health care projects, food aid, and other development programs. Of this, the US alone provides roughly $700 million—an amount that has quintupled in the past decade, even as the nation’s human rights record has deteriorated to the point that Freedom House now designates it one of the least free countries in the world. The Ethiopian government has rigged elections, taken control of the economy, and outlawed virtually all independent media and human rights activity in the country—including work related to women and children’s rights, good governance, and conflict resolution. Thousands of political prisoners languish behind bars and dozens of editors, journalists, judges, lawyers, and academics have been forced into exile. But when Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi died last summer, then-US Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice praised him as a personal friend and a “talented and vital leader.” When she remarked that “he had little patience for fools, or ‘idiots,’ as he liked to call them,” some in the opposition believed she was referring to them—and approving Meles’s sentiments. Rice’s support for authoritarian leaders in Africa was highlighted by critics who opposed—and ultimately derailed—her nomination to be secretary of state. To read the entire article on NYR, click here.