U.S. Africa Policy: Empty Words, Emptier Promises By Alemayehu G. Mariam

June 27th, 2011 Print Print Email Email

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

African Status Quo Broken

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

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

U.S. Sounding Like a Broken Record

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

Two years ago, President Obama lectured African dictators: “No person wants to live in a society where the rule of law gives way to the rule of brutality and bribery. That is not democracy, that is tyranny, and now is the time for it to end.” Today Secretary Clinton sarcastically notes, “Too many people in Africa still live under longstanding rulers… [who] believe in democracy – democracy defined as one election, one time.”

Two years ago, President Obama berated African dictators: “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history.” Today Secretary Clinton warns the same dictators, “If you do not desire to help your own people work and live with dignity, you are on the wrong side of history.”

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

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

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

Empty Words and Emptier Promises

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

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

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

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

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

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

America Should Stop Subsidizing African Kleptocracies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Oda Tulu
    | #1

    Outstanding piece as usual. This the kind of combative writing based on facts I like to read.

  2. Sam
    | #2

    Alemayehu: True, dictators all over Africa have used the US aid to stregenth their power, to reward close supporters, and to enrich the ruling elites. And also true the populace gets something left over after the looting. In case of Ethiopia, nowadays the US aid predominately is aimed to help starving Ethiopians. I know the aid is distributed according to loyality to EPDRF in most cases, but even if a few Ethiopians lives are saved from dying of starvation, it might be hard with good conscience to argue against US aid. Let me put it in another statment. Denying US aid to dictators might not ensue the dictators regimes falling apart right and left. That theory has perpetuated for long, but with no facts to back it up. The thinking that people who have nothing to live for are ripe to revolt fails to take into consideration the barbarity of the government they aspire to push aside. Had not been the real fear of EPDRF’s killing machine, Ethiopians would have revolted for a real change, especially the past three years. Ethiopians are facing the worst economic crises. Their children future seems to be more bleak. But they are not revolting. The reason they are not revolting is they are rightly scared of what the trigger-happy EPDRF response would be to any uprising. If cutting aid will not ensue a regime change, why shortchanging even a single Ethiopian who might have been saved from dying of starvation because of a US aid? I don’t get it. As for the US auditing the aid it gives for Ethiopia, forget it Alemayehu. EPDRF is always above the law. The Americans know that to be a fact. I do not think they do dare to do just that– audit.

  3. aha!
    | #3

    It is a very good anecdotes of what the Executive Branch says, unless those statements are incorporated into the current SR-3427 for Human Right, democracy and accountability held in the Senate becomes a law and signed by President Obama. Second the situation in Ethiopia is unique, being gripped with ethnic and seccessionist politics and or policies, supperimposed with totalianism from the Dergue regime, and its own inclination Marxisist of the student movements of oppression of nations and nationalities, that led to ethnic fedreralism and secessionism. Consequently, the type governance is not anywhere similar to other Afican dictators, which may be labled as autocratic rule, where ours is in addition to that it is ethnocratic rule/ethnic dictatorship (minority or majority ethnic rule) on top of totalirianism under ethnic feralism and secessionism as the major fram work/the operating system with its utilities and tools to implement the constitution. Against this backgroung it had become difficult to implement capitalism and democracy to the silent majority of Ethiopians. Democracy and capitalism is thriving for TPLF and TPLF affiliated enterprises and also to foreign enterprenuers in the form of land leases. This call for a non-violent uprising/reaction for freedom from autocratic, ethnocratic/ethnic dictatorship(minority or majority ethnic rule) and totalrianism, which is missing from your challange of unfullfiled and emty promises by the Executive Branch of USA.

    We need to keep our house inorder by all opposition paties and liberation movements alignig themselves with the positive forces of integration for unity, territorial integrity, sovereignity of Ethiopia and Ethiopians and the strategies used to achieve those goals in a non-violent uprising to freedom, to dismantle the multi layer, hierachical political model of TPLF/eprdf, to be complemented with the support of the westen democracies. Democracy of the people by the people is created by free individuals, unfettred by ethnic baggage, to electe a democratic party to the Office, which can rule by the consent of the governed, where by liberal ideology and liberal and/or social democracy with free enterprises and/mixed economy or captitalism built upon Ethiopian Nationalism and Ethiopian National Intersts, get a foot hold, leaving ethnocracy/ethnic dictatorship on the way side.

  4. Binyam
    | #4

    Quote:”…in the name of the most generous people in the history of the world ”

    What an offensive statement, and also a wrong one !

    The truth is USA is the biggest parasite in the history of the world, as it is also acknowledged by white Americans like John Perkins.
    Watch here ” Economic Hitman reveals shocking truths about the Government ” : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0CofEbxtIxI
    In addition just few words: terms of trade,IMF,world bank and international trade and world reserve currency status of the US dollar.
    I am just wondering what Native Americans and African Americans would say if they hear such a statement.

    That Prof. Alemayehu went as far as making that statement disqualifies him as an Ethiopian.
    I would even say that with such views he is an American and not trustworthy.
    The truth that “Ethiopians” like Prof. Alemayehu can not hide is that Ethiopians would be far better off today without US’s “generous aid” and its well documented hostile activities and sabotages of the last several decades. Someone who can’t accept that fact and insults the victims of US crimes by calling US “generous” is not an Ethiopian in my view and is not qualified to shape Ethiopians’ opinion about the US.

  5. sam
    | #5

    Amen to that! My question is how is the opposition doing? America will follow the people of Ethiopia, if all opposition speak up and stand up. Eprdf will do anything to get any support from America. We have to open the avenue for stronger opposition to tell this country to stand up for democracy not ethnic dictators. So we have to start here in America by marching for freedom, and telling the white house that the money you send and award is feeding the dictator and starving the oppressed.
    Long live Ethiopia!!

  6. DRAMA
    | #6


  7. sam
    | #7

    Bravo prof. Alemayehu. You have a through understanding of African dictators mindset, specially the Ethiopian ethnic dictator. The money that went to aid the needy as you said, is in the hand of bloodthirsty dictator and create hell for the majority of poor people. You are a true Ethiopian, and proud African. We must work hard to clean our corrupt leaders and replace them with golden rule of law and justice for all.

  8. ይገርማል
    | #8

    ኦባማ:ክሊንተን;እንዲሁም ኢሪክሆልደር በአፍሪቃ በተለያዩ አገራት በተለያዩ ጊዚያት በፍሪቃ ውስጥ ምን አይነት አስተዳደር እንዳለና አስተዳደሮቹም ፍጹም ዲሞክራሳዊ እንዳልሆኑ ገልጸዋል ይህንም አይነት አምባገነናዊ ስራት በአሁኑ ወቅት ጊዚው እንዳልሆነና ተቀባይንት እንደሊለው በደንብ ገልጸዋል ወንድሚ ሆይ ተጨቁኛለሁ ነጻነት እፈልጋለሁ ብሎ መነሳት ያለብት የአገርቱ ነዋሪ ዚጋ ነው አንጅ አሚሪካም ሆነ ሊላ አገር አንካችሁ ብሎ እንደዳቦ እንዲሰጠው የሚያስቡ ከሆነ ይህ ትልቅ ስህተት ነው አሚሪካ እንደዚህ ብሎ መናገር ማለት ለነጻነቱና ለዲሞክራሲ ብሎ ለሚነሳ ሁሉ ከጎኑ አንደሚቆም ነው ለዚህም ማስረጃ በቱኒዚይዝ በግብጽ በየመን አሁንም በሊቢያ ያለውን ሁነታ ማየት ይኖርብናል ከሁሉም በፊት እኛ በመካከላችን ያለውን ልዩነት በማስወገድ በአንደነትና በቆራጥነት ለመታገል ብንነሳ ርዳታው የሚኖር ይመስለኛል አያቶቻችን ምንም አይነት የትምህርት እውቀት አልነበራቸውም ጣሊያንን እንዲሁም ከሊሎች ጠላቶች ጋር ከሰሚን እስከ ደቡብ ከምስራቅ አስከ ም እራብ በአንድ ኢትዮጵያዊነት ስሚት ተዋግተው በነጻነት ያስረከቡን እኛም ምንም እንካ እንደታሰበውና እንደተፈለገው ዲሞክራሲን በትክክል ለማምጣት ባንችልም በአለ ሀይላችንና አቅማችን በፈቀደልን ሁሉ ንጉሱ እንዲወርዱ ስንታገል ደርግን ስንቃወም እዚህ ደርሰናል ብዙ ብዙ መስዋእትን ለመክፈል ሞክረናል. ይህ የአሁኑ ወጣት ትውልድ ግን ትንሽ ደከም ያለ ይመስላል አባቶች ሲተርቱ “እናቲን ያገባ ሁሉ አባቲ ነው” እንደሚሉት ይመስላል እኛ ዲሞክራሲያዊም ሆን ጥሩ ስራት ልንመሰርትለት ወይም ልናስተላልፍለት አልቻልንም ስለዝህ ወጣቱ ትውልድ በርትቶና ነቅቶ ለነጻነቱና ለአንድ እናት ሀገሩ መታገል ይኖርበታል
    አንዳንድ ሰዎች ሃሳብ በሚሰጡብት ጊዚ ሊሎች ሃሳብ ሰጭዎች የሚመስላቸውን ቅን ሃሳብ ወይም ተቃውሞ በመጻፍ ፋንታ ተራ ወደሆን ስድብና ዝልፊያ ይሂዳሉ ይህ በውነቱ ለምናደርገው እንቅስቃሲም ሆነ ዲሞክራሲያዊ ትግል ጠቃሚ አይደለም

  9. Johnny B.
    | #9

    All the good professor is saying is find out how much of the aid money has been stolen and went into Meles and his friends pockets. He wants an investigation. May be nothing was stolen, may be a lot was stolen. Let’s find out. Let the U.S. do a thorough and complete investigation. UNless one has something to hide, it is a fair question. Investigate and establish the truth.

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