U.S. Policy in Africa Faulted on Priorities: Security Is Stressed Over Democracy – By Stephanie McCrummen, Washington Post Foreign Service

February 22nd, 2008 Print Print Email Email

In his tour of Africa, President Bush steered clear of countries where stability, human rights and progress toward democracy have degenerated during his tenure, among them Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan, Chad, Uganda and Kenya. (more…)

In his tour of Africa, President Bush steered clear of countries where stability, human rights and progress toward democracy have degenerated during his tenure, among them Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan, Chad, Uganda and Kenya.

In those countries, Bush’s focus on counterterrorism has overtaken his other stated foreign policy goals of promoting democracy and human rights, according to analysts.

“While democratization has clearly been one of the three major stated objectives of the Bush administration — the others being security and development — democratization probably ranks third,” said Joel Barkan, a senior associate with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “You can see it in several ways, but it’s mainly the subordination of democratization to the so-called war on terror.”

Money for once-robust programs aimed at strengthening democratic institutions such as courts and parliaments has dried up, Barkan said. And critics say that several less-than-democratic African leaders have skillfully played the anti-terrorism card to earn a relationship with the United States that has helped keep them in power.

While Bush has received praise across the continent for his fight against malaria and AIDS, many Africans who hoped that the United States would support their struggle for more just and open societies have been disappointed. They include opposition groups, human rights activists, intellectuals, professionals and, significantly in Kenya and Somalia, moderate Muslims who’ve felt unjustly targeted in the U.S.-driven hunt for terrorism suspects.

“There was a time when Muslims here would trust the U.S.,” said Ibrahim Ahmed, a lawyer who ran for Kenya’s parliament last year. “As a Muslim, I can say that U.S. foreign policy has really destroyed the trust that existed.”

Ethiopia, with U.S. backing, invaded Somalia in December 2006 to oust the Islamic movement, which the United States accused of having ties to al-Qaeda. Ethiopia then installed a U.S.-backed transitional government headed by Abdullahi Yusuf, who analysts say has used the fight against terrorism as an excuse to attack his political and business enemies.

More than a year later, no high-level terrorism suspects have been killed or captured. Yusuf and the Ethiopian government are accused of committing war crimes against Somali civilians. And analysts say a more radicalized contingent of Islamic fighters has joined an insurgency battling for control of the capital, Mogadishu.

By some measures, Somalia is now the worst humanitarian crisis on the continent, with more than 1 million people displaced by fighting that has left thousands dead in the past year.

“I actually think it’s paradoxical: America is advocating democracy and at the same time using ruthless and brutal warlords in Somalia that have no democratic credentials at all,” said Sheikhdon Salad, a doctor in Mogadishu.

The Bush administration’s policy in Somalia has had ramifications across the region, especially in Ethiopia.

The 2005 elections there were initially praised as among the country’s most open and democratic. But when the opposition leveled accusations of vote-rigging, protesters took to the streets. Ethiopian security forces fired into the crowd, leaving at least 193 people dead. Many opposition leaders were jailed.

U.S. criticism soon flagged, analysts say, because the United States was relying on Ethiopia as its key military ally in the region and later needed Ethiopian military and intelligence cooperation in Somalia.

“Dictators are using and abusing the U.S. anti-terrorism campaign for their own ends,” said Marara Gudina, a member of Parliament who chairs an opposition party in Ethiopia. “I think democracy is secondary on the list of U.S. policy priorities.”

In Sudan, analysts have suggested that U.S. reliance on Sudanese counterterrorism intelligence has prevented a tougher stance on the crisis in the country’s western Darfur region, where a government crackdown on rebels has left as many as 450,000 people dead and 2.5 million displaced.

Charles Onyango-Obbo, a columnist in Kenya who writes about the region, said some African leaders with good relations with the United States often feel so powerful that they see no need to engage with opposition groups.

He cited Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, who cast himself as a staunch U.S. ally in the fight against terrorism at a time when he was facing growing criticism for his increasingly dictatorial rule. Museveni, who has been in power for more than 20 years, changed the constitution ahead of the 2006 election to allow himself a third term, and jailed a leading opposition candidate.

As U.S. ambassador, James Kolker was critical of Museveni’s government, but his successor was less vocal as the United States pressed Museveni to send peacekeepers to Somalia. Uganda sent 1,500 troops as part of an African Union force that has had trouble pulling in other participants.

“Museveni has very cleverly played the U.S. like a violin,” said Barkan, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Barkan noted that the Bush administration’s response to Kenya’s post-election crisis has been a welcome exception to the pattern.

The Bush administration initially congratulated President Mwai Kibaki, who is accused of rigging the vote, but diplomats have since become increasingly critical of his government’s refusal to compromise with opposition leader Raila Odinga. On Monday, Bush dispatched Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who said the United States would not conduct “business as usual” with Kenya unless a settlement is reached.

Critics say that sort of pressure has been lacking at crucial moments in other African countries over the past several years.

Rep. Donald M. Payne (D-N.J.), who chairs the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Africa, said that by ignoring electoral problems and human rights violations, the United States often winds up dealing with the consequences of political chaos.

“Turning a blind eye to government abuses and wanton disregard for human dignity often leads to political instability and massive humanitarian disasters,” Payne said. “And we always end up paying for it.”

Special correspondents Kassahun Addis in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and Mohamed Ibrahim in Mogadishu contributed to this report.

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