cc. Barack Obama’s election is a political earthquake, and one whose tremors will be felt strongly in Africa, writes Nii Akuetteh. Under George W. Bush, the rhetorical support for democracy in Africa was not matched by deeds, but Obama will be better able to understand the problems of Africa and push for democracy effectively, the author contends.
Barack Obama’s capture of America’s 44th presidency was a hard-to-believe political earthquake. Six weeks later, it still has not sunk in. As Craig Robinson, Obama’s brother-in-law, stated, it feels like a dream, a joke with the punch line about to be delivered. The Obama victory is that stupendous.
For this tremendous accomplishment, Obama deserves all the accolades thrown at of him: ‘rare human being’, ‘potential Mandela’, ‘potential Lincoln’.
But some credit must also go to the American voters, remembering that Obama is by choice a member of a 10% minority, a minority despised and abused for almost four centuries – and counting. Above all, Obama’s victory demands that we appreciate how exceptionally democratic America is – especially among the world’s powers. This is not to say the US is perfect; it is not. The country was created with a shocking ‘birth defect’ in its system of slavery, and still displays persistent flaws. But its democracy is impressive. For nearly a decade now, an old, low-intensity debate has been heating up: What is an empire? Are empires good things? And, crucially, is America an empire? While they rightly point out that empires are by nature evil, violent and stratified, I have been disappointed that respected progressive thinkers (some of whom, like Dean Makau wa Mutua in Buffalo, NY, are good friends of mine) have concluded that America is an empire. I am less sure. Because the American state was ‘conceived in liberty’, because it was born as a high-risk rejection of the British empire, because it is dedicated to achieving equality, and because its first leader rejected being made a king and instead set the enduring example of a term-limited, elected president, I believe America differs from previous empires. It is not Rome. And it certainly is not the British empire, whose heirs still take pride in the subjugation of a global expanse on which the sun never sets while rejecting any responsibility for countless enduring crises sowed everywhere. I lean toward the view, in other words, that a true democracy cannot be an empire, and vice versa. Consequently, it was music to my ears that the very first public sentences Barack Obama uttered on the night of Tuesday, 4 November 2008, were, ‘If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.’ So my third piece of the credit for President Obama’s election goes to democracy and to the fact that America, though imperfect, is a pretty good democracy.
Elections – transparent, free, fair and repeated – are indispensable for democracy, without of course being sufficient. Elections are the sound infrastructure of a democracy, but they are insufficient in the same way that foundations and walls alone do not make a grand mansion.
If African countries must hold peaceful, transparent, clean and regular elections and if in other ways they must become more democratic – and they must – what policies should the Obama administration pursue to incentivise, encourage and reward them? And how high a priority should the promotion of democracy in Africa be for Obama? In other words, in Africa, should Obama continue President Bush’s freedom agenda? Should he terminate it? Or should he alter it? If so, in what way?
Bush is not the first American president to extol democracy’s promotion. But by far, America’s 43rd president has been the loudest and most persistent. Bush has exceeded all his 41 predecessors with his passion, frequently stubborn and even religious tones in advocating democracy. Bush’s evangelisation of democracy’s promotion started even before he became president. On 11 October 2000, during the second debate against then Vice-President Al Gore, Bush said, ‘Now we trust freedom. We know freedom is powerful – a powerful force much bigger than the United States of America.’
Then in February 2003, while attempting to direct public opinion in favour of the invasion of Iraq, Bush argued at the American Enterprise Institute here in Washington, DC, that democracy’s promotion is both an American and international obligation that creates stability.
In autumn 2003, once he had ejected Saddam Hussein but found no weapons of mass destruction, he used a speech to say even louder that democracy’s promotion had motivated his invasion.
I believe that for American presidents fortunate enough to get re-elected, the second inaugural address represents the most important speech (with the obvious exception of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s, who won four consecutive presidential elections and therefore delivered second, third and fourth inaugurals). On 20 January 2005, President Bush devoted his second inaugural entirely to the ‘freedom agenda’. Among many arresting passages, he said, ‘All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know: the United States will not ignore your oppression, or excuse your oppressors. When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you.’ Minutes later he invoked America’s greatest president, ‘The rulers of outlaw regimes can know that we still believe as Abraham Lincoln did: Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves; and, under the rule of a just God, cannot long retain it.’ But the climax had to be when President Bush declared democracy’s promotion as the number one goal of American foreign policy, eclipsing even his own global war against terrorism: ‘So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.’
Five months later, Condoleezza Rice – Bush’s closest confidant, foreign policy tutor, and the new Secretary of State – went even further. In Cairo on 20 June, she bluntly stated that during the Cold War, all American administrations had made a naïve and dangerous mistake by backing dictators instead of promoting democracy. Her precise words, ‘For sixty years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region here in the Middle East – and we achieved neither. Now we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people.’ Reportedly, this particular statement infuriated General Colin Powell, Rice’s immediate predecessor, and many other foreign policy experts across the US. One book claims that the following colourful language is how General Powell expressed his expressed his annoyance: ‘With that one sentence, she just crapped on eight presidents.’
From mid-2005 in Cairo, fast forward three and a half years to late 2008 in DC. Twelve days ago Mr. Bush himself repeated the Rice charge, albeit with a very interesting, revealing revision. On 5 December at the Brookings Institution, the president said, ‘With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the primary threat to America and the region became violent religious extremism. Through painful experience, it became clear that the old approach of promoting stability is unsuited to this new danger – and that the pursuit of security at the expense of liberty would leave us with neither one.’
The six instances I have cited above are only a sample, the small tip of a mountainous iceberg: Bush and his aides have passionately advocated democracy’s promotion in dozens of capitals on every continent and in every world region. All these add up to one thing: no other American president has come even close to the forcefulness and stubbornness with which Bush has argued for democracy’s promotion. Being a strong believer in democracy, I am elated that President Bush has been so clear, passionate and persistent about the virtues and need for democracy. I am especially glad when he consistently rejects the claim that non-white cultures are incapable of democracy. So I give him an A for speaking about democracy.
Nevertheless, speeches are one thing and actual implemented policy is quite another – even for the world’s most powerful politician. So how good is the Bush administration’s record on democracy’s promotion, especially in Africa?
My short answer: abysmal. In terms of grades, a big fat F. So in my class, President Bush gets an A for talking the talk, and an F for failing to walk the walk.
To understand my assigned grade, we must start with a brief comparison of Bush’s policy toward democracy in Africa with those of his predecessors since the continent’s independence. We must keep in mind that the 1960s – when Africa wrestled back her independence – was the height of the Cold War. Consequently, every American president (from Dwight D. Eisenhower to George H. W. Bush) used anti-communism as the acid test for separating good African leaders and regimes from bad. Following this single criteria, they categorised Julius Nyerere, Patrice Lumumba, Kenneth Kaunda, Sékou Touré, Amílcar Cabral, Kwame Nkrumah, and even the saintly Nelson Mandela, as bad, dangerous communist sympathisers or worse. Each had to be emasculated or destroyed. In contrast, Washington branded African dictators such as Joseph Kasa-Vubu, Moise Tshombe, William Tubman, Jomo Kenyatta, Siad Barre, Samuel Doe, Hissène Habré and most notoriously, Ian Smith in Rhodesia, the apartheid regimes in Pretoria, and Mobutu Sese Seko in Kinshasa, trustworthy leaders to be supported and protected. Put another way, Bush and Rice are right with respect to Africa: during the Cold War, across Africa, Washington sacrificed democracy for the sake of anti-communism.
Given that anti-communism ceased to be an American foreign policy goal after the Soviet Union disappeared in 1989 and the Cold War ended, and given that he has harshly condemned his predecessors’ support of dictators, Bush must have shunned African dictators, right? Wrong, dead wrong. Where his Cold War predecessors used a single big excuse, anti-communism, to sacrifice democracy and embrace African dictators, Bush has found many big excuses: the global war on terrorism, oil, and neoliberal economic globalisation that favours American corporations. Using these criteria, the Bush administration remains very friendly to, or actually props-up, several notorious African dictators: Hosni Mubarak in Egypt; Yoweri Museveni in Uganda; Meles Zenawi in Ethiopia; Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed and the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) in Somalia; Paul Kagame in Rwanda; Macías Nguema Obiang in Equatorial Guinea; Idriss Déby in Chad; and the latest, Muammar Gadhafi in Libya. Even Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir, though committing genocide, has been spared Washington’s full wrath because he has been assisting in Iraq and Bush’s war on terrorism.
Given the above evidence, hypocrisy would not be an unreasonable charge against the Bush administration. It has been practicing the very thing – support of African dictators – that it has loudly been preaching against. The conspicuous Bush refusal in Africa to walk the walk on democracy’s promotion is my biggest reason for giving his policy a failing grade. But it is not my only reason.
There are two other reasons, found outside Africa. First, even in the one country where Bush seemingly attempted to implant democracy, he used abysmal methods. Yes, I am referring to the bungled attempt to impose democracy through the mouth of a gun in Iraq.
Setting a bad example is the third and final reason. In the running of his own government in the US, Bush repeatedly flouted the normal pillars of democratic governance. Instances of this include the signing of statements appearing to say that the president would be above the law, the rendition and torture of terrorist suspects, the sexual abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib, indefinite detention of terrorist suspects at Guantánamo Bay, unauthorised wiretaps of American citizens and the use of prohibited political criteria in the hiring and firing at the Justice Department.
To summarise and re-iterate, over eight years, President Bush has eclipsed all his predecessors in talking a great, passionate game: democracy’s promotion, the freedom agenda, and liberty. Those terms all advocate, imply, and promise to terminate the long US habit of supporting dictators, tyrannical regimes and policies, while opposing those with significantly greater democratic credentials. Bush did not deliver on this promise however; he has failed dismally to turn his talk into actual policies and accomplishments. On Africa, our continent, the Bush administration is even now cuddling up to seven or so African dictators. In Iraq he has tried to impose democracy through invasion and occupation, resulting in death and chaos. And while running the US, he has flouted many, many democratic conventions.
Before Bush, for over 60 years, American presidents, especially during the Cold War, sacrificed democracy and propped up ‘friendly-tyrants’ who claimed to be anti-communists. Bush vehemently condemned this practice. And yet despite his talk, his own promotion of democracy has been abysmal. The question then is, what should President-Elect Obama do about the existing policy of democracy’s promotion that he will inherit from Bush? Which of three options must he select?
As a first option he could choose a complete copy of Bush’s substance and style of democracy’s promotion. Specifically this would mean talking passionately and unceasingly about the sacred value of democracy, freedom and liberty and promising that the US would promote democracy everywhere. But this mere copycatting of Bush would mean betraying this promise in three broad categories. To put my value judgement upfront, such copycatting would be an unforgivable blunder on Obama’s part. It should not happen. Fortunately, it is unlikely to. Obama has publicly committed to breaking radically from Bush in two of the three areas: winding down the Iraq war and doing a much better job of respecting the US constitution and democratic norms by closing Guantanamo, ending rendition and torture, and by reining in the vice-president.
President Obama’s second choice would be a return to what its proponents call the ‘policy of realism’. In honest English, realism would have Obama radically tone down the evangelical fervour of Bush’s democracy talk while making no noticeable improvements in the third policy area, that is, while continuing to prop up dictators and to shun or even undermine their democratic opponents and activists. Like the first, this second choice too, in my opinion, would be a mistake. I detect worrying signs that Obama might possibly select this choice. One such sign is the intense and near-unanimous disdainful hostility which greeted Bush’s second inauguration, a sentiment that has not really disappeared since January 2005. Another is press stories claiming that many Obama aides are itching to throw democracy’s promotion overboard. Still another sign is the realisation that global threats (such as terrorism, economic depression, oil shortage, climate change, regional instability, war, and the spread of weapons of mass destruction), Africa-specific challenges (such as improving health and education, reducing poverty, and preventing conflict) as well as domestic US interest-group politics could make democracy’s promotion seem an unaffordable, or at least a postponable, foreign policy luxury for Washington. I believe that, particularly in Africa policy, seeing things this way has been and continues to be a tragic mistake because with commitment and creativity, democracy could be made the most effective weapon for fighting the threats and meeting the challenges. The ‘friendly-tyrant mindset’ is the most worrisome sign. Depressingly, this mindset seems deeply entrenched among opinion leaders and within both parties in the US and other Western democracies. To repeat, I would advise and hope that the Obama administration resists the temptation and advice encouraging the second choice of reducing the talk of democracy and continuing to support dictators, especially in Africa.
That then leaves the third option as my recommendation. Specifically, I strongly urge President Obama and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, where Africa is concerned, to take these steps: First, to maintain Bush’s passionate rhetorical support for democracy. Second, to quickly wind down the current Bush support for dictators in Libya, Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, Uganda, Rwanda, and Equatorial Guinea (and perhaps even Egypt). Third, to make every single African regime understand that expanding and deepening its own democracy is, in President Obama’s judgment, the most reliable, preferable means to improve health and education, reduce poverty and prevent conflict. Of course many African dictators will likely retort – even if only under their breath – that they know their societies better and democracy must take a backseat to other challenges. At which point President Obama must insist that advancing democracy is the price he demands of African regimes that want friendly relations with his administration.
Happily, I detect four signs that President Obama could be amenable to promoting democracy vigorously in Africa. The first obvious one is that while his loyalty is 100% with the US – and rightly so – and while his duty is to advance US interests, he clearly understands and cares for Africa more deeply than any previous American president, more deeply than any of this year’s presidential candidates, and more deeply than any members of Congress. Africa, after all, is big, not just within his DNA but within his consciousness as well, as his brilliant memoirs attest. Second, during his formative Indonesian years, Obama witnessed first hand the harmful consequences of the ‘friendly-tyrant’ policy. Both his own mother and step-father – even he himself – suffered under the undemocratic rule of the brutal Suharto regime, a regime that America supported to violently overthrew the Sukarno government and to hang on to power. Third, as a senator and presidential candidate, Obama pointed out more than once that President Bush’s strong support for Pakistani tyrant Pervez Musharraf was a dumb and counterproductive approach to fighting terrorists and radicals. Finally, in July 2007, Obama, a superb writer, wrote very clearly his belief that US policy must first and foremost make helping countries become democratic its priority, after which such democratic countries can achieve their other national goals: ‘We need to invest in building capable, democratic states that can establish healthy and educated communities, develop markets, and generate wealth.’
There is currently an unfortunate conventional wisdom spreading within US foreign policy circles. Created by uncritical reporting and encouraged by the Bush White House, it holds that Bush’s Africa policy has been a great success since he boosted aid for fighting HIV/AIDS and malaria. This implies that the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and related programmes are the sum total of Bush’s Africa policy. They are not. They constitute only one among seven elements. (The other six are trade and investment policy, including the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA); development policy, especially the activities of the Millennium Challenge Corporation; Africom; military training in the Sahel and in East Africa; the general war on terrorism; and democracy’s promotion.) Admittedly, the health programmes have been very successful, but at the very least we must weigh them against the Bush administration’s unspeakable role in the destruction of Somalia.
The point here is that the US’s Africa policy has many elements. So even if the Obama administration takes my advice, what priority must it assign to democracy’s promotion compared to the other six Bush elements (not to mention any new Obama elements)?
In my opinion, democracy’s promotion must be a top priority, a bedrock of the Obama administration’s Africa policy. Put another way, democracy must become Obama’s vehicle for achieving other Africa policy ends as such as expanding bilateral trade and investment, improving health and education, reducing poverty, and preventing conflict.
Politics is Obama’s chosen profession. Once his law school brilliance captured attention, he was pressured and tempted with visions of serious and quick wealth, fame and influence if he opted to serve the one-year apprenticeship in the Supreme Court and then become a corporate lawyer. He declined. Shocked by this rejection, his many enticers accused him of lacking ambition. His explanation strikes me as a gem: ‘Making money is fine. But I believe if your ambition is just to make money, then you are not ambitious enough.’ It is delicious irony that today, pundits now describe his ambition as ‘searing’. The next tempting offer that he become a full-time, career law professor Obama also rejected. Finally his wife Michelle hauled out the ‘anything but politics because it is dangerous and corrupting’ argument. Also to no avail. The point is that Obama is not an accidental politician but rather someone who is in his chosen element. And he is a stunningly good politician, but still a politician. (For me, ‘politician’ is not a dirty word and Obama has my admiration.)
To paraphrase a friend, ‘All politicians are weather vanes; they point according to the direction of the strongest wind.’ This implies that for Obama to vigorously promote democracy in general and clean elections in particular, in Africa, American constituencys and pressure groups must strongly push him. Someone must hold Obama’s feet to the fire. I know of one group whose sacred responsibility it is to force President Obama to promote democracy in Africa. That group is us: first and second generation African immigrants across the US. As my good friend Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem paraphrases Nkrumah every week, ‘Don’t agonize, organize.’
Specifically, we – African immigrants in the US – must do serious foreign policy organising in four stages. First and foremost we must find a way to create a united front, a way to overcome our divisiveness and atomisation and work together. Next we must create at least one very serious foreign policy NGO in Washington, DC. Six months after being registered, it must be competing successfully, as a professionally run think-tank, with TransAfrica Forum, Africa Action and IPS. And in six years it must challenge and even beat Cato, Brookings, and CSIS. As a third stage, our foreign policy think-tank must support and commission the thousands of African intellectuals on American and Canadian campuses to produce policy analyses, ideas and proposals that clearly are superior to anything coming out of these other Washington think-tanks, out of Congress, out of the White House and out of the State Department. Fourth, we must persuade and mobilise the entire African immigrant community. The purpose would be to put effective pressure on the Obama administration, on members of Congress, and on state and local officials to push democracy’s promotion and to make other improvements in US Africa policy that we want.
So there is a ton of work to be done, both by African leaders so that their own Obamas can emerge and by the Obama administration to incentivise these very same leaders. But we African immigrants have the responsibility for starting and for forcing these others to assume their part. It is a sacred duty and it is ours – yours and mine. Let us therefore get to work. Immediately.
* Nii Akuetteh is an Africa policy analyst, activist and non-profit executive now based in Washington, DC. He is also founder of the Democracy and Conflict Research Institute (DCRI).
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at http://www.pambazuka.org/