By Alemayehu G Mariam
The African Circus is coming to town. It is officially called “U.S-Africa Leadership Summit” (not Ringling African Brothers). It is scheduled to be held on August 5-6 in Washington D.C. The theme of the “Summit” is “Investing in the Next Generation”.
According to the pre-Summit hype, in the first ever “U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, African leaders will have an opportunity to engage with President Obama, his Cabinet members, and other key leaders, including business executives from the U.S. and Africa, Members of Congress, and members of civil society.” It is expected to be a 5-ring circus with stages for “expanding trade and investment ties, engaging young African leaders, promoting inclusive sustainable development, expanding cooperation on peace and security, and gaining a better future for Africa’s next generation.”
Human rights is definitely not on the menu. So, I must speak up! That is, speak truth to those in power who are indifferent to the powerless, those who abuse and misuse power and those who are “deaf to the voice of justice and consanguinity”, as Thomas Jefferson might have said.
President Obama proclaimed on the Whitehouse web page, “I do not see the countries and peoples of Africa as a world apart; I see Africa as a fundamental part of our interconnected world – partners with America on behalf of the future we want for all of our children…” Is this some kind of “lawyerese” doubletalk? He specifically referred to “countries and peoples of Africa”. How about “leaders of Africa”? Are they a “world apart”? From a different world? “Partners” with America?
Of course, the “countries and peoples of Africa” are not coming to Washington, D.C. African “leaders” are. That’s where President Obama and I part ways. Maybe not. I do not see “leaders and partners” in the African “leaders”; I see the proverbial pig in lipstick, to borrow a campaign metaphor from President Obama. “You know, you can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig. You can wrap an old fish in a piece of paper called ‘change.’ It’s still gonna stink after eight years,” declared candidate Obama on his way to the White House.
I say you can assemble a whole bunch of African criminals against humanity, genociders, torturers and mass murderers in the White House and call them “leaders”, but after the lipstick wears off at the end of the day, they are who they are. You can wrap a whole bunch African dictators and thugtators in a fancy label and call them “partners”, but after rotting in power for decades, they stink to high heavens.
I don’t want to rain on the African Leaders Circus parade. I can almost hear my critics bellyaching, “Here he goes again bashin’ and ribbin’ African leaders. He just never cuts them no slack.” In my defense, I interpose paraphrased wisdom from W.C. Fields. “Never give a dictator an even break”. The point is I have to tell it like I see it. The so-called African leaders meeting in the White House, in my view, are a breed apart who crawled from a planet where the rule of law is anathema and government wrongs are dolled up as human rights.
Guess who’s coming to dinner at the White House?
The guest list of African “leaders” and “partners” includes the names of some of the 21st Century’s worst criminals against humanity, killers, torturers, con men and scammers in designer suits and sunshades. Here is a partial list:
Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya: In office since 2013, Kenyatta is on trial at the International Criminal Court on various counts of crimes against humanity in connection with the communal post-election violence in 2008. The U.N. estimated some 1,200 people died in Kenya in weeks of unrest between December 2007 and February 2008, and 600,000 people were forcibly displaced. I predict the case against Kenyatta will be dismissed for “lack of evidence” in October, unless it is continued again for the umpteenth time. (See my commentary, “Saving African Dictators from the ICC.)
Paul Biya of Cameroon: In power since 1982, the 80-year old Biya is Cameroon’s second president since independence in 1960. Biya has decades-long record of gross human rights violations including torture, extrajudicial killings and brutal crackdown on journalists, authors and protesting students.
Blaise Compaore of Burkina Faso: After seizing power in a bloody coup in 1987, Compaore turned Burkina Faso into a private estate for himself and his cronies. His record of human rights violations include excessive use of force against civilians and detainees, maintenance of harsh and life-threatening prison conditions and massive corruption.
Paul Kagame of Rwanda: In power since 1994 (first as vice president and defense minister), a recent UN report accused Kagame of “stoking a rebellion in eastern Congo, across Rwanda’s border, that has led to the displacement of 300,000 people and the arrest, exile or killing of many political opponents and rivals.” Theogene Rudasingwa, Kagame’s former Ambassador to the U.S. reported hearing “Mr Kagameboast in 1994 that he ordered the shooting down of the plane carrying President Juvenal Habyarimana.”Kagame told BBC’s HardTalk programme in 2007 that he did not give a damn one way or the other. “I am not responsible for Habyarimana’s death and I don’t care, I wasn’t responsible for his security and he wasn’t responsible for mine either. He wouldn’t have cared if I had died and I don’t care that it happened to him.”
Yoweri Museveni of Uganda: In power since 1986, Museveni has a long record of human rights violations. Human Rights Watch in 2012 reported, “President Museveni’s government has steadily tightened a noose around the media, civil society, the political opposition, and anyone else who mightcriticise his governance style. Over a dozen members of parliament have faced police interrogations and in some cases criminal charges for speaking out or participating in demonstrations against government policy.”
Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea: After seizing power in a bloody coup in 1979, Obiang has rigged every election to stay in office with more than 95% of the vote. Obiang’s son and “crown prince” Teodorin Obiang was the subject of a 46-page civil forfeiture action filed by the U.S. Justice Department in California and the District of Columbia. The allegations included “extortion”, “money laundering” and the “misappropriation, theft or embezzlement of public funds by or for the benefit of a public official” of a foreign government. (See my commentary, “To Catch Africa’s Biggest Thieves Hiding in America!”)
José Eduardo dos Santos of Angola: In power since 1979, dos Santos has been running his government like a family business (more like a crime syndicate). His daughter, Isabel Dos Santos is the richest woman in Africa (even richer than the widow of the late Meles Zenawi); and according to Forbes Magazine Africa’s only female billionaire. Nearly 70 percent of the Angolan population lives below the poverty line of $USD1.7 a day, while 28% live on less than 30 cents. dos Santos paid nearly USD$4 bn to the Chinese to build mixed residential development of 750 eight-storey apartment buildings, a dozen schools and more than 100 retail units. Nova Cidade de Kilamba is today a ghost town!
Idriss Deby of Chad: In power since 1990, Deby has an atrocious human rights record. According to the 2013 U.S. State Department human rights report, “the most significant human rights problems [in Chad] were security force abuse, including torture; arbitrary arrests and lengthy pretrial detentions harsh prison conditions, denial of fair public trial, executive influence on the judiciary, and property seizures.”
Joseph Kabila of the Democratic Republic of the Congo: Inherited the presidency from his father at age 30 in 2001. Kabila is said to be “the highest-paid politician in the world, pulling in an astonishing $75 million between July 2012 and July 2013, a nearly $40 million lead over his closest competition.” His estimated net worth in 2013 was $215 million.
Jacob Zuma of South Africa: Reelected in May 2014, he is currently facing a corruption investigation. The South African public prosecutor accused Zuma of improperly spending nearly USD$7 million to improve his private estate, calling the expenditure, “unconscionable, excessive, and caused a misappropriation of public funds.” Chump change on the titanic scale of African corruption, but it says something about South Africa’s anti-corruption efforts.
Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria: He finally met the families of the abducted girls 100 days after the event. The terrorist group Boko Haram continues to massacre, maim and abduct thousands of innocent Nigerians every year as Johnathan dithers on whether to crush them, bribe them or amnesty them. According to the annual U.S. human rights report, “massive, widespread, and pervasive corruption affects all levels of government and the security forces” in Nigeria.
Yahya Jammeh of The Gambia: In power since 1994 when he was 29 years old following a military coup, the buffoonish Gambian leader shocked the world in 2007 by claiming that he is able to cure HIV/AIDS with concoctions of natural herbs and urged patients to abandon their retroviral medications. According to a 2014 Amnesty International report, Jammeh’s “government tolerates no dissent and commits serious human rights violations. Human rights defenders, journalists, political opponents and other Gambians who are critical of government policies continue to face intimidation, harassment, arbitrary arrest, detention, torture, ill-treatment, death threats and enforced disappearance.”
Hailemariam Desalegn, the ceremonial prime minster of Ethiopia is expected to attend, though his puppet masters will remain in the shadows and within earshot as he hobnobs with the other African “leaders”.
There are some African “leaders” who apparently were not invited to dinner. Old Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and International Criminal Court war crimes suspect Omar al-Bashir will not be there. It seems the invitations sent out to the “leaders” of Eritrea, Guinea Bissau and the Central African Republic werelost in the mail.
To be perfectly frank, the thought of being in the same room (city) with these criminals and con men gives me the willies.
African beggars making a beeline at the White House?
President Obama is optimistic that these African “leaders” can “partner with America on behalf of the future we want for all of our children.” I do not see it that way. I see them as beggars in America who strike a bad example of beggary for future African children.
The culture of beggary among African leaders is not something I discovered. It was foretold decades ago by the famed Nigerian nationalist, author and statesman Chief Obafemi Awolowo. In 1967, at the 4th Summit meeting of the Organization of African Unity, Chief Awo spoke prophetically: “Today, Africa is a Continent of COMPETING BEGGAR NATIONS. We vie with one another for favours from our former colonial masters; and we deliberately fall over one another to invite neocolonialists to come to our different territories to preside over our economic fortunes.”
African leaders, despite the millions and billions they have stolen and stashed away and Africa’s fabled wealth, are quintessentially beggars in the way they think and act. When they are not pulling out their guns and knives to rob, cheat and steal from their people, they are holding out their begging bowls for alms from the international community. Their motto is, “Ask what America, Europe, China… can do for Africa…Always.” They never ask what they can do for Africa by themselves without alms, charity and handouts from America, Europe or China.
Who paid for the new African Union (AU) headquarters inaugurated in 2012 in Addis Ababa? That was “China’s gift to Africa.” China picked the entire USD$200 million tab for the building, fixtures and furniture. The China State Construction Engineering Corporation constructed the building using nearly all Chinese workers. Could “China’s gift to Africa” be China’s Trojan Horse in Africa?
The late Meles Zenawi waxed poetic as he blessed the new building and consecrated the “continuing prosperous partnership” between Africa and China. Meles was the beggar-in-chief for Africa. He was the “step and fetch it” guy at all of the G-something and climate change summits. I hang my head in shame whenever I think of Africa’s wealth and resources and the supposed inability of African “leaders” to collectively come up with the chump change needed to build the most symbolic and iconic structure for the continent. They just had to beg!!! (See my commentary, “African Beggars Hall”.)
Africa has long been a bottomless pit for alms and handouts. Dambissa Moyo argues, “In the past fifty years, more than $1 trillion in development-related aid has been transferred from rich countries to Africa. Has this assistance improved the lives of Africans? No. In fact, across the continent, the recipients of this aid are not better off as a result of it, but worse—much worse.” In 2013, bilateral aid (from single donor country to a single recipient country) to sub-Saharan Africa was USD 26.2 billion. Total bilateral U.S. development assistance from the USAID and the U.S. State Department to sub-Saharan Africa was over $7.08 billion in FY 2012.
Is the Dragon eating the Eagle’s lunch in Africa?
Is the U.S. finally playing catch-up with China, the European Union and Japan who have been running African leadership summits (some say scams)? There is no question that China is today Africa’s largest bilateral trade partner. Could it be that the U.S. is finally realizing China is eating its lunch in Africa? ( Seemy commentary, “The Dragon Eating the Eagle’s Lunch in Africa?”.)
The Obama Administration has been talking about investments, trade, infrastructure development and stuff like that for a few years. Last year, President Obama announced his “Power Africa Initiative” which was supposed to increase American energy company investments with a $7 billion aid package to back it up. The only kind of power I see in Africa today is abuse and misuse of power by African “leaders”. (See my commentary, “Power Africa? Empower Africans!)
In 2012, President Obama invited a number of African leaders to a “Food Summit” and declared, “The New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition is a shared commitment to achieve sustained and inclusive agricultural growth and raise 50 million people out of poverty over the next 10 years by aligning the commitments of Africa’s leadership to drive effective country plans and policies for food security.” To implement the “New Alliance” and spark a Green Revolution in Africa, dozens of global food companies, including multinational giants Cargill, Dupont, Monsanto, Kraft, Unilever, Syngenta AG signed a “Private Sector Declaration of Support for African Agricultural Development”. Are Africans more food secure today than they were 20 or 30 years ago? (See my commentary, “Food for Famine and Thought!”)
President Obama launched the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) in 2010 as a signature initiative to support upcoming young African leaders. How many young Africans are being trained in the U.S. today to strengthen democratic governance, and enhance peace and security across the continent? It seems the most capable young Africans who could strengthen democracy in Africa — young journalists, bloggers,opposition leaders and peaceful dissenters — are being prosecuted, persecuted and jailed in large numbers. I wonder how many of the young leaders will actually return to Africa after tasting the good life in America! (See my commentary, “Will the U.S. Stand by the Side of Brave Africans?”
The “Awolowo Paradox”: How to kick the begging habit and beat the handout addiction
African “leaders” must heed the prophetic and paradoxical words of Chief Awolowo if they are to save Africa and themselves. In his 1967 speech, Chief Awolowo cautioned African leaders:
We may continue and indeed we will be right to continue to use the power and influence which sovereignty confers, as well as the tactics and manoeuvres which international diplomacy legitimatises, to extract more and more alms from our benefactors. But the inherent evil remains—and it remains with us and with no one else: unless a beggar shakes off and irrevocably turns his back on, his begging habit, he will forever remain a beggar. For, the more he begs the more he develops the beggar characteristics of lack of initiative, courage, drive and self-reliance.’”
I believe African leaders are rich beggars. When they look in the mirror, they do not see millionaires, billionaires and a continent brimming with wealth and resources. They see a reflection of themselves and a continent wallowing in an ocean of poverty and drowining in privation made opaque by corruption and human rights violation. They prove the proposition that poverty is not only a physical and economic state but also a state of mind. Because they are morally bankrupt, they must always beg and endlessly seek to engorge themselves with alms, handouts and charity. It makes them feel better. The “begging habit” and the handout addiction is in their blood stream and the only question is whether they “will forever remain beggars” as Chief Awo wondered so long ago.
As a human rights advocate, I would only remind President Obama of his own words when he visited Accra, Ghana in 2009. “…Make no mistake: history is on the side of these brave Africans, and not with those who use coups or change Constitutions to stay in power. Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions…” I wonder if President Obama is making a big mistake by standing on the side of Africa’s “strongmen”.
I get the heebie geebies just imaging President Obama standing on the side of Africa’s “strongmen” and wining and dining them in the White House. Eeek!
My only question to President Obama is this: How can African “leaders” invest in the next generation when they are divesting and wasting the current generation?
Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam teaches political science at California State University, San Bernardino and is a practicing defense lawyer.
By Alemayehu G Mariam