Larry Downing / Reuters

Obama should embrace Africa’s democratic standard-bearers

Lawmakers in Washington must change America's age-old patronizing approach toward Africa

July 31, 2014 6:00AM ET

President Barack Obama will host the first ever U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington, D.C., from Aug. 4 to 6. The event will showcase Africa’s impressive economic rise and the Obama administration’s policy initiatives as the U.S. plays catch-up with Europe, China and other parts of the world that are aggressively pursuing economic opportunities around the continent. A successful summit could go a long way toward improving Washington’s relations with African capitals. The summit’s official agenda, which emphasizes the promotion of peace and increased private investment, is a positive sign.

However, the administration’s policy toward Africa needs a clean break from the old aid agenda and patronizing finger-wagging and an enduring tendency to cling to autocrats. Toward that end, the U.S. government needs to work more cooperatively with the continent’s democratic standard-bearers, who are vital to securing our long-term interests. Similarly, the U.S. must dispel the notion that countries with oil, or our allies in the fight against terrorism, are somehow immune from criticism and rightful rebuke for their human rights violations.

Yes, the United States and its African allies must fight terrorism together. Yes, the Obama administration should do more to encourage American businesses to invest in the continent. And, yes, the U.S. government must engage with Africa’s new generation of political and civil society leaders, as well as entrepreneurs. 

But we need to recognize that foreign aid does not necessarily buy influence and that African leaders seek relationships based on mutual interests and respect. This means treating Africa not as a special case but rather as an equal partner on a par with any other region of the world.

A number of efforts launched during Obama’s second term show that U.S. policymakers are beginning to recognize this. For example, during his trip to Africa last year, Obama announced Power Africa, an initiative that seeks to double electricity generation in six countries through a mix of public support and private investment. This is exactly the type of partnership that African leaders are seeking today. 

A robust U.S.-Africa policy

Yet, to a large extent, the administration’s strong and repeated rhetorical commitments to the shared goals of prosperity and the well-being of African citizens have fallen short of what Obama’s predecessors accomplished.

President Bill Clinton created the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) to promote equitable trade. Exports from AGOA beneficiaries to the U.S. continue to increase, up 500 percent since 2001 — helping to create a more robust African middle class and empowering business leaders and service providers across the continent.

President George W. Bush launched the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, which has supported lifesaving treatment for more than 7 million people, and created the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), an independent aid agency that encourages good governance and democratic development. The MCC provides nearly $6 billion in aid to support poverty reduction and infrastructure development in 15 African countries, many of which are either longtime or emerging democracies, such as Benin, Mozambique and Liberia.

The upcoming summit offers an extraordinary opportunity to regain some of the momentum that was lost during Obama’s first term. His distance from the continent is reflected in the fact that he spent less than 24 hours in sub-Saharan Africa during his first term as president. Similarly, his first-term initiatives aimed at Africa, including a global health and clean energy program that initially picked up little steam were quietly abandoned.

Obama’s attendance at next week’s summit should be applauded, but the White House should ensure that the right messages are delivered. First, the summit should not be used as an occasion to cozy up to retrograde dictators. The administration rightly excluded Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir and Eritrea’s Isaias Afwerki, three of Africa’s worst human rights abusers, who have wrecked their own economies. However, other repressive leaders who have been in power for two decades or more — including Eduardo dos Santos of Angola, Paul Biya of Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang, Denis Sassou N’Guesso of the Republic of the Congo, the Gambia’s Yahya Jammeh and Yoweri Museveni of Uganda — will all be in attendance. A robust U.S.-Africa policy for the 21st century cannot be built with these remnants of an old guard who play the terrorism or oil card to deflect legitimate criticism and stifle democracy.

Washington cannot afford to embrace the ghosts of Africa’s past, or to shake hands with the continent’s tyrants whose time has come and gone.

Instead, the U.S. must develop closer ties with democratic leaders in places such as Senegal, Ghana, Tanzania, Mauritius and Botswana who came to power through democratic elections and have championed good governance and economic development at the regional level. We must also forge carefully calibrated relationships with strategically important allies that nevertheless continue to struggle with governance issues, including Kenya, Ethiopia and Nigeria.

Ultimately, as Africa turns the corner on poverty by spurring economic growth, the U.S. cannot afford to embrace autocrats who brazenly enrich themselves at the expense of their citizens’ future. Much of the American business sector already understands this. Corporate leaders, who in the past avoided Africa out of concerns over corruption and limited growth potential, are now searching for investment opportunities. For example, companies such as the giant General Electric and the small business Precision Tune Auto Care have already made ambitious expansion bets in Nigeria. A growing number of private equity funds are also targeting markets in Ghana, Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire. A crucial consideration for business executives entering African markets is to figure out which political leaders are serious about building modern economies premised on the respect for human rights, the rule of law and good governance.

Some American business leaders still remain mired in the past. For instance, the Washington-based Corporate Council for Africa, a leading trade group that is expected to play a huge role in highlighting the “new Africa” at the summit, is honoring President Teodoro Obiang of Equatorial Guinea, the continent’s longest-serving dictator. Now in power for 35 years, Obiang installed himself after killing his uncle in a coup. He presides over an oil-rich but wholly corrupt and destitute nation. His son and likely successor has been indicted in France on money laundering charges and is under investigation in the U.S. for similar offenses. Obiang’s personal fortune is estimated at $600 million, while, according to the World Bank, 80 percent of his countrymen subsist below the national poverty line.

Similarly, the World Affairs Council, a prominent nonprofit group that organizes public forums on international affairs, will host President Denis Sassou N’Guesso of the Republic of the Congo at the National Press Club. Sassou, who has been in power for a total of 30 years, uses oil money to smother dissent, torture members of the opposition and civil society and maintain his one-party rule. While the White House does not officially sanction these events, they reflect a culture that pervades the nation’s capital, one that inexplicably allows abusive leaders to be embraced and honored in public view. But Washington cannot afford to embrace the ghosts of Africa’s past, or to shake hands with the continent’s tyrants whose time has come and gone. 

Jeffrey Smith is a senior advocacy officer at the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights.

Todd Moss is senior fellow at the Center for Global Development and a former senior U.S. State Department official.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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