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Obama’s Africa trip was a missed opportunity

Washington’s empty rhetoric on human rights is counterproductive when China is investing heavily in the continent

August 4, 2015 2:00AM ET

During his recent trip to Kenya, President Barack Obama made a veiled reference to the country’s anti-homosexuality policies, stating, “When you start treating people differently, not because of any harm they’re doing anybody but because they’re different, that’s the path whereby freedoms begin to erode.”

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta pushed back saying, gay rights are a “non-issue” and not a priority for his country. The exchange was a win-win for both leaders: Kenyan politicians praised Kenyatta for remaining “firm but respectful” in defending the country’s prohibition of homosexuality. Obama received accolades from the western media and human rights activists for raising LGBT rights issues.

Unfortunately, the exchange was representative of much of Obama’s Africa policy, which builds upon decades of missed opportunities and hypocritical support for states that violate human rights. Obama’s ambivalence on democratic principles continued during his stopover in Ethiopia, whose government he referred to twice as “democratically elected.” (Ethiopia’s ruling party won all 547 seats in parliament during national elections in May.)

Beyond passing references to human rights concerns, Obama missed a valuable opportunity to apply significant pressure on his hosts and telegraph support for civil society groups, which Washington champions in unfriendly countries such as Russia and Venezuela. Instead, by skirting serious human rights abuses and speaking in platitudes, Obama’s trip highlighted the Unites States’ longstanding hypocrisy and disregard for its democratic ideals. The United States’ misguided Africa policy, which prioritizes security over partnership with the African people, is counterproductive and will not help achieve lasting stability in the continent.

Furthermore, Obama’s cherry picking of low-risk human rights issues undermines U.S. strategic objectives on the continent by lending further credibility to countries such as China, which traditionally avoid the sort of political conditionalities that the U.S. frequently pays lip service to. In his final speech inside Kenya’s Kasarani Stadium, Obama did not mention the detention of 4,000 Somalis and Kenyan Muslims in Operation Usalama at that very stadium following a spate of grenade and gun attacks in Nairobi and Mombasa in April 2014. The detainees lived in squalid conditions without adequate food and water. Obama also failed to address the ongoing harassment of civil society groups and police reform advocates. In April, the Kenyan police designated two nonprofits — the Muslims for Human Rights and Haki Africa — as “terrorist organizations,” prompting their removal from Kenya’s NGO registry.

Similarly, in Ethiopia, Obama did not press the government on its blatant human rights abuses, much of which was documented by the State Department’s most recent annual country report. The report identified restrictions on the freedom of expression and association as “the most significant human rights problems,” and acknowledged “alleged arbitrary killings; alleged torture, beating, abuse, and mistreatment of detainees by security forces; reports of harsh and at times life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention.” 

 “Cozying up to nasty regimes or staying silent in the face of abuses hasn’t worked in the past,” David Kampf opined in The New York Times recently. “It just kicks the problems down the road and often creates new ones. The next generation of citizens, and leaders who defend democracy and protect rights, are the ones to establish connections with.” He is right. Obama’s latest trip to Africa highlighted Washington’s allegiance to ‘stable’ but undemocratic partners in the name of security. This strategic priority undermines the work of already beleaguered civil society actors who are demanding democratic reform as a way to stump out corruption and forestall radicalization.

The fanfare surrounding Obama’s trip to East Africa is a reminder of the historical infrequency of Washington’s partnerships with African people and the ham-handed nature of U.S.-Africa relations.

Obama’s diplomatic sidestepping also occurred in an atmosphere of uncertainty over his signature Power Africa initiative, which aims to boost access to electricity in the region. At least $5 billion of the allocated $7 billion committed to the project “fell under the auspices of the currently defunct Export-Import Bank,” calling into question the viability of future programs and investments.

While Obama has mostly been sending mixed signals on Washington’s support for human rights in Africa, China has shown much more consistent engagement with the rising continent. On July 22, two days before Obama arrived in Kenya, China announced an a $17 million dollar agreement, focused on establishing a Confucius Institute, refurbishing the Moi International Sports center and assistance in managing the country’s refugee population, including with the controversial repatriation of Somali immigrants back to war-torn Somalia.

The agreement builds upon a long history of Chinese investment in Kenya; in August 2013, following President Xi Jinping’s visit to Kenya, the two nations signed a deal worth $5 billion to establish, expand and improve upon the country’s transportation and energy infrastructure. In fact, Chinese investment spans the continent.

China, which surpassed the United States in 2009 as Africa’s largest trade partner, had committed an estimated $2.52 billion in investments in Africa in 2012, a sharp increase from $317 million in 2004. China also has a more consistent diplomatic presence in Africa. A Chinese president or premier has visited African countries every year in the past decade and half; one of Xi Jinping’s first major overseas trips as head of state was to Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Africa.

By contrast, Obama was largely absent from Africa. In his first term as president, he spent less than 24 hours in the continent of his father’s birth. The African Union hall, where Obama gave his historic speech, was built with an estimated $200 million ‘gift’ from China.

Beijing’s robust investment has come without onerous political conditions or self-righteous oratory on political models or objectives. True, Chinese investment in Africa may be propping up autocratic regimes or institutionalizing anti-democratic ideology, as critics contend. But American ambiguity on human rights issues isn’t without consequence either.  

The run-up to Ethiopian elections saw reports of increased crackdown on the press, opposition parties and student groups — frequently justified by the country’s sweeping antiterrorism law and the 2009 Charities and Societies Proclamation, which puts severe restrictions on the activities of NGOs and human rights groups that receive funds from abroad. The Obama administration’s tacit endorsement of the country’s symbolic elections will only embolden the government to continue its repressive measures aimed at silencing of critical journalists and political opponents.

Paying lip service to democratic ideals such as rule of law and respect for human rights without investing in their development undermines Washington’s image abroad and stunts its security initiatives. Combating radicalization, instability and terrorism in Sub-Saharan Africa requires extensive citizen ‘buy in.’ Washington’s alliance with dictatorial governments, while propagating liberal ideals, frustrates and impedes the ability of African civil society to demand reform. The fanfare surrounding Obama’s trip to East Africa is a reminder of the historical infrequency of Washington’s partnerships with African people and the ham-handed nature of U.S.-Africa relations. 

Hilary Matfess is a research analyst at the National Defense University’s Center for Complex Operations. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the U. S. government.

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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Africa, Ethiopia, Kenya
Barack Obama

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