Washington Versus Democracy and Freedom in Africa

A brief history of collaboration between Washington and authoritarian regimes in Africa.

by Alem Mamo “Can we abandon a country that has stood beside us in every war we’ve ever fought, a country that strategically is essential to the free world in its production of minerals we all must have.” 

President Ronald Reagan: Responding to “Walter Cronkite’s question on the US relationship with the Apartheid regime in South Africa” From an Interview with Walter Cronkite of CBS News March 3, 1981

Obama with African leaders

Beyond the rhetorical flourishes of freedom, justice, and liberty, Washington’s record in fostering democracy and advancing the ideals of freedom in Africa remains widely incoherent, at its best, and on the wrong side of history, at its worst. For far too long the US has anchored its foreign policy on the false premise of choices, such as fighting the “Cold War” to limit the expansion of USSR into the African continent to most recently forming unholy alliance to fight the so called “War on Terror.” This anemic, shortsighted, and morally inconsistent foreign policy approach heavily relies on collaborating with “strong men,” which is a euphemism for tyrants who built their profile by terrorizing their own people, pillaging the resources, and offering a false sense of “stability” that historically has been proven to be a recipe for disaster.

This self-professed responsibility of being the “guardian of liberty and freedom” is proclaimed in every presidential inaugural speech, regardless of the political stripe of the President Elect. Secretaries of State, Ambassadors, and senior US government representatives all affirm their unwavering support for those who yearn for freedom, democracy, and justice. And yet, the official dealings, support, and collaboration of the US government with authoritarian regimes in Africa continue to be major impediments for building democratic system. In 2009, during his first visit to Africa, President Barack Obama, similar to other Presidents who came before him, declared the following: “I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. These are not just American ideas; they are human rights. And that is why we will support them everywhere.” The history and record of the US promoting these ideals, however, is in full contradiction of the aspiration of the people of Africa.

For instance, in 1981, at the height of African National Congress led anti-apartheid worldwide struggle, Noble Peace Prize Winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu and leaders of the ANC appealed to the Reagan administration to impose sanctions on the apartheid regime. The response from the administration was an emphatic rejection to the appeal. Dismayed by the Administration’s refusal and support for the white minority regime, Archbishop Tutu angrily lamented, “In my view, the Reagan administration’s support and collaboration with the apartheid regime is immoral, evil, and totally un-Christian…. You are either for or against apartheid and not by rhetoric. You are either in favor of evil or you are in favor of good. You are either on the side of the oppressed or the side of the oppressor. You can’t be neutral.”

In 1963, President Kennedy invited Mobutu Sese Seko to Washington while he was still an army commander. During the meeting Kennedy invited his guest to the Rose Garden for photographs and remarked, “General, if it hadn’t been for you the whole thing would have collapsed and the communists would have taken over.” Emboldened by President Kennedy’s high praise, Mobutu asked for military hardware and training from the US. He specifically asked for six weeks parachute training for himself. President Kennedy’s only hesitation was “could you afford to be away from the Congo that long?” Mobutu was given a command aircraft for his personal use and a permanent US Air force crew to go with it. Tragically, it was there in the Rose Garden that one of the most brutal, corrupt, and vicious tyrants of Africa was installed.

In 1970, Mobutu returned to the White House, this time as the President of Zaire. He was President Nixon’s guest and was considered to be a ‘reliable partner.’ During the meeting, President Nixon showered Mobutu with praise: “Though you are a young man and you come from a young nation, there are things we can learn from you,” further citing Mobutu’s handling of the economy as an example. Nixon exalted Mobutu’s leadership “I find in studying your administration that you not only have a balanced budget but a favorable balance of trade, and I would like to know your secret before meeting with the cabinet.” During his time, Mobutu is said to have looted estimated $5 billion and placed it in Swiss private bank accounts. Even after his demise, the DRC continues to suffer from the legacy of violence and corruption he established. Since 1998, 5.4 million Congolese have died from the ongoing conflict.

Another potent example of US’s complacency and collaboration with an authoritarian regime is Liberia. Unfortunately, its history with dictatorship and corruption is not too different from that of the DRC. When Master Sergeant Samuel Doe and his group of seventeen low ranking soldiers overthrew the last Americo-Liberian President, William Tolbert, the nature of the bloody coup shocked the world. On the night of 12 April 1980, Doe and his gang sealed the entry to the Executive Mansion, over powered the guards and found the President in his pajamas, they fired three bullets in his head, gouged right eye and disemboweled him. It was the beginning of bloody violence perpetuated by Doe and his gang in Liberia. Despite Doe’s despicable human rights record, the US provided support to his regime, which ruled with a street gang style. When Liberia held a national election on 15 October 1985, unprecedented numbers of voters turned out to cast their vote, with many walking for miles to polling stations and waiting for hours in the smoldering heat. When the initial vote counting showed that Samuel Doe has lost the election his hand picked election officials suspended the legal vote counting and assigned illegal re-count committee allied with Doe. On 29 October the so-called recount committee announced that Doe had won the election. While this day light election robbery was clear to the people of Liberia and the rest of the world the U.S. hailed this fraudulent election.

Today’s tyrants no longer resemble the military fatigue wearing, belligerent and at times incoherent ramblers who roamed Africa in the 70s, 80s, and part of the 90s. The new dictators are intrinsically astute, slick, and willful manipulators with their “charm of snake oil merchant” skills. They speak in the language of ‘democracy’ ‘freedom’,’ justice’ ‘peace’ ‘national security’ and ‘stability’ the primary values and ideals they, in fact, destroy. They have lobbyist, lawyers, communication and image consultants located in Western capitals. They evoke ‘constitutional order’ to silence dissent and silence opposition.

Ethiopia is such a classic case of miscarriage of justice, democracy and freedom and profound debacle of US foreign policy. For more than four decades the people of Ethiopia have invested their sweat and blood into building a free and democratic country governed by the rule of law, not by coercion, intimidation, imprisonment, torture, and extrajudicial killings. The upcoming (May 24, 2015) ‘election’ in Ethiopia is not different from Samuel Doe’s 1985 well-rehearsed election drama. In fact it is nothing more than an exercise in authoritarian self-aggrandizement and self-indulgence in narcissism of Louis the XV’s “Après moi, le déluge” and routine in the regimes compulsive power addiction against the will and aspiration of the people.

The people of Ethiopia are fully incensed by this reality because they are aware that democracy is a grassroots concept, and it could only be furthered from the bottom up. Most importantly, they intimately know that they are the ones who will determine their destiny, and they are not under any illusion that external forces will deliver democracy to them. The fight for freedom and democracy is theirs alone. The dilemma they are facing is not that the US, and the West in general, are not delivering on their professed support to democratic forces; the frustration is that the US and the West are in fact supporting the authoritarian and undemocratic regime dominated by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), hence delaying the development of democracy, and establishment of democratic institutions. The US should be reminded that the rights and freedoms of the Ethiopian people are more precious and valuable than access to airstrips for drone flights9 or intelligence and military collaboration with the regime. Openness and democracy are critical requirements for lasting peace stability and enduring partnership and collaboration between nations.

Ultimately, the US and the Western world need to move beyond rhetoric and hollow words. If they are serious about supporting democracy, freedom, justice and the rule of law in Ethiopia, they must stop this outdated and short term “strong men”, “war on terror” and “stability” approach. Trading democracy, freedom and liberty of the people for a short term strategic partnership is a dangerous slippery slope. History clearly shows that the end outcome of stability through dictators is deadly and certainly short lived, as it is evident with the DRC, Liberia, and so on.

Finally, the people of Ethiopia do not have high expectations from the pre-ordained and pre-determined ‘election.’ The collective curiosity is that how would the US and Western nations would characterize this foregone conclusion election result. Would they take a clear stand and call a spade a spade or would they play in the old language of diplomatic jargon? That is the question!

Posted on May 23, 2015, in ETHIOPIA ENGLISH. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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