Successive U.S. and western governments repeatedly have pronounced their intention to partner with states and support the advancement of democracy and freedom in the African continent. Surely, these well-intentioned commitments often generate a positive reaction from the civil society and pro-democracy groups in Africa and around the world. Despite, the articulation of such desire on paper, the delivery of the actual support, however, is not as clear or as straightforward as the declared doctrine seems. In fact, the files of the past and the present provide us with the uncomfortable truth that the U.S. and the west have supported (and continue to support) and have allied with tyrannical regimes in Africa in favour of stability, national security, geo-politics and economic interest.
However, the people of Africa are fully aware of the fact that democracy is a grassroots concept, and it could only be furthered from the bottom up. Furthermore, those who are struggling for democracy are also fully aware 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 dilemma that Africa faces is not that the U.S. and the west in general are not delivering on their promises; the complaint is that the U.S. and the west are in fact supporting undemocratic rules in Africa complicating and delaying the development of democracy.
It is this fact that is creating a level of unease and frustration among the majority of African people towards the past and present U.S. and western governments. In the early 1990s, following the end of the Cold War, Africa was brimming with hope and optimism as regimes that once were supported and sustained by the USSR crumbled and the emergence of democratically elected governments seemed inevitable. Unfortunately, this hope was short lived as newly minted and more ruthless tyrants marched into the capitals of Africa. In essence, the optimism was replaced by fear and resignation. Thus, the sad fate of the African people living under the clenched fists of dictators continues generation after generation.
Despite a few successes stories of democratic rule, Africa continues to be in the hands of strong men who have no regard for the dignity and sanctity of human life. They govern under states of emergency; they kill, torture and pillage the wealth of the countries. Regrettably, some of these new bands of dictators are enjoying full material, diplomatic, military and political support from the western governments who claim that this support is for the advancement of democracy, respect for human rights, freedom, and the rule of law in Africa and around the world. In the course of reviewing the records of the recent past, however, one could easily come across startling facts that are contradictory to the doctrines that advocate democracy and human rights. Specifically, recent history highlights support by the U.S. and the west for tyrannical regimes in Africa, which inflicted unimaginable suffering on their own people.
Among many African countries that suffered as a result of the policy that favours stability over democracy one country offers a perfect yet tragic example. The country is the Democratic Republic of the Congo, formerly known as Zaire. In this country of riches and abundant natural resources, one man built a personality cult and brought down the country to abject poverty and endless cycle of violence that continues to suck the countrys human and natural resources to this day. The tragedy of all of this is he did it with the support and blessing of the US and the western world.
The story of Mobutu began in 1963, while he was still an army commander. President Kennedy invited him to the White House. During the meeting Kennedy invited his guest to the Rose Garden for photographs and remarked, General if it hadnt been for you the whole thing would have collapsed and the communists would have taken over. During the course of the meeting Mobutu asked for military hardware and training from the U.S. He specifically asked for six weeks parachute training for himself. President Kennedys only hesitation was can you afford to be away from the Congo that long? in the end Mobutu was given a command aircraft for his personal use and a permanent US Air force crew to go with it.1 Sadly, it was there in the Rose Garden that one of the most brutal and corrupt tyrants of Africa was crowned.2
In 1970 Mobutu returned to the White House, this time as the President of Zaire. He was invited by President Nixon and was considered to be a reliable partner. During the meting President Nixon described Mobutu in the following terms: Though you are a young man and you come from a young nation, there are things we can learn from you, citing Mobutus handling of the economy as an example. Tomorrow I have a meeting scheduled with my cabinet on the budget. I find in studying your administration that you not only have a balanced budget but a favourable balance of trade, and I would like to know your secret before meeting with the cabinet.3 How could one understand the US with all its economic might at the time to be willing to endorse and learn a thing or two from one of the most corrupt and ruthless tyrants in the world. It is beyond mindboggling.
With the blessing from both Presidents Kennedy and Nixon, Mobutu for the next 40 years
pillaged the resources, murdered thousands, and plunged the country into one of the most vicious patterns of violence and economic stagnation. Today the people of DRC and the Great Lakes region in general are paying a steep price for the short sited and unsustainable policy of stability. It is with this full blessing and support from the west Mobutu practically destroyed one of the most resources rich countries in the African continent. During this time Mobutu is said to have looted estimated $5 billion and placed it in Swiss private bank accounts.4 Even after his demise, the DRC continues to suffer from the legacy of violence and corruption he installed during his reign. Since 1998 5.4 million Congolese died from the ongoing conflict. The conflict has involved not only the citizens of the DRC but all countries in the neighbourhood and as far as Zimbabwe.
Not too far from the DRC is Liberia. Unfortunately, its history with dictatorship and corruption is not too different from that of the DRC. The most recent past of Liberias history is one of upheaval, corruption and civil war. 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 pyjamas, they fired three bullets in his head, gouged right eye and disembowelled him His body was dumped in a mass grave along seventeen others. It was the beginning of bloody violence perpetuated by Doe and his gang in Liberia.
Despite Does despicable human rights record, the US provided support to his regime, which ruled with a street gang style. One Senior US official was quoted in 1993 saying we were getting fabulous support from Doe on international issues. He never wavered [in] his support for us against Libya and Iran. He was somebody we have to live with. All our interests were impeccably protected by Doe.5
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 smouldering 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. In his testimony to US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Chester Crocker, President Reagans senior policy adviser, celebrated Does victory in the following terms:
There is now the beginning, however imperfect, of a democratic experience that Liberia and its friends can use as a benchmark for future elections-one on which they want to build the prospects for national reconciliation were brightened by Does claim that he won only a narrow 51 per cent election victory virtually unheard of the rest of Africa where incumbent rulers normally claim victories of 95 per cent to 100 per cent.6
The fact is that Does claim of 51 per cent was not intended for local consumption because whether his claim of victory is 51 or the usual 99.9 per cent (as is the tradition by African dictators), the people of Liberia knew that the election was neither free nor transparent, and they knew that Doe was not going anywhere. Does strategy was to create an election drama and by claiming only 51 per cent to show that he was not the same as the traditional African dictators. The strategy worked. As Chester Crooker declared the beginning of democracy in Liberia, in reality it was the beginning of hell. Liberia is still fighting to shake off Does legacy as well as that of his successor Charles Taylor, who is facing serious charges at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
These are just a two examples of how democracy, freedom and justice have been traded for stability in Africa. If history were our teacher, these two examples would have taught the US and the western governments an important lesson. Unfortunately, it is a pattern that the western governments are having difficulty getting rid off. The problem of western governments support to tyrannical regimes in Africa is further solidified after the tragic events of September 11, 2001. While the Cold War geo-politics facilitated the partnership between dictators and the western regimes, the War on Terror is helping tyrants in the African continent to quickly jump-on-the-bandwagon and gain legitimacy from the west while silencing pro-democracy groups domestically and building single party systems.
The new dictators, it appears, arent like the old tyrants they replaced. The new ones dont call themselves colonel or field marshal as the Idi Amins and the Does did. They dont wear crisp military fatigues. They, in fact, wear expensive designer suits. The new dictators dont sound like the old dictators; they talk in slick, soft and rehearsed prose and know how to speak the donor language. One such leader originally endorsed by President Bill Clinton as part of the new generation of leaders is Meles Zenawi, the former leader of the rebel group Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) and current Prime Minister of Ethiopia. In spite of Zenawis appalling assault against those who struggle for democracy, freedom and justice in Ethiopia, the US and western governments continue to support this ruthless tyrant. Due to this support, Zenawi and company continue to inflict widespread suffering on the Ethiopian people, and they are not showing any sign of relinquishing power through a democratic process of election.
Today, Zenawi is being invited to high-level international conferences and gatherings as a leader, and yet the majority of the Ethiopian people know that he is not their leader. Such support by the western governments toward oppressive regimes is beginning to wear on the people of Africa, and the population is beginning to question the US and western governments commitment to democracy in Africa. These widespread negative sentiments of public opinion towards the US and the western world are taking a different form and shape. One particular example is the rapidly growing presence of China across the African continent. The recent spat between the Voice of America (VOA) radio and Meles Zenawi is a clear demonstration of Chinas bold moves, even a daring confrontation with the US. While the news was about the admission by Meles Zenawi that his government was jamming the VOA, the other less talked part of the story is that there is evidence showing that Chinese technology and expertise are being used to silence the VOA Amharic service. Therefore, the question is this: Is China starting to confront the US on the airwaves through Ethiopian politics? Is this symbolic of the beginning of Chinas occupation of Africa? In addition, and more importantly, what does this mean for democracy and human rights in Africa? We are beginning to see tyrants like Meles Zenawi thumbing their noses at the west as they get more confident of their power.
One troubling part of the emerging Chinese occupation of Africa is that the people of Africa are beginning to show more of a positive approval toward China than the US. For example, 61 per cent of Ethiopians see Chinas influence as benefiting the country, whereas only 33 per cent see the US as a positive partner in their economic, political and social endeavours. In Tanzania, the margins are even wider with 78 per cent believing that Chinas contribution to their country is a positive one and only 13 per cent believing that the USs influence is positive.7 Such a dramatic shift of views and opinions is hardly surprising given the US and western worlds sustained neglect of the advancement of democracy in the African continent. One can interpret these opinions more of as a statement of anger and frustration with the west than genuine collaboration and desire to partner with China.
Finally, the US and the western world need to move beyond doctrines and words. If they really have any interest in democracy, freedom, justice and the rule of law in Africa, they must stop this outdated strong man approach. Trading democracy for temporary stability is a dangerous slippery slope. History clearly shows that the end outcome of stability through dictators is deadly and certainly short lived, as with the DRC, Liberia, and so on. Today, the same old and tired foreign policy formula continues to haunt Africa, perhaps more visibly in the Horn of Africa than any other parts of the continent.
The new geopolitical concern that is the War on Terror has replaced the Cold War strategy and tyrants like Meles Zenawi have been dancing to this tune. The reality is if we are smart enough we can learn a thing or two from history. Fighting terrorism through regimes that rule by terrorizing their own people can only radicalize the population and breed resentment and anger toward those providing military and political support to tyrannical regimes. Short-sited, quick fix foreign policy only produces blowbacks and in the end blowbacks are more complicated and difficult to fix. Doctrines alone dont build democracy and human rights. It is time to stand with the people of Africa and lend them a hand so that they can build a system founded on the firm grounds of democracy, liberty and freedom.
1 Meredith Martin, The State of Africa: A History of Fifty Years of Independence, Simon and Schuster, 2005.
3 Ibid. 295
4 See the Transparency International website: www.transparency.org/content/download/4425//26684/file/08Legalhurdles.pdf+transparency+international+Mobutu+US%245+billion&hl=en&ct=clnk&cd=c&gl=uk.
5 Ibid. 555
6 Ibid. 552- 553
7 Dambisa Moyo, Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working And How There Is A Better Way. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009. I obviously differ with Moyos opinion that the involvement of China in Africa is beneficial to the continent.