Dangerous Times for Africa

Africa is seeing higher levels of growth than for decades – commodity prices have been soaring and new investor dollars are looking for opportunities on the continent. Business is booming. But from the point of view of advocates for such public goods as the rule of law and better governance this is also a time of great danger.

Africa's strategic zones and assets are targets for increasingly intense competition. Newly emergent powers are pursuing objectives that cut across those of established global hegemons – the United States in particular. Foreign competitors are vying for the favor of the continent's most repressive regimes to win access to petroleum and other strategic minerals. Governance in these resource-rich countries is mostly incapable of monitoring or managing the resulting inflow of rents as oil prices near $100 per barrel. The global climate crisis threatens to make African agricultural land as intensely coveted by outside interests as the oil.

At the same time, the United States and its allies are pursuing a highly ideological project in the "Global War on Terror" that is widely perceived as hostile to adherents of one of Africa's major religions and that seems to undermine past commitments to international standards and norms in areas such as sovereignty, the rule of law, and torture. A creeping "securitization" of U.S. relationships and engagements in Africa is tending to consolidate Africa's authoritarian and autocratic forces.

Rivalry for oil and strategic advantage in counter-terrorism is dominating U.S. policy towards Africa. But the continent is not merely a string of oil-wells or a breeding ground for terrorists. Its peoples need better governance, transparency and accountability –effective government and services, accountable politicians, effective justice, freedom of expression and association, and the protection of minorities and human rights. A vital test of U.S. policy is whether it helps or hinders the promotion of these values, not only in the interest of Africans but, in the long run, of Americans too. And in many places, policy is currently failing that test.

Africa's "spring thaw" in the 1990s – a window of possibility

The last time Africa was the site of such intense external interest was during the Cold War. The superpower contest froze and deferred political development in Africa, entrenching autocracy. It was an era of military coups; stage-managed, stagnant politics; and personality-led regimes propped up for decades by outside sponsors. But in the early 1990s, there was a thaw. As the world's two superpowers lost interest in controlling African allegiances, their local clients lost their power to maintain control over the political terrain. What followed has come to be seen as a "wave of democracy" sweeping the continent, starting in francophone Africa with the 1991 landmark election in Benin. Twenty-six countries held presidential elections in the next three years. The end of apartheid in South Africa in the same era removed the last and most entrenched bastion of repression Although the degree of political transformation in the 1990s varied from country to country in its intensity and longevity – and while new regimes sometimes turned out to be old wine in new bottles – the change on the continent has been lasting. Military coups have become extremely rare, and there has been an indisputable increase in the number of functioning democracies.

From the human rights perspective, a critical dividend of the thaw was the birth and growth of civil society, the non-governmental actors and groupings that are essential to the functioning of open societies. Previously constrained by censorship and repression, citizen activists, business-people, lawyers, and other professionals began to come out into the open to organize and to set about improving the lives of their fellow citizens. Under their pressure, governments reformed laws and governance, improving environmental quality and working conditions and reducing corruption. The emergence of civil society had a galvanizing effect on African society and vastly improved the responsiveness of governments around the region to the needs of their people. It was civil society pressure that led to the revamping and expansion of pan-African institutions and the setting of accountability standards through the African Peer Review Mechanism of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development. This history indicates, among other things, that African states and populations can move forward when they are given space by outside actors to do so.

Yet after only a few short years, and particularly since September 2001, many of these gains are at risk. External states have begun once again to view Africa as a "SWOT" chart – a chessboard of strong and weak players, of opportunities and threats – rather than as a continent of states and peoples with their own sovereign objectives. This time around, however, the competitors have multiplied. The United States and Europe face challenges in Africa not from one alternative hegemon but from a number of emergent powers such as China, India, Brazil, and Russia. And just as during the Cold War, some autocratic elites are winning support from foreign powers anxious to secure guaranteed access in an unpredictable continent. Another difference is that African elites and regimes are themselves players in a way the newly independent governments of the Cold War years were not. The political class now has forty to fifty years of experience in the exercise of power, and has accumulated assets, skills, and leverage. It can no longer be assumed that the outside powers have the upper hand.

US policy - stated versus actual

Stated U.S. policy is supportive of human rights and more open societies in Africa. According to the State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, the intention is to strengthen and where necessary defend good governance and associated transparent and accountable institutions under the rule of law, free and fair election processes, and robust civil society and independent media. The introduction of a Human Rights Defenders Fund and ten guidelines in support of African NGOs were important additions to this policy framework and toolset.

In some key instances, the United States has played a role consistent with those policy objectives. The U.S. investment in the peace processes in Southern Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo immediately come to mind, as does the solid support given to post-conflict Liberia and Sierra Leone. The U.S. government has also taken a vocal stand on the crisis in Zimbabwe, winning praise from Zimbabwe civil society leaders. Significant funds have been made available to NGOs in many countries promoting free and fair elections, inclusive policies and more effective justice. Development assistance for education and health has also grown greatly during the Bush administration, and the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) is a major achievement, albeit one accompanied by pressure to conform to the ideological preferences of the President's political base .

The United States has also shown a commitment to developing a relationship with the African Union(AU) with the appointment of an Ambassador on pan-African issues in Addis Ababa. The AU and the sub-regional organizations such as ECOWAS, SADC, and others, are crucial to making progress on governance and development. While they do not always go as far as some would like, or act with enough conviction – and while implementation is not always as skilled or as bold as necessary – much has been and is being achieved.

But where and when the United States sees itself as being in competition with other powers, or is pursing military and strategic objectives, its praiseworthy objectives with respect to democracy and human rights take a back seat.

The competition for oil. The U.S. government is frank about the importance it assigns to oil supplies, and particularly to the need to diversify towards sources outside the Middle East. The Gulf of Guinea off West Africa is a critically important alternative source, and one from which the United States intends to obtain some twenty-five percent of its petroleum needs by 2020. That imperative has acquired a sharper edge recently in light of China's intense interest in the same zone for the same reason. (See the author’s “China in Africa: It’s (Still) the Governance, Stupid,” Foreign Policy in Focus, March 9, 2007.)

But the need to secure oil supplies from Africa causes Washington to avoid criticizing or even acknowledging governance deficits and repression. Equatorial Guinea has long been associated with some of the worst governance abuses in Africa, so notorious that the United States had cause in the 1990s to close its embassy there. A Senate inquiry in 2004 into the role of Riggs Bank in providing financial services to Equatorial Guinea's ruling Obiang family revealed graft of striking proportions, and this graft continues. The State Department's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices complains that the government of President Teodoro Obiang has both committed and condoned serious abuses, including: "abridgement of citizens' right to change their government; torture, beating, and other physical abuse of prisoners and detainees by security forces…."

In short, human rights conditions in Equatorial Guinea are probably worse than those in Zimbabwe, which Washington has repeatedly and trenchantly criticized. Yet on April 12, 2006, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice posed for photographers with President Obiang in Washington telling him "You are a good friend and we welcome you." He responded, "We have extremely good relations with the United States. Our country has had good relations with the United States for a very long time and my visit here is simply in order to consolidate and also to establish further ties of cooperation with your country"

A similar point can be made about Nigeria, also a major oil supplier, although a much better performer in terms of governance than Equatorial Guinea. Clear departures from democratic norms and standards intensified as the two-term regime of President Olusegun Obasanjo drew to a close. But it seems obvious that Washington pulled its punches in responding to the abuses. The open manipulation, violence, and impunity in the 2007 Nigerian election drew only mild criticism. The (s)election of President Umaru Yar'Adua had barely been announced before he was invited to attend the G8 summit in Germany. Although the State Department has promised to engage vigorously with the Nigerian government to help it improve the quality of its elections in the future, the past record undermines the credibility of the pledge. And it is the same elsewhere – witness a similar near-silence with regard to Angola's multiple delays in registering voters or setting an election date.

Fighting the Global War on Terror. In response to the September 2001 attack, the Bush administration has declared a "long war" against the terrorists, in which diplomacy and exceptional security imperatives must somehow co-exist. The results are contradictory. In Africa, prosecution of the war on terror is fueling the use of inter- and intra-state violence to solve disputes, undermining sovereignty, eroding the rule of law and due process, and giving comfort to authoritarian regimes. It may also be creating enemies for the United States where they did not previously exist.

These problems are perhaps best illustrated in Somalia, where the United States has relied on simplistic ideological constructs such as "moderate Muslims" versus "fundamentalists" or "extremists" to guide policy. The conviction that the Islamic Courts Union, which had established a measure of stability in Somalia, had become merely a front for terrorist elements and ambitions, led the United States to give tacit support to an invasion by Ethiopia – a regionally inflammatory move given the history of Somali grievance towards Addis Ababa. The invasion dismantled and scattered the only signs of political reconstruction seen in many years and almost certainly has further polarized the population. (See Matt Bryden’s essay, “Washington’s Self-Defeating Somalia Policy,” at the CSIS Online Africa Policy Forum.) Whether an effective blow has been struck against terrorism cannot be assessed by most of us; but Muslim indignation has surged across the Horn in the face of serious abuses of human rights and the rule of law, including the secret rendition of suspects from Kenya and Somalia to Ethiopia.

Meanwhile, countries such as Ethiopia that align with the "long war" agenda receive financial and military support while Washington refrains from criticizing governance problems and human rights abuses – or waters down its complaints. This sends just the wrong message to other autocratic governments, and at the same discredits democratic U.S. allies elsewhere, who come under pressure from domestic critics to disassociate themselves from the actions of the American government.

Viewing Africa through the security lens. The competition with China and other states for access to oil and the waging of the War on Terror are fuelling a third policy impulse that has been coming into focus in Washington during the past year – the "securitization" of Africa policy. This is most easily perceived in the creation of AFRICOM, the new Department of Defense (DOD) combatant command that will become fully operational in October 2008. There are good practical and bureaucratic reasons for creating a unified command for a region formerly divided among three commands, but there is a feeling among concerned observers that something more than streamlining is being attempted.

The Pentagon offers reassurance by insisting that AFRICOM will pursue an integrated policy toward Africa by including civilians from the State Dept and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in its operations. AFRICOM, according to DOD, will not only address security issues and military cooperation, but also help to establish human security and social stability, build investor confidence, and promote development. What is not explained is why the coordination and execution of such non-military objectives should take place through a military command when more appropriate civilian agencies exist to convene and coordinate such a diverse range of policy interventions. For some, the problem is not that AFRICOM has such plans, but that the State Department and USAID are under-resourced to do their part. Whatever the reason, the Pentagon commands the largest financial and personnel resources of any U.S. government agency focused on Africa, including the State Department and USAID. The concern must be that U.S. security interests will come to be "mainstreamed" in all U.S. Africa policy as a result. (See comment by Stewart Patrick at the Center for Global Development.)

Restoring credibility to U.S. policy

The United States needs to take the long view in its dealings with Africa, rather than allowing short term energy and security anxieties to take precedence. U.S. economic and security interests in Africa can best be realized if African political economies can become more functional, more efficient, and more stable. The challenge is essentially one of governance. Democratic or quasi-democratic systems mostly function better across a range of indicators than autocracies and authoritarian governments. A country with effective political institutions, business and financial systems that work, a functioning civil society, and a free press, is more likely to achieve balanced and sustained economic growth than one with a repressive regime and associated incipient conflict. It is more likely to become a reliable trading partner with a self-confident electorate that is resistant being hijacked by sectarian interests.

The post-cold war decade shows that African efforts to address their problems deserve buttressing. U.S. assistance should seek to reinforce and strengthen indigenous efforts, rather than to impose externally-originated solutions – or worse, policies designed primarily to serve U.S. interests rather than advance local initiatives. Above all, the United States should make a special commitment to supporting African countries and African institutions that seek to implement reforms and set their own high standards for democracy and governance through programs such as the African Peer Review Mechanism. That means strengthening and extending programs such as the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) and the Millennium Challenge Account (MCA) that offer benefits for those countries that want to free up their economies and political environments. The MCA program should be expanded and should not have to struggle for funds as it currently does.

Unfortunately, the United States has suffered a serious loss of political capital in recent years, partly because its pro-democracy rhetoric is so often undermined by its pursuit of other objectives. There is a need for Washington to speak out more firmly on poor practice wherever it is found, even when its allies are guilty. Much could be done to repair the damage to the reputation of the United States in Africa if it would get behind some clear and principled positions on democracy, governance, and global public goods (such as international efforts to address the impact of climate change), and stick to them. But for that to be taken seriously, civilian experts in diplomacy and development rather than the military must drive U.S. relations with Africa. _________________________________________________________________
Akwe Amosu is Senior Policy Analyst for Africa at the Washington Office of the Open Society Policy Center. This essay is drawn from her remarks at the 50th Anniversary Meeting of the African Studies Association, held recently in New York.

The Online Africa Policy Forum is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

Akwe Amosu