As U.S.-Africa Summit Opens, Human Rights Abuses Gain Media Traction

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Gen. Museveni signs Anti-LGBT law -- not quite the Western darling any more

[Publisher's Commentary: U.S.-Africa Summit Day One]

Secretary of State John Kerry was sounding bullish on Africa as the U.S.-Africa Summit opened in Washington, D.C.,  Monday.

The Summit, which has brought 50 African leaders to the U.S., lasts through Wednesday.

"I think something like 10 of the 15 fastest-growing countries in the world are in Africa," Kerry said. "Africa will have a larger workforce than India or China by 2040."

Indeed things can become brighter faster in Africa; the sooner good governance becomes a priority.

The continent holds almost every type of major mineral and natural resource that the industrial world needs to power its economy with and for its own development.

Much of the heightened U.S. interest and focus on the continent is to counter China's significant inroads.

The U.S. has in the past accused China of making gains by ignoring human rights considerations, pointing to its dealings with Sudan under Gen. Omar Hassan Bashir, one of the few African presidents not invited to the summit.

Yet the U.S. itself supports some of Africa's most ruthless dictators and conducts business as normal with them, including Uganda's Gen. Yoweri Museveni and Rwanda's Gen. Paul Kagame; the two have been in power 28 years and 20 years, respectively.

While democratic governance and strict presidential term limits were not listed on the official agenda for the summit, a coalition of African and African-born American activists has managed to generate media coverage on these issues. They've interacted with major U.S. media outlets and also hosted a press conference last Thursday at the National Press Club in Washington.

Perhaps echoing the concerns of the Africa activists, Vice President Joe Biden Monday warned that corruption was stunting development.  "Corruption," Biden said,  "not only undermines but prevents the establishment of genuine democratic systems. It stifles economic growth and scares away investment. It siphons off resources that should be used to lift people out of poverty, and it weakens your military readiness.."

In the past rulers like Museveni and Kagame have been shielded from major media scrutiny since they perform security-related functions on behalf of Washington on the continent.

Gen. Museveni, by posting thousands of Ugandan soldiers in Somalia, acts like a proxy sheriff. The U.S. fears Somalia would otherwise fall to al-Shabab, believed to be allied with al-Qaeda. Rwanda's Kagame also fields peace-keeping troops in Darfur and elsewhere in Africa.

Kagame also has a well-oiled publicity machine that boasts the services of former U.S. President Bill Clinton and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. This PR-duo struggled to shield him from the backlash in connection with his, and Gen. Museveni's support for the brutal M23 militia that caused much bloodshed and destruction in Congo until it was routed by a special UN brigade manned primarily by Tanzanian and South African troops.

And much of the dirt, and blood, is now sticking on Gen. Museveni.

On the eve of the U.S.-Africa Summit, The New York Times published an Op-Ed piece by Helen Epstein, a journalist and author of the book “The Invisible Cure: Why We Are Losing the Fight Against AIDS in Africa.”

The Op-Ed pulled no punches and excoriated U.S. administration support for the leaders of Nigeria, South Sudan, and Uganda.

This unvarnished narrative detailing U.S. support for African strongmen, while ignoring gross human rights abuses, rarely makes it into print on publications such as The New York Times. The article, "Africa's Slide Toward Disaster," was published on August 1, three days before the summit opened.

"Many countries the United States considers allies are in the grip of corrupt, repressive tyrants; others are mired in endless conflict," the article opened. "As Washington prepares to host the first-ever U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit next week, American policy makers must acknowledge their contributions to this dismal situation. By lavishing billions of dollars in military and development aid on African states while failing to promote justice, democracy and the rule of law, American policies have fostered a culture of abuse and rebellion. This must change before the continent is so steeped in blood that there’s no way back."

The article noted how South Sudan, newly independent "seemed promising" with a growing economy and a new capital in plan "with parks and boulevards." But things began to fall apart soon after including when there were "ethnic conflicts over cattle and grazing land" in Jonglei State.

"When massacres ensued, allegedly abetted by government security forces, the United Nations Mission failed to publicize government abuses or demand a response from President Salva Kiir," the article continued. "The United Nations was also largely silent when Mr. Kiir dismissed his cabinet and vice president in July 2013. When members of the South Sudanese armed forces began massacring Nuer soldiers and civilians in Juba last December, it’s little wonder that civil war followed."

And in Africa's richest country Nigeria, Epstein wrote, "corruption and mismanagement have left many people reliant upon $600 million in annual American aid."

The article noted the atrocities by Boko Haram over the years, including the April abduction of the more than 200 school girls. But Boko Haram, in the beginning was just one of many groups "calling for Islamic law to cleanse Nigeria of corruption."

"Then, in 2009, its founder and leader, Mohammed Yusuf, was arrested and executed after clashes with the police," the article added. "Hundreds of others were subsequently arrested and killed by government security forces on suspicion of links to the group. This only intensified support for Boko Haram, even as it grew increasingly violent. If American and other Western leaders had urged Nigeria to respect the rule of law when it first engaged with Boko Haram, the sect might have eschewed such savagery."

The substantial portion of the article then dealt with Uganda and its dictator of 28 years now, Gen. Museveni.

"Another of our African partners, Uganda, may also soon implode," the Op-Ed continued. "In the two decades since I first worked as a development consultant there, I have watched with horror as a promising country descended into tyranny. President Yoweri Museveni and his henchmen have conned the West out of billions of foreign aid dollars, using these funds to rig elections, torture critics and perhaps worse."

"The Ugandan Army needlessly prolonged the war against rebel leader Joseph Kony, commander of the Lord’s Resistance Army, while looting its own bloated defense budget," the article added.

"Uganda supported some of the rebels responsible for mass murder and rape in Democratic Republic of Congo; the Ugandan Army also stole up to $10 billion worth of timber, minerals and elephant tusks from that country, according to the International Court of Justice. The Ugandan Army’s backing of President Kiir in the South Sudanese civil war has almost certainly prolonged that conflict. Ugandans serving in the American-supported African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia even reportedly sold guns to the Al Qaeda affiliate Al Shabab," the article added.

"Kampala has so prodigiously looted American aid, mainly earmarked for public health, that rates of malaria are now significantly higher than they were in the 1990s. Women at Mulago Hospital, Uganda’s largest, are more likely to die in childbirth today than they were during Idi Amin’s presidency in the 1970s. Some critics of Mr. Museveni’s government languish in jails where, their lawyers say, they are tortured or killed," the article continued.

The article also addressed the Anti-Homosexuality Act signed into law by Gen. Museveni on Feb. 24 this year.

"Mr. Museveni long assured the West that he would never pass a vicious anti-homosexuality bill, imposing life sentences on some 'offenders,' that had languished in Parliament since 2009. But in February, with his popularity plunging because of staggering unemployment, corruption and collapsing public services, he signed it into law with great fanfare," the article said. "When the United States and other donors threatened (and later imposed) sanctions, Mr. Museveni informed them that the law would be contested in the Ugandan Constitutional Court. On Friday, the court struck down the law; one of the petitioners, Fox Odoi, was the Ugandan president’s onetime legal adviser. Thus Mr. Museveni may have quietly supported the challenge in order to dupe the West yet again, this time into trusting the integrity of Ugandan justice."

"Meanwhile, the Obama administration is ignoring graver abuses stemming from Mr. Museveni’s long assault on the rule of law. This not only undermines Uganda’s struggle for L.G.B.T. rights, but may also be leading the country to civil war. Signs of stress in the Ugandan Army are emerging, with members of its elite special forces, commanded by President Museveni’s son, Lt. Col. Muhoozi Kainerugaba, having reportedly defected to parts unknown, and with army barracks having been the targets of numerous attacks in recent weeks," the article added.

"It may be too late to prevent another African country from self-destructing. But President Obama and other Western leaders should learn from this pattern of atrocities, particularly since some currently peaceful countries like Ethiopia, Rwanda and Kenya are also imperiled by a culture of impunity," the article continued.

"The West must use all means, including aid cuts, trade sanctions, travel bans and forceful public statements, to punish governments that abuse their own people — before it’s too late. The best guarantee of peace and prosperity is justice. Indifference to it, as the agenda of the U.S.-Africa summit appears to reflect, is creating the very disasters its delegates wish to avoid," concluded the article.

Now that The New York Times is finally allowing atrocities by rulers such as Gen. Museveni to be exposed on its Op-Ed pages, perhaps some of the narrative will also reach its news and editorial pages. 

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