Confronting Tyranny In Africa In The Era Of Barack Obama

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It might be fortuitous for Africans struggling to build democratic cultures and institutions that Obama is president of USA during this historic epoch, as it is doubtful that he will permit the tides of democratic change and renewal gaining momentum in the continent to be turned back by the decrees of men hell bent to serve their narrow interests.

[Issues Of Principle]

The current struggles for democracy in Africa are at a decisive stage. Because the struggles are essentially contests about which values and means should be deployed to guide human conduct and relations in the continent, the directions they take will shape not only the future but also the very soul of the continent.

However, given the proclivity of incumbent rulers to compromise the procedural foundations of democracy before and during elections, there is a great danger that the struggles which are pregnant with so many promises for the people in the continent might be aborted prematurely.

If African parties that on balance are committed to ethical values and means of democracy and the rule of law, such as freedom to organize, procedural fairness, equality of treatment and peaceful resolution of conflicts win, a new day of faith and hope will dawn for the great majority of Africans to engage in self-fulfilling activities that both improve their material quality of life and enhance their spiritual wellbeing.

On the other hand, if the forces wedded to militarist and medievalist values and means of organizing society, such as violence, personal rule and aggrandizement and sycophancy cheat their way to power, most of Africans will live in a nightmare of fear and virtual servitude that diminish their God-given dignity and sense of self-worth.

What is apparent is that the great majority of Africans who for the past several years were weighed down by oppression and exploitation perpetrated by various types of militarist dictatorships, have now sloughed off their fear and risen like a tidal wave to lay claim to their right to realize their aspirations and contribute to the shaping of their destiny.

It is a testimony to a new found sense of moral purpose among ordinary people tired of divide and rule scarecrow tactics used as means of control by various anti-democratic rulers that they have risen up in waves upon waves to challenge the more or less neo-colonial status quo and bondage they have hitherto been subjected to. The evidence of this remarkable determination to open up democratic space can be found in every region of the continent.

Whether in Cameroon, Ethiopia, Gabon, Guinea, Madagascar, Malawi, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, Sudan, Uganda, Zambia, or Zimbabwe, the rumblings for democratic dispensation are unmistakable. In a sense, the people of Africa are demonstrating that they are no longer willing to accept to be treated as different and inferior in order to deny them enjoyments of rights they are entitled to, while the rest of the world march forward to democratic tunes.

However, whether the struggles by the tens of thousands of brave young people, men and women who have endured in the past several decades dramatic decline in freedoms and quality of life will bear fruits sooner than later and at what cost, will depend not simply on the tenacity of Africans and their determination to sacrifice for the birth of a new brighter day. To a considerable extent, the relative success or failure of the struggles under way for democracy in Africa will hinge upon the attitude and effective policies that the USA, as the sole super power and leader of the world, adopts towards the continent.

We must focus on effective policies and implementation rather than simply laudable rhetoric of the USA because in the past various US leaders routinely employed double Orwellian platitudes to hoodwink Africans while at the same time patronizing militarist dictators with dollar diplomacy. Notable African military dictators patronized by USA have included Joseph Mobutu of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia, and Gaafar Mohamed Numeiry of the Sudan.

It is important to pay attention to what the sole super power does in practical politics in an increasingly interdependent global village because whenever the USA coughs the rest of the world catch pneumonia. Simply put, it is a matter of fact that USA leadership makes a big difference in the lives of people across the world, for better or worse.

Thus far, what are the omens from the leadership of the USA towards Africa? The tone and substance of the current USA leadership’s approach to Africa was signaled in President Obama’s landmark speech in Accra, Ghana in June 2009. In the speech, the President stated that the true sign of USA’s success in dealing with Africa should not be measured in terms of “whether we are a source of aid that helps people scrape by” but rather, “whether we are partners in building the capacity for transformational change.” 

President Obama outlined the specifics of his administration’s approach to Africa in the following way: “What we will do is increase assistance for responsible individuals and institutions, with a focus on supporting good governance — on parliaments, which check abuses of power and ensure that opposition voices are heard; on the rule of law, which ensures the equal administration of justice; on civic participation, so that young people get involved; and on concrete solutions to corruption like forensic accounting, automating services, strengthening hotlines, and protecting whistle-blowers to advance transparency and accountability.”

President Obama’s speech in Accra, captured the imagination of a cross-section of people in the continent and more or les reaffirmed for Africans their believe in him as an agent of ecumenical and ethical brand of politics.

The challenge of Africa for the Obama administration is essentially two-fold. The first is whether officials in his administration who are responsible for implementing his vision and policies translate the unambiguous promise of the Accra speech, which gave enormous boost of adrenalin to Africans defiantly engaged in efforts to transform the continent for the greater and common good of all, into practical application. And the second is whether officials in the administration will apply President Obama’s vision and policies consistently to every African country rather than as was done in the past, use double standards.

Because bureaucracies and institutions have their own logics and even inertia, arguably more so in the USA than in other parts of the world, to deliver on the promise of the Accra speech would require a kind of departure from the modus operandi employed under President Obama’s predecessors. Given the history of USA duplicity on the fundamental issue of democracy in Africa, politically conscious Africans would sing hosannas to a new dawn in Africa-USA partnership if officials in the Obama administration show courage that not only does justice to the President’s conviction but also identify and demonstrate practical solidarity with Africans who are trying mighty hard to scale the odds in order to chart a new and brighter course for the continent.

What is the balance sheet of the record of the Obama administration on issues of democracy in Africa? The manner in which officials in the Obama administration have handled issues of democratic processes in Africa to date has been commendable and reassuring. An instructive example can be cited in the case of Nigeria. Earlier this year, the US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Johnnie Carson, minced no words in demanding that the head of Independent National Election Commission of Nigeria (INEC), Maurice Iwu, who was blamed for the grossly flawed elections in 2007 characterized by ballot-stuffing and voter intimidation, should be replaced ahead of new polls due in 2011. Secretary Carson’s principal reason is that Iwu would not be capable of organizing credible elections.

Whether or not reacting to Secretary Carson’s demand, at the end of April, Goodluck Jonathan, the Acting President of Nigeria, removed the head of Independent Electoral Commission (INEC), two months before his tenure expired. This is a major coup for the Obama administration’s approach to issues of democracy and augurs well for Africa.

The importance of Secretary Carson’s bold pronouncement cannot be underestimated, as it was directed at the most populous country in Africa, which also supplies a third of USA petroleum.

It is fair to say that by his action, Secretary Carson has helped to dispel doubts among politically astute Africans who tended to be skeptical about real change in implementation of USA policies in Africa, less so on the grounds of malice than the fact that old habits die hard. Significantly too, the approach of the Obama administration has emboldened African democrats, who now believe that they are not alone in their struggles because there is a leader in the White House who understands the critical importance of, and cares about, building democratic culture and institutions in the continent.

The great majority of Africans who are yearning to exercise their democratic rights in free and fair elections hope and pray that Secretary Carson, as the point man for the Obama administration on Africa, will have the same courage to tell other African countries to ensure that their elections are supervised by credible and neutral elections commissions that have the confidence of the general population. It should be made clear that elections commissions must not be the conduits for giving a semblance of respectability to otherwise predetermined process of manipulating elections for the ruling incumbencies.

The test of credibility and consistency for the Obama administration will increase in intensity as people begin to direct spotlights on the various elections scheduled to be held in a number of countries, among which are Burundi, Ethiopia, Guinea, Niger, Rwanda, Uganda and Zambia.

If officials in the Obama administration continue to speak unambiguously and consistently on issues of procedural foundations to democracy across Africa, as they have done about Nigeria, they would indeed have made a major contribution to the continent’s renewal, as “partners in capacity building for transformational change” in the continent.

As the momentum of democratic struggles gains pace in Africa, the Obama administration has a real possibility to be credited by future generations and historians as the leaders who, in solidarity with the great majority of Africans, hastened the advent of democratic dispensation in the continent and in the process helped redeem Africa’s promise to realize her enormous potentials for the common and greater good of the people.

As they go about implementing the new policies, they should take into account the fact that in Africa, the militarization of politics and the corruption of election commissions, wherever they have occurred, have been the main impediments to establishing democracy in the continent. In a number of countries, rulers who are intent on establishing presidential monarchies rather than democracy have used the politics of violence and fear as techniques for bolstering power and securing obedience. Predictably, democracy has been stifled in those countries: this is because democracy cannot flower in an environment in which the condition of settling difference depend on the brute power of the parties and where the security forces have become the instruments of repression on behalf of one party.

The simple and profound truth is that Africans cannot be exempt or exempt themselves from the iron laws of history about democracy, which teach us three fundamental lessons. The first is that the principles and methods of democracy are the same all over the world, although they may acquire different features according to the democratic energy of each people and epoch. The second is that no meaningful democratic results can be attained by undemocratic methods. Indeed, the eclipse of democracy the world over has come about through military means and at staggering human costs. And the third is that a democratic culture can grow and mature only in an environment where and when opposition parties have equal opportunities to freely and peacefully complete in elections; and that when any party wins election, it can indeed take power without resort to violence.

It is for these reasons that President Obama is right in emphasizing the importance of becoming “partners in capacity building for transformational change.” In order for this to be meaningful and contribute to a brighter future for Africans, the partnership should be with those who hold and share the values that animate democracy and the rule of law rather than with opportunistic rulers or individuals who have no scruples for democracy and the rule of law.

We must emphasize the importance of solidarity with and support for people committed to values and means of democracy and the rule of law because unless these values and means are given practical and popular social currency in politics, none of the multitude of the problems that bedevil Africa can be tackled effectively. In a real sense then, the election of people who are imbued with democratic values, committed to using democratic means to gain and sustain power and dedicated to the establishment of institutions of democracy and the rule of law become the precondition for social peace, stability, sustainable development and for effective tackling of corruption.

With Obama in the White House, there are good chances that the democratic sun will shine in Afiica. It might be fortuitous for Africans struggling to build democratic cultures and institutions that Obama is president of USA during this historic epoch, as it is doubtful that he will permit the tides of democratic change and renewal gaining momentum in the continent to be turned back by the decrees of men hell bent to serve their narrow interests.

Dr. Amii Omara-Otunnu, D.Phil. (Oxon.), is UNESCO Chair-holder & Executive Director, UNESCO Institute of Comparative Human Rights, Executive Director, UConn-ANC Partnership & Professor of History

"Speaking Truth To Empower."


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