Meles Zenawi's Death: Opportunity To Abandon America's Cynical Africa Policy

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To borrow from President Obama's own message, U.S. Africa policy would stand on more solid foundation if it depended on strong institutions on the continent rather than African "strong men."

[Black Star News Editorial]

U.S. Preaches Democracy; Supports African "Strongmen"

Ethiopia is at a crossroads, following the death of long-time ruler Prime Minister Meles Zenawi who ruled with an iron fist for 21 years.

Throughout the 20th century, Ethiopian governments have risen and fallen through violence. This is an opportunity for a peaceful transition from one leader to the next. So far, the authorities have said deputy prime minister Haile Mariam Desalegn will run the country. While encouraging, a smooth transition is by no means assured.

Zenawi, a former guerrilla leader, was a strong U.S. ally in the region and was falsely labeled once by Bill Clinton as representative of a "new breed" of African leaders who embodied the continent's hopes for democracy. The other members of the alleged "new breed" Club were Uganda's Gen. Yoweri Museveni and Rwanda's Gen. Paul Kagame.

The false messiahs were then lauded by the top corporate media voices such as The New York Times, The New Yorker magazine, Time, Newsweek and CNN.

The United States never criticized human rights abuses or political repression in Ethiopia during his rule. Contrast this with the United States' harsh criticism of North Korea, under the rule of Kim Jong Il for 18 years and his father Kim Il Sung for 46. He was denounced by successive U.S. Administrations as an authoritarian leader who didn't care for democracy, human rights and the welfare of his citizens. His son, Kim Jong-un, recently instaled, hopes to continue the tradition.

So while North Korean citizens deserve democracy, human rights and the rule of law, Ethiopians don't? Why does the U.S. treat Africans like second class citizens of the world?

Zenawi's Ethiopia had been the United States' strongest ally in the region. He has supported the U.S. policy by sending Ethiopian troops into Somalia to fight the al-Shabab militants which the U.S. says are allied with al-Qaeda. This was enough to earn him cart blanche from the United States.

Before Zenawi, Ethiopia under strong man Mengistu Haille Mariam had been the Soviet Union's strongest ally. The Soviet Union never pressed for democracy in Ethiopia during Mengistu's 17 years in power; neither have the Americans in the 21 years that Zenawi was in charge.

Even though Ethiopia did register some economic achievements during Zenawi's rule, these came at a very heavy price. A culture of democratic transition was never nurtured. The enduring legacy of Zenawi is that he thoroughly personalized power: he destroyed the major institutions of the state; he oppressed members of the political opposition; and, he destroyed independent media.

How cowed was media? Even though Zenawi had not been seen in public for two months, few media outlets dared speculate about his health condition. Even today the exact cause of death is unknown with some reports that he had been on life-support for months.

The most notorious incidents occurred after the disputed national elections in 2005. Police violently crushed several protests by opposition party supporters in subsequent months and an independent report said 193 protestors were killed by Ethiopian police. As many as 20,000 people were initially arrested.

Meles Zenawi's death shows the folly of depending on one man as the cornerstone of Ameican foreign policy in a country. Just this year alone, Africa has lost three heads of state: in Malawi, Ghana, and now Ethiopia. In Malawi, after brief uncertainty and attempts at backroom deals the transition was peaceful. In Ghana, whose president John Atta Mills died recently, the succession was impresively transparent and smooth.

While President Barack Obama famously declared during his 2009 Accra Speech that Africa does not need strong men but strong institutions, American foreign policy in Africa remains based on the cult of personality. This is particularly true in Rwanda, Uganda and Ethiopia.

Rwanda in the past has provided troops for peace keeping work in Sudan's troubled Darfur region and it serves as a conduit for Western corporations who illegaly mine Congo's resources without paying taxes to the Central government. So Gen. Paul Kagame has enjoyed a blank check and the U.S. ignored human rights abuses and political repression within Rwanda. The U.S. also turned a blind eye to Kagame's role in the ongoing Congo genocide. Only recently, following another United Nations report implicating Rwanda's army in the Congo atrocities did the U.S. suspend military aid and hint that Gen. Kagame could be charged with war crimes.

In Uganda's case, Gen. Museveni has stationed about 10,000 troops in Somalia, which the U.S. says could fall to Al-Shabab militants and their allies al-Qaeda. So Uganda also enjoys a U.S. blank check; Gen. Museveni's human rights abuses and political repression at home as well as his army's role in the Congo genocide have also been ignored.

In all three cases, the preposterous conclusion is that democratically-elected governments in Rwanda, Uganda and Ethiopia wouldn't be willing to work on regional security issues with the United States.

Now that Zenawi is gone what next for U.S. policy in the region? And what would happen to American policy in the East and Central Africa if something were to happen to Gen. Kagame or Gen. Museveni? How can U.S. policy be so tied to the fate of mere individuals?

Gen. Kagame's and Gen. Museveni's Congo mischief has contributed to the deaths of 8 million Congolese and pillage of mineral and natural resource wealth.

Isn't it cheaper and wiser for the US to invest in the people of Africa by supporting genuine democracy and democratic institutions rather than immorally backing authoritarians? To borrow from President Obama's own message, U.S. Africa policy would stand on more solid foundation if it depended on strong institutions on the continent rather than African "strong men."

There certainly would be less suffering in Africa.

"Speaking Truth To Empower."

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