President Obama: End Subsidies To African Tyrants

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[Comment: Africa And Accountability]

In recent months, Africa has been in the news everywhere and for once, for a good reason. This time, it’s about one of its grandsons in the name of U.S. President Barack Obama, coming to visit and to talk about what his Administration’s plans for working with Africa.

Similarly, Obama’s foreign policy face, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently visited seven African countries repeating President Obama’s message to the people and leaders.

Secretary Clinton’s choice of countries visited raises questions on whether it is an indication of US policy changes from previous US administrations.

She visited South Africa, Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nigeria, Liberia, and Cape Verde; she ignored traditional U.S. stops in the previous clients states of Uganda and Ethiopia. Previous US administrations called on the leaders of these countries, Yoweri Museveni in Uganda and Meles Zenawi in Ethiopia, as a matter of course.

Yet on his inauguration speech on January 20, 2009, the newly elected US president warned corrupt leaders and dictators to “do the right thing”. He stressed the importance of accountable leadership. It was in contrast to any previous newly elected US presidents who rarely ever made any reference to Africa during their campaigns or acceptance speeches.

President Obama’s speech raised hopes for Africans living under the yoke of tyranny and highlighted the fact that America is aware of the leadership failures facing many African nations today; and the attendant suffering that it visits on the general population.

“To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society's ills on the West,” Obama had said, on Inauguration Day, “know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history.”

Africans all over the world claimed the remark was directly squarely at their own specific dictator; but really, it was meant to any usurper and unaccountable ruler on the continent.

This message sent a cold chill in the spines of some African leaders, many of whom have stuck in power for decades. Such leaders include Angola’s Eduardo Dos Santos, 65, who has been in power since 1979; Cameroon’s President Paul Biya, 74, running the show since 1982; Congo Republic’s President Dennis Sassou Nguesso, 64, who seized power in a 1979 coup; and, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, 79, ruling since 1981.

Other lifelong African dictators include Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, 65, who seized power in a bloodless military coup in 1969; Swaziland’s King Makhosetive Mswati III, 39, since 1987; Tunisia’s Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, 71, in office since 1987; and, Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni, who may be 63, and has been in office since he seized power in 1986.

The list continues with Isaias Afeworki, 53, ruling Eritrea since 1993; and the controversial Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, 83, who became prime minister in 1980 after independence; later, he became president.

These men have done everything and anything to remain in power including killing, jailing, torturing, and exiling opposition leaders. Ironically, most if not all of these leaders enjoyed excellent working relationship with the US and other Western countries.

The West’s lectures about “human rights,” and “democracy” were ugly and cynical proclamations with no meaning on the ground. During Bill Clinton’s presidency, tyrants such as Museveni, Zenawi and Rwanda’s Paul Kagame were falsely branded as a “new breed of African leadership.” The only thing new was that each elevated plunder of national resources –including during Uganda’s and Rwanda’s occupation of DR Congo—to unimaginable heights.

Will President Obama end the cynicism and herald new policy towards Africa?

Speaking at the 8th U.S.-Sub-Saharan Africa Trade and Economic Cooperation Forum in Nairobi, Kenya, Clinton reiterated President Obama’s message: "Many people believe that democracy is alive and well because an election has taken place. But, as important as elections are, democracy is not just about the ballot box. Citizens and governments need to work together to build and sustain strong democratic institutions.”

This statement echoed what President Barack Obama said during his visit to Ghana challenging Africans to take charge of their future and that of their countries in order to achieve what they want. He promised American backing for democratic reforms in African countries.

Obama was very explicit: “No country is going to create wealth if its leaders exploit the economy to enrich themselves or if police -- if police can be bought off by drug traffickers. No business wants to invest in a place where the government skims 20 percent off the top -- or the head of the Port Authority is corrupt.  No person wants to live in a society where the rule of law gives way to the rule of brutality and bribery. That is not democracy, that is tyranny, even if occasionally you sprinkle an election in there.  And now is the time for that style of governance to end.”

Again Africans were quick to claim that the remarks were directed at their own specific tyrant; again, they were meant for all of them.

It is the kind of message that had become a taboo and no leader of the Western World wanted to say to or about Africa. Yet, it is what unaccountable leaders need to hear; without the Western sustenance, they would not be able to impose their tyranny on Africans.

But Africans are accustomed to empty promises; lies, hypocrisy and lack of commitment by Western nations like the US. Countries that say one thing and do the opposite. Africans are used to seeing American taxpayers’ money being handed to African dictators, seeing African ambassadors invited to the White House and seeing America turns its eyes away when African dictators are abusing their citizens.

Will it be any different this time around?

President Obama’s Administration should explicitly and openly promote a change in policy and divert from what previous US Administrations have done. U.S. foreign policy to Africa should become more pro-active. There can be no rewards for tyranny and abuse of human rights: democracy, justice and accountability must prevail if U.S. tax-payers’ dollars is to support any African country.

Africans don’t expect the U.S. to solve their problems. Africans seek partnership, not patronage and handouts from America.

At the very least, they don’t expect the U.S. to continue subsidizing tyranny on the continent.

Otika is a Director with Africa Policy Advocates, an organization that advocates for accountable and responsible US-Africa Policy found online at

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