Obama: Failing the African Spring?

Obama Ghana parliament.jpg

Saul Loeb/Getty Images

President Barack Obama preparing to address Ghana’s parliament, Accra, Ghana, July 11, 2009

America’s new drone base in the West African city of Niamey, Niger, announced by the White House on Friday, further expands our counter-terrorism activity in Africa. It’s also consistent with the militaristic emphasis of the Obama administration’s engagement with the continent. This may help contain the spread of jihadist violence in specific cases, but by failing to address persistent abuses of human rights by our African military allies, America is also undermining its own development investments that are intended to lift millions of people out of poverty and ensure the continent’s peace, stability, and economic growth.

The administration’s neglect of human rights in Africa is a great disappointment, since the president began his first term by laying out ambitious new goals for the continent. In July 2009, when his presidency was only six months old, Barack Obama delivered a powerful speech at Cape Coast Castle in Ghana, the point from which millions of African slaves were shipped across the Atlantic. He called on African countries to end the tyranny of corruption that affects so many of their populations, and to build strong institutions that serve the people and hold leaders accountable. The speech seemed to extend the message of his much-discussed Cairo address a month earlier, in which he called for a new beginning for Muslim relations with the West, based on non-violence and mutual respect. Many thought that the policies of the new president, himself of Kenyan descent, would depart from those of the Bush administration, which provided a great deal of development aid to Africa, but paid scant attention to human rights.

After more than four years in office, however, Obama has done little to advance the idealistic goals of his Ghana speech. The US finally suspended military aid to Rwanda last year, after it was forced to accept evidence of Rwandan support for the brutal Congolese rebel group M23, but has otherwise ignored the highly problematic human rights situation in that country. In Uganda, the US looked on for years as President Yoweri Museveni’s cabinet ministers gorged themselves on American and other foreign aid intended for impoverished farmers, war victims, roads, and health care. US diplomats have recently begun expressing support for Uganda’s many oppressed civil society groups, but one wonders what took them so long. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that Uganda is a vital US military ally in Somalia, where Ugandan troops helped oust the Islamic militant group al-Shabbab from Mogadishu last year.

Meanwhile, Kenya, another important US ally in Somalia that is soon to be receiving drones from the Pentagon, is preparing for national elections on March 4. But some observers say the country is more violent now than it was in 2007, when post-election ethnic clashes left 1000 people dead and caused economic chaos across East Africa. Presidential candidate Uhuru Kenyatta and his running mate William Ruto have both been indicted by the International Criminal Court for crimes connected with those events. It’s not clear what the US will do if Kenyatta wins, but it often seems as if Obama will work with any African leader who furthers America’s military aims, regardless of how that leader treats his own people.

Awolia School photo.jpg

Awolia School Support Page

Ethiopian Muslims protesting in Addis Ababa, October, 2012

And then there is Ethiopia. Today, Western nations give $3.5 billion a year in aid to Ethiopia, most of it for health care projects, food aid, and other development programs. Of this, the US alone provides roughly $700 million—an amount that has quintupled in the past decade, even as the nation’s human rights record has deteriorated to the point that Freedom House now designates it one of the least free countries in the world. The Ethiopian government has rigged elections, taken control of the economy, and outlawed virtually all independent media and human rights activity in the country—including work related to women and children’s rights, good governance, and conflict resolution. Thousands of political prisoners languish behind bars and dozens of editors, journalists, judges, lawyers, and academics have been forced into exile.

But when Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi died last summer, then-US Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice praised him as a personal friend and a “talented and vital leader.” When she remarked that “he had little patience for fools, or ‘idiots,’ as he liked to call them,” some in the opposition believed she was referring to them—and approving Meles’s sentiments. Rice’s support for authoritarian leaders in Africa was highlighted by critics who opposed—and ultimately derailed—her nomination to be secretary of state.

Perhaps most worrying of all is the unwillingness of Obama and other Western leaders to say or do anything to support the hundreds of thousands of Muslim Ethiopians who have been demonstrating peacefully against government interference in their religious affairs for more than a year. (The Ethiopian government claims the country has a Christian majority, but Muslims may account for up to one half of the population.) You’d think a nonviolent Islamic movement would be just the kind of thing the Obama administration would want to showcase to the world. It has no hint of terrorist influence, and its leaders are calling for a secular government under the slogan “We have a cause worth dying for, but not worth killing for.” Indeed, the Ethiopian protesters may be leading Africa’s most promising and important nonviolent human rights campaign since the anti-apartheid struggle.


Yet the United States, along with other major donors to Ethiopia’s government, including Britain, has stood by as women and men have been hideously beaten by police, hundreds have been arrested, eight people have been killed, mosques have been raided by security forces, and twenty-nine Muslim leaders, including lawyers, professors, and businessmen, remain in jail, charged with trying to use violent means to create an Islamic state.

The demonstrations started in late 2011, after the government began forcing Imams to adopt an imported version of Islam. The Ethiopian government has a long history of trying to control civil society groups, including religious orders, by taking over their leadership. In 1992, Meles replaced the Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian Church with a party insider. Many Christians still resent this. In 1995, he replaced the leader of the Ethiopian Islamic Affairs Supreme Council, also known as the “Majlis,” again with someone from his party. Muslims grumbled about this, but did little more.

Then in 2011, on the pretext that the Islamic community was being radicalized by fundamentalist groups, Meles invited a Lebanese Islamic sect known as “Ahbash” to Ethiopia. The group, which was founded in Beirut by an Ethiopian exile in 1983, preaches obedience to government and opposes politicization of religion. All of Ethiopia’s Imams were required to go to meetings to listen to these newcomers, and were threatened with imprisonment if they refused. In the meetings, government officials were invariably present, and would lecture the imams about “Revolutionary Democracy,” the ruling party’s particularly rigid political doctrine. Most Ethiopian imams are volunteers, who work mainly as farmers, teachers, or in other trades to support themselves. But those who resisted taking part in the meetings and refused to preach the “Ahbash” version of Islam soon found themselves replaced by government-appointed, salaried adherents of the new official religion. The imams and their defenders began organizing nonviolent demonstrations that have since spread across the country.

In response, the Ethiopian government has attempted to portray the protesters as jihadists, most recently claiming in a government TV documentary that they are under the influence of Salafist extremists from Saudi Arabia. When a lawyer for the jailed movement leaders told a Voice of America journalist that the documentary undermined the presumption of innocence of his clients, he too was threatened with arrest. If this fear-mongering has been intended to send a message to the US, which supports Ethiopia’s anti-terrorism activities along the border with Somalia, it seems to have worked. Last year, former US Ambassador to Ethiopia David Shinn praised the Ethiopian reaction to the demonstrations, telling Reuters, “The government has done a pretty good job over the years in ameliorating religious differences where there are potentially serious conflicts.”

Ethiopian Muslims and Christians have long coexisted more or less in peace, as they do in Tanzania, Uganda, and other countries in the region. But since the demonstrations started, government officials have tried to infiltrate them and provoke violence among Muslim groups and between Muslims and Christians. It hasn’t worked. In recent months, Christians and secular human rights defenders have even joined in support of the Muslims, and the demonstrations have grown. The demonstrators use Facebook and secure Internet sites to outsmart government censors, and warn people to stay home when they learn that the government intends to plant violent hecklers among them to discredit the movement. When the movement’s leader, Abubakar Ahmed, who had been detained with other protesters (he is one of the twenty-nine awaiting trial), was paraded in chains before TV cameras, protesters showed up at the next demonstration with his picture on their T-shirts, and stood in a phalanx before the police with their wrists crossed, as if they too were in chains.

The Ethiopian protests began around the time of the Arab Spring, when it seemed the Obama administration might finally begin taking human rights in Africa seriously. In late 2011, for example, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton joined British Prime Minister David Cameron in declaring that their governments would consider penalizing foreign aid recipients, including several African countries, that cracked down on the rights of homosexuals. This rallying to the cause of gay rights would be heartening, if it weren’t for the fact that Cameron and Clinton have done so little to protect everyone else’s rights. Such official statements could even undermine sympathy for the gay rights cause in Africa.


For years, observers have wondered what the US administration’s policy toward Africa really is. Then, three years into Obama’s first term, the White House finally released its first Africa strategy document. It states that the US will “promote strong democratic norms” and “support civil society actors who are creating vibrant democratic models….” But as the situations in Ethiopia, Rwanda, and Uganda make clear, little has been done to further these aims. While continuing most of the development and public health initiatives of the Bush Administration, the Obama administration has given priority to US military aims.

Failing to challenge government corruption and repression undermines economic growth and social development throughout East Africa and beyond, as well the prospects for long term peace and stability. Even our direct military interventions have had dubious results. Experts continue to debate the wisdom of intervening in Libya, but there is no arguing with the fact that it helped rally—and arm—al-Qaeda supporters, who have spread terror to Mali and Algeria and perhaps other West African countries; impoverished Niger agreed to host the new US drone base in part out of growing fear of the jihadism that has spread from Libya.

More than half a century of post-independence African history has shown that focusing on stability, security and development while ignoring democracy and human rights is self-defeating, because it undermines those very goals. The US and other Western donors to Africa must do more to use the many instruments at their disposal to promote the reforms necessary to protect basic freedoms and uphold the rule of law. This will pose diplomatic challenges, but they could start by not turning their backs on peaceful protesters, just when our moral support—at the very least—is most urgently needed. As Czech playwright, dissident, and former president Vaclav Havel put it during the depths of Cold War, “The ‘dissident’ movements do not shy away from the idea of violent political overthrow because the idea seems too radical, but on the contrary, because it does not seem radical enough.” At the time, Western leaders rushed to support Havel and other non-violent activists throughout Europe. Now that Africans are calling for the same thing, why don’t today’s leaders do the same for them?

New York Review + Paris Review covers

Save $168 on an inspired pairing!

Get both The New York Review and The Paris Review at one low price.

Already a subscriber? Sign in