What Obama’s re-election means for US Africa Policy

On the 14th of June this year President Obama outlined his policy for Sub-Saharan Africa. Included in the policy statement were four key strategic objectives: (1) strengthen democratic institutions; (2) spur economic growth, trade, and investment; (3) advance peace and security; and (4) promote opportunity and development.

In my view, of the four aspirational goals the one that will receive the most attention in the near future will be the third (especially security).

US strategic security interests in Africa mainly involve two key concerns: (1) China’s growing economic presence in the region and (2) the spread of Al-Qaeda linked groups in the region, stretching from Somalia to Mauritania (This is why Mali featured more prominently than the EU in the Presidential foreign policy debate). Before talking about China, here are my thoughts on the US campaign against  al-Qaeda in Africa.

While I don’t foresee any success in the creation of an African base for AFRICOM, the US will continue to cooperate with AU member states in fighting Islamist extremism in the region. The “successful” AU mission in Somalia could provide a blueprint for future operations against potential terror groups. The biggest lesson from Somalia is that the US cannot just pick one nation (in this case Ethiopia) to fight its wars in the region, and that a collaborative effort with the blessing of the regional umbrella organization (the AU) and others such as IGAD can deliver results.

Having helped (both directly and indirectly) in the ouster of Al-Shabaab from strategic locations in Somalia, the next big task will be dealing with the mushrooming Islamist extremism in the Sahel (especially in northern Mali but also in Niger and Nigeria).

The problem of extremism in the Sahel is further compounded by the link of some of the groups to the drug trade flowing from Latin America and into Europe. There is significant evidence that drug money has financed the activities of separatist groups in northern Mali. The fight against these groups will necessarily involve dealing with this crucial source of finance. This means that for the operation to succeed the US will have to engage in capacity building and the strengthening (and clean-up) of security institutions (especially the armies) in states like Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, South Africa, Kenya, among others, in which officials in the security sector have been implicated in the drug trade.

The Sahelian challenge might yet prove more formidable than Somalia. The latter case had relatively stable neighbors that served to contain the anarchy. The Sahel (Sahelistan, if you will) is much larger and includes some of the least governed spaces on the planet.

On China, the US (and for that matter, the rest of the West) has to change its present approach of total freak-out overt suspicion over Chinese involvement in Africa. Africans need protection from China only as much as they need protection from the West. China is not out to “exploit” Africa any more than the West has. Nobody should expect China to engage Africa more benevolently than the West did for the better part of the last 60 years (Mobutu and Bokassa were not that different from Bashir and Mugabe).

A constructive approach ought to include policies designed to strengthen African states so that they can engage China on their own terms. It is ultimately African leaders who mortgage their resources and sovereignty to China (or the West). Instead of focusing too much on China, a better approach might be one that creates strong regional organizations (like the SADC or the EAC) that can improve the bargaining power of African states.

The other policy objectives outlined by Obama appear to fall in the business-as-usual category. Democracy promotion will not yield much in the face of other more pressing priorities (notice how security has triumphed over democracy in Mali). And unless the US is willing to get involved in massive infrastructure projects like China has (last time I checked they were in 35 African states), I don’t see how it can help spur economic growth in the region (AGOA was great, but Africa needs something better). Plus the US continues to be hampered in its development-promotion efforts by its aversion to state industrial policy. It’s about time Foggy Bottom realized that it is really hard to have a thriving private sector and American-style free enterprise in places with bad roads, very few (and bad) schools, and governments that are run by personalist dictators. In these instances some corruption-laden developmental state policies may be the best way to go.

Quick hits

Follow the goings on in the DRC (especially this election season) over at Alex Engwete’s blog.

Living under the shadow of Kony and his men in Eastern CAR.

On a related note, the Ugandan army’s dirty war in the Congo and CAR.

Shame on the ANC. But there is still hope for cleaner politics in South Africa. The ANC is an over-size coalition with a high chance of internal breakup in the not so distant future. It might even occur sooner, over the Zuma succession. And this time it might not be a rather benign COPE affair. You can read more on the controversial bill over at the Economist.

Trying God? Churches claim to have cured HIV positive congregants. This goes beyond faith, it is naked exploitation. And a call for government involvement.

And lastly, a very dictator Christmas (via Blattman)

Rants and Raves / Thoughts on the African Union

The African Union (AU) has had a rough few months. The diplomatic failures in Zimbabwe, Cote d’Ivoire, and Madagascar exposed the organization’s incompetence. The misguided anti-ICC crusade continues to cement the image of the organization as nothing more than a club of out-of-date and tone deaf autocrats. To many observers, calls for “African  Solutions to African Problems” amid all this failure has been seen as a cover of impunity and mediocre leadership on the African continent.

It says a lot that the current chairman of AU is President Theodore Obiang’ of Equatorial Guinea; a man who leads an oil-rich country of under 0.7 million people, with a per capita income of more than 30,000; but with more than 70% of its population living on less than $2 a day.

The epitome of the organization’s woes was the total snub it got from NATO before the military campaign against Libya’s Gaddafi, one of the AU’s main patrons. The AU was created by the Sirte Declaration, in Libya. Mr. Gaddafi’s influence ranged from his “African Kings” caucus (in which he was the King of Kings) to investments from Libya’s Sovereign wealth fund. I bet Gaddafi had a hand in the organization’s green flag.

So what ails the African Union?

The AU’s problems are legion. In my view, the following are some of the key ones.

  1. Lack of a regional hegemon(s): The AU faces massive collective action problems. With no regional hegemon(s) to act as the rudder of the organization, most of the organization’s resolutions are not worth the paper they get written on. The rotating chairmanship is a distraction from the real leadership needed in the organization. For instance, I had to google it to find out who’s currently in charge of the presidency of the EU (Poland). Everybody knows that France and Germany run the EU. Their word has gravitas in the Union. In the AU on the other hand, there is no leader. Could it be Navel-gaving South Africa or serially under-performing Nigeria?
  2. Too much political control: Most successful international organizations, despite having political principals, tend to have technical agents that are to some extent shielded from the principals. The AU is political through and through. The key decision-making body is the assembly of heads of state. The council of ministers does nothing. And the commission is all bark and no bite. Cronies of dictators staff most of the key positions in the organization.
  3. Disconnect from the masses: Most Africans have no idea what exactly the AU does. What is the point of the organization? Is it to preserve Africa’s borders? Is it to defend the likes of Gaddafi when the ICC’s Mr. Ocampo comes calling? Giving the people a voice in the Union might force the organization to do the people’s bidding, instead of being a protector of impunity in the name of African sovereignty.

What would reforming the AU entail?

  1. Radical restructuring: Like all inter-state organizations, the AU’s leadership should reflect regional power differences. The current assembly – in which Chad has the same power as Nigeria – makes no sense. There should be a smaller assembly of sub-regional representatives (West – Nigeria; East-Ethiopia; North – Egypt; and South-South Africa) with veto power and the mandate to implement the organization’s resolutions.
  2. Competent staffing: The practice of presidents appointing their sisters-in-law as AU representatives should go. An injection of competent expertise into the organization would go a long way in making it appear to be a more politically independent, competent and respectable organization.
  3. Direct elections to the AU parliament or no parliament at all: Instead of having the members’ parliaments elect representatives to the AU parliament, there should be direct elections. If that cannot happen then the parliament should be scrapped all together. A toothless and unrepresentative parliament is a waste of resources.
  4. Constructive and focused engagement with the rest of the world: Who is the AU chief foreign policy person? Are there permanent representatives in Beijing, Brussels, Brasilia, New Delhi and Washington? Why aren’t they trying to initiate a collective bargaining approach when dealing with these global powers (even if it is at the sub-regional level)? And what with the siege mentality? Not every condemnation of African leaders’ incompetence and mediocrity is a neo-colonial conspiracy, you know. For instance, instead of whining against the ICC’s Africa bias, the AU should clean up its own house. It doesn’t matter that George Bush is not being tried for crimes against Iraqis. The last time I checked none of the leaders of Switzerland was being tried for crimes committed in the German cantons.
  5. A more consistent commitment to progressive ideals: The AU is the only organization in the world that includes in its charter the provision to intervene in its member countries under the principle of responsibility to protect. If the AU were slightly more serious, the disasters in Zimbabwe, Cote Ivoire and Madagascar could have been nipped in the bud. As things stand it is only tiny Botswana that keeps shouting about the organization’s commitment to proper governance and responsibility to protect.

I am not a fan of the idea of the United States of Africa. That said, I believe that a regional organization like the AU can be a force for good. But in order for it to fulfill its purpose, it has to change. The change must reflect the regional power balance; it must increase the competence quotient in the AU and it must increase the voice of the average African within the organization.

perspective: land issues in Kenya and zimbabwe

This quote made me pause for a moment:

“As seen in this work, the naked exploitation of land rights has a far longer and more illustrious history in Kenyan than in Zimbabwe. Further, the human cost of such exploitation of land rights in Zimbabwe pales in comparison to Kenya. Human Rights Watch, which is not known to underestimate rights abuses, reports that, by the year 2000 seven white farmers and several tens of black farmers had been killed in Zimbabwe in such violent exploitation of land rights. By the year 2000, these activities in Kenya had resulted in the deaths of thousands and displaced hundreds of thousands”

That is Onoma in his book on the Politics of Property Rights Institutions in Africa.

Notice that the figures quoted do not include the victims of Kenya’s 2007-08 post election violence. 1300 died, and just over 300,000 were displaced.

In 1980 6000 (white) Zimbabweans owned 42% of the land in the country. How anyone, including the white farmers, thought this was sustainable in the long run beats me.

In some sense Zimbabwe was inevitable. South Africa is next.

mugabe’s marital blues

When I first read the story of Grace Mugabe’s alleged extra-marital affair with Gideon Gono, Zimbabwe’s governor of the Central Bank, I was a bit skeptical. However, it appears that the story might be  true. Grace (often caricatured as an extravagant spender) married uncle Rob (41 years her senior) in 1996, four year’s after the death of President Mugabe’s first wife Sally. The couple have two children.

zimbabwe is more than just afloat these days

As this piece in the Economist reports, Zimbabwe is slowly emerging from the hole that Mugabe and his men run it into. The pragmatic Tsvangirai and his MDC supporters appear to have decided that confronting the old man on every issue is a losing war and opted to placate him in the short run for long term gains. Importantly, Tsvangirai has strove to earn the confidence of Jacob Zuma, the South African president who is the de facto regional leader.

That Robert Mugabe is in the twilight of his despotic career is a given. What Tsvangirai and his men (and women, TIA) should be worried about is his cabal of leeches supporters who have continued to milk the country dry even as thousands of their fellow citizens died under crashing poverty and government brutality. These are the people in the way of Zim’s future.

stop the blame game and move on

I am no apologist for colonialism. I am also not a fan of blaming everything on colonialism. Arbitrary borders, neocolonialism, assassination of presidents, unfair farm subsidies etc etc are the usual things we hear as explanations to why most of Africa remains economically backward. I say it has been more than 50 years and its about time we moved on. Colonialism had its evils, no doubt about that. However, it’s enduring legacy on the Continent has been the fault of Africans and their leaders. There are numerous other countries that have managed to take off even though they were also colonized and for some time were heavily dependent on the industrialised West.

Mobutu, Amin, Bokassa, Moi, Mugabe, Nimeiry, Gaddafi, Doe etc etc were all Africans who deliberately chose to mess up their countries. Nobody held guns to their heads to force them to do what they did. Guinea – at independence – is a clear case that it was quite possible to break free from the former colonizers. All the above mentioned men presided over wasted dictatorships. They killed and maimed and jailed thousands of their citizens but never attempted to do what Pinochet did for Chile or the dictators of the Asian tigers did for their countries. Instead they stole everything they could from their treasuries.

The reason I bring this up is because I just attended a talk on the legacy of colonialism in Africa where the general consensus seems to have been that European colonizers were to blame for most ills on the continent. I find this track of thought wanting. African failure should squarely be blamed on inept African leadership.

internally displaced people in Africa

There are other questions too. Should IDPs stay in rural areas or be resettled in towns? Providing the right amount of assistance is tricky as well. Too much, and an African government risks turning camps into subsidised slums. Too little, and people die.”

The above quote is from this weeks Economist Newspaper. As I have argued before, I think that the move to come up with a framework to protect IDPs on the Continent is a charade. I don’t get how the likes of Mugabe (one of the chief displacers of people on the Continent) are supposed to be entrusted with protecting the same people. Having UNHCR do the job sounds good but is riddled with huge moral hazard problems – as illustrated by the above quote.

Meanwhile, this is the kind of life that many an African autocrat (and soon the effects of climate change) forces his fellow citizens to live.

Zimbabwe: a deal at last?

The BBC is reporting that the government of Robert Mugabe and the opposition MDC, led by Morgan Tsvangirai, have agreed to a tentative deal that may see the formation of a coalition government by MDC and ZANU-PF. I am cautiously optimistic because the last time such an agreement was made Mugabe failed to hold his end of the bargain.

The tussle still remains around who should control powerful ministries in charge of the treasury and the security forces. Mugabe, and his henchmen in the security forces, are afraid of possible prosecution and loss of control if they give up ministries running the security forces. The opposition MDC on the other hand, tired of years of intimidation and police brutality, want to have control over the police forces and perhaps to reform the departments and bring some of the offenders who tortured and killed innocent Zimbabweans under Mugabe to book.

mugabe and tsvangirai failing Zimbabwe

There comes a time when convention and ideology needs to be brushed aside for the sake of the well being of a nation. Now is such a time for Zimbabwe, once Southern Africa’s bread basket but now a basket case in its own right. The truth be said, Robert Mugabe’s land policies had some merit. It is inconceivable in any democracy that a tiny percentage of the population (most of foreign origin whose grandparents and parents stole land from native Zimbabweans) should own huge tracts of land while the vast majority subsist on tiny parcels. This system was simply unsustainable and was bound to explode with or without uncle Rob (next watch South Africa under Zuma…..). That said, it is indisputable that Mugabe bungled the entire process. Forceful evictions, cronyism and outright thuggery made the whole process seem like it was being run by a bunch of kids.

So now the water has been spilled. As they say where I come from, maji yakimwagika hayazoleki (once water has been spilled you can’t put it back into a container). The Zimbabwean economy is paying dearly for Rob’s misadventures. The political process has also been a major casualty of the land mess. And millions of Zimbabweans have been forced to flee their own country. A few questionable elections have been held. Many have been jailed for political reasons.

With all the above in mind, I can’t help but wonder why the hell Robert Mugabe and Robert Tsvangirai are continuing in their dillying and dallying instead of reaching an agreement to start fixing the country. Perhaps Tsvangirai does not want to cede any ground on principle. But this is no time for principles or unncessary fights. People – with only one life to live like all of us – are dying daily because of the intransigence of these two men and their aides. Someone needs to lock them up in a room without food or bathroom break until they come up with a plan to save Zimbabwe. Meanwhile, South Africa continues to be a big disappointment in this affair. They are the last country one would expect to tolerate arbitrary tyranny – regardless of the color of the skin of the tyran.