Kerry or Rice? The View From Africa

The window is closing fast on the chances of having an Africanist as US Secretary of State (Minister of Foreign Affairs). Republicans in the US Congress, human rights activists and a section of Africanists have come out in opposition to Ambassador Susan Rice. Republicans insist that she lied to Americans about the real masterminds of the attack on the US embassy in Libya that resulted in the deaths of four Americans, including the ambassador. The Africanists and human rights activists are not enthused by Ms Rice’s cozy relationship with the regimes of Paul Kagame of Rwanda and the late Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia. A section of African elites (the elitist sovereignty crowd) may also be wary of her support for interventionism on humanitarian grounds.

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

As things stand Pres. Obama might be forced to choose Sen. John Kerry over Ms Rice in order to avoid an unnecessary war with a section of Congress at a time when everyone and their dogs and cats should be worrying about the fiscal cliff.

John Kerry would not be a terrible choice. His past focus on drug trafficking in Latin America, free trade agreements and climate change would make him useful to Africa.

As I have written before, Africa is increasingly becoming a transit point for drugs from Asia and Latin America destined for the European market. Africa also needs more trade with the US beyond AGOA. And climate change will probably affect Africans the most since the vast majority of them depend on rain-fed agriculture and live under conditions that can least withstand natural disasters. But Kerry is not an Africa expert and has done little on the region beyond his support for the South Sudanese cause. This makes it hard to see how he will connect his global focus on these important issues to the African context.

Susan Rice on the other hand has studied Africa and has in the past shown a pragmatism that you want in the top US diplomat. Plus it helps that Ms Rice would have Obama’s ear as she is reported to be very close to the president. She has had successes at the UNSC, the highlight of which was the intervention in Libya to stop Gaddafi from butchering civilians in Benghazi. Rice is a smart straight-talker whose undiplomatic streaks can be a plus in a region full of under-achieving strongmen.

For a very long time Foggy Bottom has seen Africa through a humanitarian lens. Even Hillary Clinton, with all her awesomeness, has done little in new initiatives for Africa beyond human rights issues and a campaign that involved providing cameras for rape victims in eastern DRC. These are not unimportant issues. I am not saying that human rights catastrophes in Africa should be ignored. Just that this should not be a secretary of state’s pet project for the entire the region.

In my opinion Ms Rice’s biggest plus is that she gets one of Africa’s biggest challenges: state incapacity.

It would be nice to have a US secretary of state who takes state capacity development in the region as her pet project (and has the guts to at times subordinate democracy promotion to this project). Her praise of Kagame and Zenawi (no doubt both rabid and at times murderous autocrats) was centred around this very same idea (and to be honest, the ghosts of Rwanda circa 1994). Democracy promotion is a noble cause. But it must be done with a sober mind. The last thing you want is a procrustean approach to the promotion of rights, freedoms and liberties like we have seen in the past.

(Just for the record, I am pro-democracy and have criticized the likes of Kagame here and here, among other forums).

Anyone who reads the development reports side by side with the human rights reports from Rwanda and Ethiopia must be conflicted. I have talked to a senior opposition figure from Ethiopia who told me that she thinks the biggest challenge to fighting Meles Zenawi (at the time) is that “people see the dams and the roads.” It is hard to ignore revealed competence. I would hazard to guess that most people would rather live in autocratic Singapore than democratic Malawi. Yes, it is not an either/or argument with these regimes. All I am saying is that interventionism has to be constructive and not lead to the rolling back of hard fought gains against disease, illiteracy and poverty in these states.

As I opined following Obama’s reelection, I think that security will be at the top of the US Africa policy, of course dressed up in rhetoric about democracy and human rights. John Kerry will handle that on auto pilot. His focus will be on the Middle East and South Asia. It would have been better to have an Africanist at the helm who understands more about the continent and could sneak in a few policy agendas here and there that could make a difference on the ground. An aggressive focus on state capacity development could have been one of those policies.

This is a missed opportunity for Africa. For the first time in history Africa had a chance to have the number one American diplomat be a person who is an expert on a section of the region (Ms Rice wrote a thesis on Zimbabwe). Her defense of a couple of African autocrats aside, I think Ms Rice would have been better for Africa than John Kerry – who in all likelihood will focus on the Middle East and South Asia and continue Sub-Saharan Africa’s designation to the “humanitarianism column.”

8 thoughts on “Kerry or Rice? The View From Africa

  1. “the number one American diplomat be a person who is an expert on a section of the region (Ms Rice wrote a thesis on Zimbabwe). Her defense of a couple of African autocrats aside, I think Ms Rice would have been better for Africa?” Wow. Opalo, you must have been promised a job upon graduation otherwise you would not be equating “an expert on a section of Africa” is an expert on Africa; that Rice’s defense of “a couple of African autocrats” could be dismissed that easily. Let us count African autocrats Rice has been defending: Meles Zenawi, Museveni, Kagame, Joseph Kabila. Is this just “couple?” It appears you need not graduate before taking a crash course on human rights and good governance.


  2. Alex,

    Many thanks for your comment.

    I post all comments on the blog so please desist from personal attacks and stick to the issues in future comments.

    I plan to work in academia when I graduate and, being Kenyan, I do not think State would employ me even if I wanted to.

    What I do on the blog is air my opinions. The idea that everyone has to think the same on all issues otherwise they have been bought is simply absurd. I am a lowly grad student with no connection to any of these dictators you talk about. What I am is an African who does not have the luxury of only reading human rights reports. I care about human rights just as much as I do about infant mortality rates.

    My only response to your comment is that I can’t imagine how you promote human rights in a stateless environment.

    I am still reading a lot of stuff on governance, and will do more on human rights as per your suggestion. In the same spirit, I suggest that you read more about the importance of state capacity and strong national institutions. You should also take time to read on how the West and other stable places that respect human rights got to where they are at present.

    Thank you and I look forward to getting more comments from you in the future.


  3. Opalo, I don’t know what you mean by “personal attacks.” I was not attacking you but addressing your very biased ideas. The reference to a promise of a job was a hyperbole. You said you are about to graduate from Stanford [Rice’s alma mater] and rooting for her while overlooking her unconscionable blunders. I know you have every right to support who you like but you have no reason to distort facts to fit your side of the argument. Take care.


  4. If your quibble is with my (mis)use of the word “couple” when indeed Rice has turned a blind eye to the actions of Kagame, Kabila, Museveni, Zenawi, and others, then I do apologize (both to you and my high school teacher of English).

    We should not pretend that the US Secretary of State will be some benevolent messiah out to right all ills in Africa (including genocides and other wars instigated by Africans against other Africans). Whenever US interests collide with human rights or the fate of children under five or whatever else, we know who will win, regardless of who is Secretary of State. As Africans thinking about foreign policy we should think of ways to leverage our engagements with the rest of the world (including exploiting the fact that most of the West are functional democracies dependent on campaign finance and voter sentiment) with a view of having stronger states with stronger bargaining power against the world powers – including China and the US.

    I am not Susan Rice’s PR person. The post you commented on was merely intended to weigh in on who would be better for Africa between Kerry and Rice. In my considered opinion I thought Rice would have made a better candidate. If you thought I was wrong you should have highlighted why you think Kerry was a better candidate or suggested what you think should define a good candidate for the job, from an African perspective.

    If you care to write a rebuttal post I will gladly post in the blog as a guest post.




  5. Opalo, are you trying to move the goalposts to start us on a new game? Your usage of “couple” was meant to minimize Rice’s blunders; listing despots by name, I insisted, shed more light on the gravity of the situation. You were writing in support of Rice. I was not writing in support of Kerry and would not be able to foretell how effective or ineffective he is going to be as Secretary. Rice has been involved in African affairs since 1993. Twenty years is more than adequate to evaluate her policy choices and the consequences of those choices. Take care.


  6. Alex,

    I am writing after the fact. Kerry will be the SOS. I am Ethiopian. I prefer a Kerry who is non-expert than have Ms Rice justify the abuse of African strongmen. Is Rice is not on the side of African people, why seek her presence. I fully disagree your coded language about ‘state capacity’. Dictators control and use state capacity to oppress the people. Africa is dying for lack of freedom, not lack strong regimes.


  7. Pingback: US Africa Policy, A Response « Opalo's weblog

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