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.”

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al-shabaab may be linked to kampala blasts

UPDATE: The daily nation reports that Somalia’s insurgent group al-Shabab has claimed the bombings that killed dozens in Kampala yesterday. The Atlantic’s Max Fisher offers an interesting analysis of the bombings.

Blasts in Uganda’s capital, Kampala, killed at least 64, the BBC reports. According to the report Ugandan security forces suspect that the bomb attacks may have been carried out by Somali insurgent groups. Ugandan troops are the backbone of the 5000 strong African Union contingent propping up the hapless transitional government of Somalia. The main rebel group in Somalia, the islamist al-Shabab, has previously threatened to attack Uganda in connection with its military presence in Somalia.

These attacks may be the beginning of a new security problem in the wider east African region. Since the fall of Siad Barre in 1991 the Somali’s have largely kept their violence within their borders, the only regional effect being the proliferation of light arms and the recent surge in piracy off the Somali coast. But that will change now that internationally-linked groups like al-Shabab are willing to export violence beyond the Somali borders. It might be time for unconventional approaches to the Somalia problem.

Uganda is scheduled to host a high profile African Union summit next week and security must be an even bigger concern for the Ugandan government in light of these attacks.

the epitome of sensationalist journalism….

I am not a blind apologist. I am usually very critical of African governments and Africans in general for their failure to guarantee most of the continent decent, humane existence. That said, I am totally against depictions of the African continent, as a whole, as an incorrigible dystopia. I just read an article written back in 1994 by one Robert D. Kaplan, a journalist with the Atlantic Monthly.To say the least, some of the stuff he says is laughable. Now even I would find it hard to defend West African peace – Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ivory Coast, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, not to mention the countries of the Sahel are all “peaceless” places. But this guy goes overboard. It’s a rather long piece, but please read it.

Here is just one of those offending paragraphs:

Africa may be as relevant to the future character of world politics as the Balkans were a hundred years ago, prior to the two Balkan wars and the First World War. Then the threat was the collapse of empires and the birth of nations based solely on tribe. Now the threat is more elemental: nature unchecked. Africa’s immediate future could be very bad. The coming upheaval, in which foreign embassies are shut down, states collapse, and contact with the outside world takes place through dangerous, disease-ridden coastal trading posts, will loom large in the century we are entering. (Nine of twenty-one U.S. foreign-aid missions to be closed over the next three years are in Africa—a prologue to a consolidation of U.S. embassies themselves.) Precisely because much of Africa is set to go over the edge at a time when the Cold War has ended, when environmental and demographic stress in other parts of the globe is becoming critical, and when the post-First World War system of nation-states—not just in the Balkans but perhaps also in the Middle East—is about to be toppled, Africa suggests what war, borders, and ethnic politics will be like a few decades hence.”

And here is one that gives you food for thought:

“Slums are litmus tests for innate cultural strengths and weaknesses. Those peoples whose cultures can harbor extensive slum life without decomposing will be, relatively speaking, the future’s winners. Those whose cultures cannot will be the future’s victims.”

This article left me wondering: does anyone in any government on the continent ever read some of this stuff? And if they do, how do they react ??