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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Mediocre leadership is the biggest crime against humanity

The saying goes that when the tide runs out you get to know who has been skinny dipping. In the same vein, it is when disaster strikes that you get to know who has mediocre leadership.

The ongoing famine in the Horn of Africa, the worst in 60 years, has exposed eastern African leaders for who they are. The Ethiopian and Eritrean governments for a while even refused to acknowledge the humanitarian catastrophe in their hands. The Kenyan government spokesman would not admit that any Kenyan has died from the famine. Kenya, the region’s biggest economy, is a lesson in the dangers of mediocre leadership: Meteorological warnings from two years ago were ignored; Money for food aid ended up in private bank accounts; and The government lacks any coherent agricultural and food security policies.

And because of it all, this is happening [please pardon the famine porn, but we need to see how REALLY bad things are]. 3.5 million Kenyans face starvation. 11 million in the wider region are affected.

In the last two days I have followed news stories on the situation in northern Kenya. I can only imagine how things are in the epicenter of the famine in Somalia and the Ogaden region of Ethiopia.

A lot of blame has been flying around. According to Jeff Sachs:

“The warning is also clear. The Horn of Africa is the world’s most vulnerable region, beset by extreme poverty, hunger and global climate change, notably a drying and warming of the climate during the past quarter century.”

adding that

“The west has contributed to the region’s crisis through global climate change that victimises the lives and livelihoods of the people of the region.”

In my view, however, the blame squarely lies with the region’s leadership. It is the leaders who have consistently refused to plan ahead, opting instead for palliative measures like food relief with lots of opportunity for graft. Blaming western colonialism, neocolonialism, climate change, etc are nothing but distractions. This problem and many other African problems are for the most part just that, African problems.

That millions of shillings in aid money was stolen, thus endangering millions of lives in northern Kenya, is a moral travesty. To add insult to injury, no one has yet been arrested or charged with the crime. It is Kenyan officials who have sat by and in some instances (in the past and now) even contributed to the endangerment of the lives of 3.5 million citizens of Kenya.

The usual perpetrators of crimes against humanity – warlords and their militia – kill with guns. But corrupt and mediocre civilian leadership continues to decimate millions more through both inaction and well calculated mis-allocation of resources.

Because of the famine 800,000 children in the wider region could die from malnutrition.

Food aid is definitely not a long term solution. But here is how you can chip in to help those affected by the famine.

the icc and the congo

IRIN news reports that arrests in Europe of political leaders of rebel movements in the Congo may not have much impact on the goings on on the ground. Even the FDLR is not immune to the commonplace principal-agent problems we are all aware of. The disconnect between the political leaders in Europe and generals on the ground is limiting the deterrence effects of the arrests.

I am not a huge fan of the ICC. But I am not one to throw out the baby with the bath water. The institution has potential to be a voice for the voiceless. Because of the ICC Kenyan politicians in the future will think twice before ordering jobless youth to murder innocent civilians. Because of the ICC rebel leaders cannot fly in and out of Brussels to raise money with abandon. These are not trivial achievements.

Accusations against the court’s Africa-bias may have some merit. Even more important are charges that the court does not appreciate the political consequences of justice or that the very idea of justice is political (see the Bashir case in Sudan). Others even point out the fact that going after the big fish ignores local offenses that also require redress. These are serious concerns that the ICC should address. But that said, overall I think that the ICC does more good than harm.

catch me if you can: of presidents and genocide

Those who conceive of justice as an end in itself must be livid. The last several days have seen one appeasement after another of heads of state who may have or have committed heinous crimes against their people. First there was the Kenyan invitation and failure to arrest suspected genocidaire Omar al-Bashir of Sudan. Then came the leaked UN report accusing Kagame’s men of committing crimes against humanity, and possibly genocide, in eastern Congo that did not stop regional presidents from attending the increasingly autocratic Kagame’s inauguration after his sham reelection. The damning report even forced the UN Secretary General to fly to Kigali in order to reassure Mr. Kagame and express his regret over the leaking of the report (I wonder if Mr. Kagame reminded Mr. Ki-moon about his peacekeepers’ abysmal failure to protect civilians from sexual violence in eastern Congo).

While appreciating the complexity of the respective cases (which have serious implications for regional security and stability), the recent events related to Messrs Bashir and Kagame may serve to  create a dangerous precedent. The whole point of the ICC was to make heads of state and other people in power think twice before going Pol Pot on their people. This objective will not be served if leaders realize that not even genocide can get in the way of regional and global geopolitical considerations.

In other news, as usual, Texas in Africa has interesting posts on the Congo. Check them out.

kagame on the ropes

I respect all that Paul Kagame has done for Rwanda. Under his leadership the country appears to have survived the 1994 catastrophe, emerging as the least corrupt and one of the fastest growing economies in the region. But like most autocrats, Mr. Kagame has had his dark side. A damning UN report apparently documents atrocities committed by Rwandan troops in eastern Congo. The just concluded general election in the mountainous central African nation has also exposed the former rebel’s anti-democratic tendencies and intolerance of any form of opposition. It is slowly emerging that not even the much praised and disciplined Mr. Kagame is immune to the most common disease afflicting most autocrats: believing that they are God’s gift to their people and therefore have the right to do whatever they want with their power.

I have not read the entire UN report but for more on it check out Texas in Africa.

jkia has free internet!

The last time I had free wireless at an airport was in Hartford, Connecticut. I am therefore absolutely delighted to be able to blog as I wait for my flight to London tonight. I am not looking forward to the long hours in pressurized steel tubes – as one of my pals calls them – and the long layover in the infamous Heathrow. Although there is no chance of missing my connecting flight to San Francisco, I am bracing myself for the possibility of not having my luggage when I arrive there.

Already missing home. It has been a fun one month, most of which I spent in rural Kenya. Being in Nairobi has been fun too. I am glad I got to be here for the referendum, the promulgation of the new constitution and the release of the 2009 national census results. Kenya is a lot of things, but lately it has been trying tooth and nail to put its best foot forward, the al-Bashir fiasco notwithstanding (I am one of those optimists who are hoping that Kenya was playing smart diplomacy by allowing the genocidaire president to come here in exchange of his honoring the January 9th secession referendum for Southern Sudan).

Sudan’s president bashir charged with genocide, icc issues new arrest warrant

President Omar al-Bashir just won’t shake the ICC off. The strongman of Khartoum already has an arrest warrant with his name on it for war crimes and crimes against humanity. To this the international criminal court has added three counts of genocide, the most serious charge in international law. It is interesting to see how friends of Khartoum, and African states in particular, will react to this new charge. The African Union chose to back Bashir the last time the ICC called for his arrest. Many African leaders have slighted the court for its disproportionate focus on African conflicts and human rights abuses.

Since 2003 Mr. Bashir has been waging a war against insurgents (led by the Chad-backed Justice and Equality Movement, JEM ) in the Darfur region in the west of the country. More than 200,000 people have been killed and millions displaced from their homes as a result.

of african IDPs

I could not miss the irony. African leaders will be gathered in Kampala, Uganda (19th – 23rd Oct.) to come up with a mechanism to protect the more than 11 million internally displaced people (IDPs) on the Continent. IRIN touts this as a landmark move. But I beg to ask the question: Is anyone asking these leaders what is causing this internal displacement in the first place? Couldn’t we all be better off if the kleptocrats who run the Continent were not into stealing elections, emptying their national treasuries, marginalizing segments of their populations and in extreme cases committing acts of genocide? Wouldn’t it be cheaper to not have IDPs in the first place?

ICC issues arrest warrant for Bashir

The International Criminal Court on Wednesday issued an arrest warrant for Sudan’s president Omar al-Bashir. It is the first time that such a warrant has been issued for the arrest of a sitting head of state. The ICC is accusing Bashir of war crimes and crimes against humanity for his involvement in the genocide in Darfur.

This particular warrant will be a real test. Being a sitting president, it is hard to see how he can be arrest since the warrant itself will be delivered to the government of Sudan. Furthermore, al-Bashir now has every incentive to remain president and to clamp down on the opposition. Some members of the Sudanese civil society have criticized the idea of attempting to arrest al-Bashir, arguing that it will only make him dig in and reverse any progress that they have made in terms of being granted civil liberties and political space.

The government of Sudan is yet to officially respond to the arrest warrant although the BBC quotes a government official as terming the warrant as “neo-colonialist.”