Amb. Susan Rice as a Window into US Africa Policy, 1993-Present

I am not interested in joining the debate about whether US Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice should be the Obama administration’s next Secretary of State. Nor am I interested in the political controversy concerning Amb. Rice’s remarks about the attacks in Benghazi. Nor, finally, am I much interested in criticisms of Amb. Rice’s personal style and how that affects US relations with other countries, although I do feel that diplomats’ personal styles are important. What does interest me are the critical perspectives that the debate about the Ambassador’s longer record is opening regarding the last two decades of US policy in sub-Saharan Africa. One of the most important lessons from looking at these criticisms and controversies is that some of the same dilemmas that US policymakers wrestled with in the 1990s still haunt them today, particularly when it comes to working with African leaders like President Paul Kagame of Rwanda and President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda.

Amb. Rice has been a key foreign policy thinker for the Democratic Party since 1988, when she was an adviser to Democratic presidential candidate Governor Michael Dukakis. She served on the National Security Council and in other positions during President Clinton’s first term, and was Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs during his second term. A senior foreign policy adviser to then-Senator Barack Obama during his first presidential campaign, she served as Ambassador to the United Nations during President Obama’s first term, and holds that position still. Given her experience working in senior positions for the last Democratic president and the current one, Amb. Rice has been involved in a number of important decisions related to US policy in sub-Saharan Africa – as well, of course, as other parts of the world.

Mainstream criticism of the Ambassador’s policy preferences on sub-Saharan Africa focuses on three specific issues (arranged in chronological order from most recent to furthest past). Again, although the criticisms of Amb. Rice are extremely serious, I want to discuss the decisions and principles involved, which involved multiple actors and institutions. With each point I highlight the criticism against her and then what I see as the broader issue.

  • Rwanda 2012. Critics charge that Amb. Rice has made the violent conflict in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) harder to resolve by blocking efforts to charge Rwanda with responsibility for backing the M23 militia. (Pieces by Armin Rosen, Jason Stearns, and Colum Lynch outline the issues at play, and Rosen’s piece quotes several critics of the Ambassador.) For me, the key question is: To what extent should the US attempt to shield its allies from criticism and international reaction?
  • DRC 1996-2001. Critics charge that Amb. Rice endorsed Rwanda and Uganda’s intervention in the present-day DRC circa 1998, feeling that such intervention would help prevent renewed genocide in the region. (See Howard French’s piece here.) This support, French writes, reflected a broader Clinton administration policy of “promoting a group of men it called the New African Leaders, including the heads of state of Ethiopia, Eritrea, Uganda, and Rwanda. As Clinton officials saw it, these New Leaders were sympathetic and businesslike, drawn together by such desirable goals as overthrowing Mobutu, by antagonism toward the Islamist government of Sudan, which shares a border with northeast Congo, and by talk of rethinking Africa’s hitherto sacrosanct borders, as a means of creating more viable states.” For me, the key question is similar to the one raised above: To what extent should the US support allies in Africa who have, themselves, questionable foreign policies and domestic records?
  • Sudan 1997. Critics charge that Amb. Rice’s opposition to reopening the US embassy in Sudan in 1997 prevented an opportunity to influence Sudanese attitudes and hampered US intelligence-gathering about Al Qaeda and other armed Muslim groups (see Roger Cohen’s opinion piece on the topic). For me, the key question is: To what extent should the US prioritize punitive actions and “sending a message” to states policymakers believe have committed or abetted serious crimes, and to what extent should the US prioritize open diplomatic exchange in the interest of information-gathering and the normalization of relations?

These questions and complex situations could be boiled down even further, to a set of interrelated questions: How does Washington define its allies, and do these alliances make sense? And how does Washington define its enemies, and does treating these states and leaders as enemies make sense? That these questions have haunted US policy in the Great Lakes region of Africa and in Sudan from the 1990s to the present suggests how difficult such questions are to resolve; Rosen writes that with the DRC and Rwanda, events in 1998 and 2012 “have played out in an eerily similar fashion.” The similarities between past and present also suggest that the US approach has limited Washington’s ability to halt violence in these areas. Howard French argues forcefully that Washington’s Africa policy of the past two decades, as symbolized by Amb. Rice, has failed: “The United States…remains mired in an approach whose foundation dates to the Cold War, when we cherry-picked strongmen among Africa’s leaders, autocrats we could ‘work with,’ according to the old diplomatic cliché…What this leaves us with, in effect, is a policy stripped of any real moral force.”

Nigeria: A Middle Course on Designating Boko Haram a Foreign Terrorist Organization

This spring, legislators, the Justice Department, and others in Washington urged the administration of President Barack Obama to designate the Nigerian rebel movement Boko Haram a “Foreign Terrorist Organization” (FTO). For now, the administration is taking a middle course:

The U.S. government is expected to formally apply a “foreign terrorist” label on Thursday to three alleged leading figures of the violent Nigerian militant group Boko Haram, officials said.

The action by the State and Treasury departments follows growing pressure on the Obama Administration to take stronger action against Boko Haram. The group, which says it wants to establish an Islamic caliphate in northern Nigeria, has stepped up attacks on Christian places of worship this year.

Thursday’s anticipated action, officials said, involves applying the “terrorist” designation to three men presumed to be central figures in the group.

The three individuals, an official said, are Abubakar Shekau, aged around 43, described as a Boko Haram leader who allegedly aligned himself with al Qaeda in a video message; Abubakar Adam Kambar, aged roughly 35; and Khalid al Barnawi, aged approximately 36. All three are native Nigerians.

The expected action will freeze any assets they have in the United States, and bar U.S. persons from any transactions with them.

It is among the first such action the U.S. government has taken against Boko Haram, but falls short of demands from some U.S. lawmakers and the Justice Department to designate the entire group as a “foreign terrorist organization.”

This decision seems likely to put the issue, which resonates very little on the US domestic scene in any event, to rest for at least a few months; the administration can tell proponents of the FTO designation that it has already done something and that it is continuing to monitor the situation. And critics of the FTO designation for Boko Haram will likely be less critical of this move, although one of those critics’ main concerns was that legal labels could impede eventual negotiations with Boko Haram. That concern that (from what I can tell) is still relevant to this designation, but not as relevant. The Nigerian government and non-governmental organizations retain much room to maneuver; they would not necessarily have to talk directly to Shekau in order to hold negotiations.

Finally – and I should say that I only use open source information – I have to say that the name “Khalid al Barnawi” seems remarkably vague to me. Al Barnawi is the Arabic adjective corresponding to “Borno,” the Northeastern Nigerian state where Boko Haram is strongest (Borno was also the name of a precolonial empire in the region). “Khalid al Barnawi” is the rough equivalent, then, of something like “Bob from Maine.” It could well be a pseudonym, and I imagine counterterrorism officials are quite used to dealing with people with pseudonyms or with extremely common names. But it’s still odd to me to see a name like that on the list.

What do you think of how the administration is handling the situation?

Does the US Have Significant Leverage over Khartoum?

In early June, violence began in Southern Kordofan State (which lies inside North Sudan, on the border with South Sudan) when the government in Khartoum started to disarm residents who had fought on the side of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) during the 1983-2005 civil war. With peacekeepers from the United Nations Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) unable to halt the violence, and with Khartoum pressing for UNMIS to end its mandate once Southern independence happens on July 9, many fear an escalation of conflict. The crisis in Southern Kordofan – which observers like UN Dispatch’s Mark Leon Golberg are calling “ethnic cleansing” – raises the issue, once again, of how much leverage the US has over the regime in Khartoum.

Chinese Engineers Join Peacekeeping Force in Darfur

Chinese Peacekeepers in Darfur, Sudan

Yesterday President Barack Obama released a statement praising a peace agreement in Abyei, another Sudanese border region, and condemning the violence in Southern Kordofan:

The situation in Southern Kordofan is dire, with deeply disturbing reports of attacks based on ethnicity.  The United States condemns all acts of violence, in particular the Sudanese Armed Forces aerial bombardment  of civilians and harassment and intimidation of UN peacekeepers.  With a ceasefire in Southern Kordofan, alongside the agreement to deploy peacekeepers to Abyei, we can get the peace process back on track.  But without these actions, the roadmap for better relations with the Government of Sudan cannot be carried forward, which will only deepen Sudan’s isolation in the international community. Without a cease-fire and political negotiations, the people of Southern Kordofan cannot enjoy the right to have their political grievances addressed. The negotiations now under way in Addis Ababa demand the urgent commitment from both sides to peace and to the agreement for immediate help to those civilians caught up in this conflict.

This statement highlights one of the biggest potential leverage points Washington has with Khartoum: the “carrot” of normalized relations. Yet as author Bec Hamilton wrote on Twitter, the perceived value of this “carrot” may be disappearing: “That’s no longer leverage since Khartoum doesn’t believe it will ever happen (and they are probably right).”

Former US Ambassador to Nigeria John Campbell adds that with some of the final status issues between North and South Sudan unresolved, and with voices in Khartoum pressing Bashir to act tougher toward the South, the US has less room to influence Bashir or move forward on matters like removing Sudan from the list of state sponsors of terrorism.

In addition to applying pressure from afar, the US is also working on the ground to promote peace in Sudan, with Special Envoy Princeton Lyman heading to Sudan this month. Still, the limited nature of the “carrots and sticks” strategy, as the Carnegie Endowment’s Marina Ottaway told AFP, will constrain what diplomats can offer or threaten. Lyman himself portrayed US influence over Sudan as limited in this recent interview with NPR.

If the US can’t strong-arm Khartoum, can anyone? Hamilton says that multilateral institutions and China have greater leverage over Khartoum than the US. China will soon have an opportunity to exercise its influence if it wants: Sudanese President Omar al Bashir is scheduled to visit China and meet with senior officials from June 27-30. China has a stated interest in peace for Sudan. After all, with 75% of Sudan’s oil in the South, China has incentives to maintain strong relations with both North and South – and to prevent them, if possible, from engaging in conflict that would disrupt oil exports. Washington, which recognizes the possibility for Chinese influence over Khartoum, greeted news of Bashir’s trip with the hope that China would assist in peacemaking.

Stepping back and looking at what all this means for the trajectory of US influence in Africa, I have a theory that I’m not totally wedded to, but that I’d like to try out on readers. Let me know what you think:

The limits in Washington’s leverage over Khartoum throw into relief some of the ongoing changes in Africa’s political landscape. I do not believe that Washington could ever consistently dictate outcomes in Africa – certainly there were African regimes during the Cold War who stayed in power despite American opposition to them, and African rebel movements that defied America’s friends – but the end of the Cold War, and the rise of China, have altered America’s role in African politics. Rather than leaning on client states and building relationships predicated on ideological sympatico, over the last two decades Washington has pursued an ad hoc policy toward Africa, experimenting with disengagement (Somalia after Black Hawk Down), noninterference (Rwanda in 1994), militarization (such as AFRICOM and smaller military programs in Africa), pro-reform rhetoric (such as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has used in her trips to the continent), and intensive diplomatic engagement (as in Sudan).

The inconsistencies in this overall strategy, combined with the rise of other actors, has given African regimes greater freedom to maneuver than they had during the Cold War. This helps explain why Khartoum, a regime that signed a US-brokered agreement partly in hopes of achieving better relations with the US, feels able to act contrary to the expressed wishes of the American president. After all, if Bashir doesn’t like what he hears from Washington he can, and will, go and see what they say in Beijing.

Goodluck Jonathan and Ali Bongo to Washington, Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama to Africa

Next week major leaders from African countries will travel to Washington as major leaders from the United States prepare to travel to Africa. In both directions, the visits are sure to occasion commentary.

In Washington, President Barack Obama will receive Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan on Wednesday and Gabonese President Ali Bongo on Thursday. Obama and Jonathan met around this time last year, after Jonathan was sworn in for the first time. I may be mistaken, but I believe Jonathan’s first visit following each of his inaugurations has been to the United States.

Commentary on the visit in Nigeria and in the Africa-focused press may be more curious than critical. The meeting with Ali Bongo may evoke more criticism. Despite a relative lack of international media attention, Gabon was the site of one of sub-Saharan Africa’s largest protest movements earlier this year, and Bongo’s security forces carried out a serious crackdown on the protesters. I doubt that many in the US will be paying attention to these visits, but we may see some criticism of Bongo’s visit this week on Twitter and blogs.

While Jonathan and Bongo are in Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will be getting ready for her upcoming trip to Zambia, Tanzania and Ethiopia. Here’s a peek at the itinerary:

Clinton, following a trip to the United Arab Emirates, will visit Zambia’s capital Lusaka on June 10 for the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) Ministerial Forum, Clinton’s deputy spokesman Mark Toner said.

[…]In Zambia, Clinton will also meet Zambian President Rupiah Banda, who is seeking re-election this year, and “participate in events to highlight US government initiatives to improve the lives of the Zambian people,” Toner said.

Afterward, he said, Clinton will travel to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, but gave no precise dates.

The chief US diplomat will meet with Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete and Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.

“In Tanzania, she will highlight our successful bilateral engagement, including a host of programs, including Feed the Future,” Toner said.

In Ethiopia, Clinton will “focus on regional issues,” visiting the African Union headquarters and meeting with AU Chairman Jean Ping in addition to holding bilateral meetings with Ethiopian officials.

Later this month, First Lady Michelle Obama will also travel (without the President, but with her mother and daughters) to South Africa and Botswana. This will be an official visit focused on health issues. Read the White House statement here.

Neither Hillary Clinton nor Michelle Obama currently holds elected office, but both are political figures, and they are two of the most popular (at times, I believe, the two most popular, as measured by approval ratings) national political figures in the US. I imagine that popularity will hold in Africa to an extent as well, and that both will get enthusiastic receptions on their trips – though Clinton’s meetings with African leaders will not necessarily be entirely smooth. I will cover Clinton’s trip here, as I did when she visited the continent in 2009; Obama’s is well outside of my usual geographic coverage, so I may only offer a few links as relevant.

The US, Nigeria, and the Dynamics of a Changing World

Yesterday, President Barack Obama released a statement on Nigeria’s recently completed elections:

This morning, I called President Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria to congratulate him on his election victory and to commend the people of Nigeria for their resolve and patience during last month’s historic presidential, legislative and gubernatorial elections.  The success of the elections was a testament to Nigerian voters who waited in long lines, stayed to watch their votes counted and were determined that these elections mark a new chapter in Nigerian history.  Credit also belongs to the Independent National Electoral Commission, the National Youth Service Corps, and Nigeria’s vibrant civil society, all of which must play a role in ensuring that the final results reflect the will of the Nigerian people and that Nigerian authorities investigate and address any allegations of fraud or irregularities.

While the majority of Nigerians cast their ballots free from intimidation and coercion, the post-election violence that followed the presidential election on April 16 was deplorable.  Violence has no place in a democratic society, and it is the responsibility of all Nigerians to reject it.  Democracy, however, neither begins nor ends with elections.  Now is the time for Nigeria’s leaders and its people to come together and build the future that they deserve—a multi-party democracy that addresses the aspirations of all Nigerians, especially its youth, who did so much to make the recent elections a success and who will define the nation’s future.

As Africa’s most populous country, Nigeria can show what is possible when people of different parties, ethnicities and faith backgrounds come together to seek peace, provide for their families, and give their children a better future.  Today, Nigerians have an historic opportunity to move forward together and make their nation into a model for Africa.  As I told President Jonathan, I look forward to strengthening our partnership with Nigeria so that this and future generations of Nigerians can live in peace, democracy and prosperity.

AFP gives some additional context.

I agree with President Obama that post-election violence – wherever it occurs – is deplorable. Still, I could not help but think, reading this statement, about the assumptions and power relations built into the tone the White House (whoever its occupant) so often uses with regard to other countries. It is commonplace to read that the US government has praise for but also concerns about an African country’s elections. At the same time, it would be surprising to hear this kind of tone from an African nation regarding American elections.

Can we imagine Goodluck Jonathan calling Barack Obama and saying, “I commend you on the successful completion of the 2010 mid-term elections, but I deplore the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, and urge the United States to take strong steps to address political violence, particularly so as not to shatter the dreams of its youth”?

I am not trying to draw a false equivalence between very different kinds – and scales – of violence in these two countries. Many readers, I imagine, will say this is precisely the point: the US effectively manages its democracy and its political violence, the argument runs, so it has the right and the moral authority to speak bluntly to countries with more serious problems. That may be true on some level, but claims to moral authority should not mask the fact that other dynamics and power relations are at work too. The US government is able to speak to other governments in this manner because of US power, and not just because of moral authority.

But power relations change over time. In the next century, Nigeria’s population could come to exceed that of the US (see here for a take on this issue in French, though I am not very familiar with this publication). Population does not equal power in a one-to-one correspondence, of course, but the point is that Nigeria has demographic and political weight that will increase over time. If all the talk of an emerging “multi-polar world” proves correct, Nigeria may be one of those poles. And Nigerians, even if they agree with the substance of outsiders’ comments, may come to question the tone of those comments (as some no doubt already do) – just as Americans often acknowledge that we have problems, but have been historically less than receptive to outsiders’ criticisms of those problems. The way Obama talks to Jonathan now may be quite different from the way US presidents are talking to Nigerian presidents in 2050.

Africa News Roundup: Nigerian Elections Postponement, Princeton Lyman, Senegal Protests, and More

The big news this weekend was the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC)’s decision to postpone Nigeria’s National Assembly elections by 48 hours.

Mr. [Attahiru] Jega [Chairman of INEC] placed blame for the delay on a failure to get voter materials shipped in from outside Nigeria on time, but said he was confident that everything would be in place for the vote to proceed on Monday.

Mr. Jega made no suggestion of a delay in the presidential election or votes a week later for the nation’s 36 governors. The electoral commission has put tougher measures in place to prevent cheating and intimidation, which raised such broad doubts after the last elections in 2007 that foreign observers said they might not have reflected the will of the people.

Voters had gathered eagerly on Saturday to register at polling places across the country’s two most populous cities — the commercial hub Lagos in the south and Kano in the north — but elsewhere, tempers were frayed by the delays. Gunshots in the volatile oil-producing Niger Delta also raised worries of violence.

The delay has caused domestic fears of tampering and international worry over the integrity of the process. Today INEC “raced to get aborted polls back on track.” Matthew Tostevin and Wole Soyinka consider some of the ramifications of the delay and of the elections generally. 234Next has Nigerian leaders’ statements on the delay.

In Sudan news, President Barack Obama has a new Special Envoy to Sudan, veteran diplomat Princeton Lyman, who has been closely involved with Sudan over the past few years. On Friday the two men met at the White House:

Before Friday’s Oval Office meeting, Lyman told reporters that “tough” negotiations are ahead before South Sudan’s formally achieves its independence in July.

At the State Department on Thursday, he said issues remaining to be settled include border demarcation and the question of oil revenues. Lyman also discussed what he called a “very tense situation” in Abyei, where clashes between rival groups have left more than 100 people dead and displaced at least 20,000.

“We have to work on two fronts. We have to try and ease this immediate security problem, but I don’t think we are going to get the tensions really resolved until the people in Abyei know what is going to happen to them, particularly by July. Are they going to remain in the north, are they going to move to the south? And that the Sudanese leadership needs to address,” Lyman said.

The White House statement on the meeting with Lyman is here. Former Ambassador to Nigeria John Campbell calls Lyman’s appointment “an encouraging sign of the Obama administrations continued engagement with Sudan.”

In Senegal, “about 200 disabled Senegalese former soldiers held a two-hour demonstration Friday on a busy Dakar street to call for better pay and health coverage.” This protest does not seem to have been formally connected with other recent protests in Senegal, but it does hearken back to a veteran’s self-immolation in February.

Finally, some Somalia news, or perhaps just a rumor. The Standard, a Kenyan outlet I am not familiar with, says that Somalia has “plans to create another autonomous region along its borders with Kenya.” Have readers heard anything about this? If true, that would be a radical change to the current political configuration of Somalia.

Hope your weekend is going well.

Two Comparisons with Libya: Cote d’Ivoire and Darfur

In lieu of the news roundup I usually post on Saturday, I want to throw out a question to readers: do Western powers have a credible and consistent standard to justify their military intervention in Libya? To help us think through the question I want to flag two comparisons journalists have made between the civil war in Libya and crises elsewhere, namely Cote d’Ivoire and Darfur. Here are some excerpts.

David Lewis (at Reuters Africa Blog) on Cote d’Ivoire:

With a crisis like Libya taking place, is it only natural that Ivory Coast should drop down the agenda?

Civilians in Ivory Coast, where there is a U.N. peacekeeping mission with a robust mandate, have also been promised protection. Yet, so far, no robust action has been taken, even though the U.N. has accused pro-Gbagbo forces of using heavy weapons against civilians in Abidjan.

What is the difference between Ivory Coast and Libya? Is it just the scale of the abuses or are there other factors at play? Some analysts and this blogger say Libya’s oil makes it more important than Ivory Coast, the world’s top cocoa grower.

The African Union had only just finally ironed out internal divisions over supporting Ouattara when it then had to set up another crisis team to deal with Libya. It is wary about too robust an intervention in either case and was still speaking out against military intervention in Libya even after a U.N. resolution had authorised it, and the Western forces had fired their first shots. Can the AU play a meaningful role in resolving Ivory Coast’s crisis. If so, what?

Glenn Kessler (Washington Post) on Darfur:

“The United States has a moral obligation anytime you see humanitarian catastrophes,” [presidential candidate Barack] Obama declared. “When you see a genocide in Rwanda, Bosnia or in Darfur, that is a stain on all of us, a stain on our souls. . . . We can’t say ‘never again’ and then allow it to happen again, and as a president of the United States I don’t intend to abandon people or turn a blind eye to slaughter.”

Stirring rhetoric, yes. But once Obama became president, the Darfur crisis appeared to fade in importance. Rather than confront the Sudanese government, as candidate Obama suggested he would do, the administration’s special envoy for Sudan, retired Air Force Maj. Gen. J. Scott Gration, attempted to win Khartoum’s cooperation by offering incentives. As he memorably put it: “We’ve got to think about giving out cookies. Kids, countries — they react to gold stars, smiley faces, handshakes, agreements, talk, engagement.”

[…]

No one can expect a presidential candidate to stick to every campaign promise. Circumstances and priorities change. The tragedy in Darfur has been a slow-motion conflict, unlike the rapidly developing civil war in Libya, potentially requiring a different set of tools. But the conflict in Darfur has not gone away, despite Obama’s campaign rhetoric that “I don’t intend to abandon people or turn a blind eye to slaughter.”

Some day, those words may come back to haunt him.

What say you? Is there hypocrisy at work in the Western reaction to Libya when compared with the reactions to Cote d’Ivoire and Darfur? Or does the situation in Libya differ in a crucial way from these other conflicts?