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.”
Habiba Osman: “On Hillary Clinton’s Recent Visit to Africa.”
I am therefore not surprised that this African tour has come up now considering the diminishing role that the US is now finding itself in with the Chinese almost taking over as the biggest African donor and trade partner. Sub Saharan Africa, especially, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi in the South have felt the presence of the Chinese greatly with infrastructure being built everywhere in these countries, courtesy of the Chinese government.
Politically, Clinton’s visit is therefore timely as some of most African states have openly declared that they are in favour of the Chinese donations, which seem to have no strings attached. By strings, I mean, adherence to the rule of law, respect for human rights and observance of good governance. Africa’s relationship with China has gained international attention and is a sure factor in destabilising America’s role as the sole super power.
Tony Otoa Jr. on oil and civil society in Uganda.
Lesley Anne Warner: “Kenya’s Coast Province Could Be Flashpoint in Run-Up to Elections.”
Amb. John Campbell on recent violence at a South African platinum mine.
Peter Dorrie on President Blaise Compaore of Burkina Faso:
To adequately judge Blaise Compaoré’s record of bringing development and prosperity to his people, it is first of all important to remind oneself that he has been in power since 1987, a full quarter of a century. More than half the population of his country has only known his rule.
Despite the period of peace that Burkina experienced during this time, and a comparatively generous 13 Billion US Dollars in international development assistance, the country still ranks only 181st out of 187 countries in terms of human development. All of the other bottom ten countries in the HDI ranking experienced devastating civil wars during this time – except Guinea, which instead had to put up with a brutal military dictatorship. To put it bluntly: Blaise Compaoré is the only African head of state who managed to dramatically limit the development of his country without declaring outright war on it.
Jason Stearns asks, “When Will Donors Un-Freeze Aid to Rwanda?”
Writing in Nigeria’s Daily Trust, Idang Alibi comes out against Senegal’s planned trial for former Chadian leader Hissene Habre.
Anne Campbell weighs in on the issue of African presidents and overseas educations.
Baobab on electricity in Somalia.
Last but not least, a reflection from Carmen McCain on fasting during Ramadan as a non-Muslim.
Africa Is A Country on Ramadan traditions.
Tom Boylston on “Ethiopian Orthodoxy in post-Imperial times and…the emergence of a competitive religious public sphere.”
Ty McCormick writes about the recent Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, noting that “China has taken measures to rebalance trade ties with Africa, including the elimination of tariffs on certain African products.”
Baobab on banking in Somalia:
The doors at the aptly named First Somali Bank (FSB) opened in May. More than 100 customers have opened accounts. Some did so by bringing in sacks of Somali shillings, worth 22,000 to the dollar, while others opted for accounts in American greenbacks. Mr Egal recently set up a TedX conference on the “Rebirth of Mogadishu”. Even for an entrepreneur who took his first steps in finance with a cheque-cashing business in a rough neighbourhood of Baltimore in America, Mogadishu is a challenge. No one has seen a chequebook here since the cold war, when Somalia was in the Soviet orbit. Mr Egal, who is waiting for the still fragile government to give him a banking licence, admits that conditions are “not yet right” for ATM machines.
Jason Stearns flags a US State Department announcement on a reduction in military aid to Rwanda. Stearns writes, “It’s a symbolic amount of $200,000, but I think this is the first time Washington has cut aid to Kigali for political reasons.”
Dr. Bruce Whitehouse on Aikido in Mali:
Back in the 1960s Bamako was briefly a node in aikido’s nascent global network. Three Soviet aid workers learned the art, then unknown in their homeland, at the Bamako Judo Club from one master Van Bai, a Frenchman of Vietnamese origin. (Malians sometimes recall his name as “Henri Wambaye”.) A few years later these Soviet students brought aikido from Mali to the USSR — illustrating the unpredictable pathways of the transnational diffusion of culture.
Dr. Kim Yi Dionne marks the one-year anniversary of major protests in Malawi.
What are you reading today?
Recent posts by Roving Bandit on poverty and governance in Rwanda have generated a lot of interesting comments.
Texas in Africa promotes an essay by Kathryn Mathers (.pdf) on Nicholas Kristof and Africa. I recommend the piece too.
At Africa Is A Country, reflections on the twenty-second anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison and the 100th anniversary of the founding of the African National Congress.
Christian Science Monitor: “Why Ethiopia’s authoritarian style gets a Western nod.”
Sanou Mbaye places Senegal’s current political tensions in the context of economic trends in the West African Franc Zone.
Amb. David Shinn flags a report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute entitled Arms Flows to Sub-Saharan Africa.
Peter Howes argues that Kenya and Sudan are “heading for a collision.”
Laine Strutton on “Renewed Conflict in Nigeria between Northerners and Easterners.”
What are you reading today?
Many observers of Nigeria, including me, feel that it punches below its potential weight as a superpower in African and world politics. But with Libya in crisis and continental politics shifting, it’s interesting to watch Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan on one of his first state visits to other African countries, in this case Rwanda, Ethiopia, and Ghana.
Vanguard emphasizes the inclusion of businessmen and industrialists in Jonathan’s delegation. One goal of the trip is to increase commercial ties between Nigeria and other African countries.
Observers will be watching to see how Jonathan’s role as an African statesman compares to that of former President Olusegun Obasanjo, under whom Nigeria played a major role in regional peacekeeping. Jonathan’s immediate predecessor, President Umaru Yar’Adua, was sick during much of his time in office, and Nigeria’s role in Africa diminished somewhat. Jonathan’s quiet style differs strongly from Obasanjo’s, so if Jonathan does re-assert a strong role for Nigeria in Africa, likely it will have a different character than the role Nigeria had in the last decade.
Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz called for closer ties with China on Monday during a visit to the Asian country, the official AMI news agency reported.
“The Mauritanian government wants more infrastructure and bigger involvement of the CTCE company in Mauritania’s development,” the agency quoted the president as saying, referring to the China Tiesiju Civil Engineering Group.
New China news agency said he was the guest of honour at a Chinese-Arab economic and trade forum in Yinchuan in the northwest.
China and Mauritania meanwhile signed an agreement granting the Mauritanian armed forces financial support worth 20 million yuan (2.3 millions euros, 3.1 million dollars).
As elsewhere in Africa, Mauritania’s cooperation with China at the government level has caused domestic controversy, as happened with a fisheries deal the two countries signed earlier this year. China may have an “apolitical” approach in Africa (though what, really, is ever apolitical?), but the more China’s involvement in Africa grows, the more China will become involved in local politics, whether it wants to or not. It will be interesting to see how the Mauritanian opposition, and the population as a whole, reacts to this new step in the country’s relationship with China.
Zooming out from Mauritania a bit, it’s also interesting to me to think about how China is winning vocal support from African heads of state who are not necessarily from the most powerful countries on the continent, but who wield substantial influence in their sub-regions. I am thinking of, in addition to Mauritania’s Abdel Aziz, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and Rwandan President Paul Kagame, both of whom have expressed strong pro-China leanings. China has not received universal welcome in Africa, but it has won, and is winning, influential friends.
Chris Blattman weighs in on an interesting discussion about what South Sudan’s government should do now.
Battlman also recommends Ken Opalo’s blog. Check it out.
I missed this piece from Kal last week, but it’s still relevant. He writes about how bin Laden’s death might affect al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
Here are three worthwhile posts on areas of Africa I don’t normally cover:
Joshua Keating writes on remittances, and includes a nice map.
What are you reading this weekend?