Washington In Africa, 2012: Who Will Obama ‘Whack’ Next?

Address to the Muslim Youth Movement 40th Anniversary Conference, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, September 30, 2012.


At a time when popular revolutions are sweeping the globe, the United States should be strengthening, not weakening, basic rules of law and principles of justice enumerated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But instead of making the world safer, America’s violation of international human rights abets our enemies and alienates our friends. 

– Former US president Jimmy Carter, 25 June 2012, New York Times


US actions since 9/11 represent the final stage in the US's century-long effort to complete the project of making US-led globalization a concrete reality across the world through three historical moments: 1) the attempted creation of a global Monroe doctrine between 1898 and 1919; 2) the Roosevelt administration's creation of the Bretton Woods Institutions – the World Bank and IMF – and the UN; and 3) globalization – the US-led effort to establish a new global regime based on free trade, deregulation, and privatization. 

– Neil Smith, The Endgame of Globalization, 2005


The US Assistant Secretary of State for Africa and former three-time ambassador, Johnnie Carson, was feted by Brooks Spector recently at Daily Maverick, in an article entitled “America’s Mr Africa”. While it is always fitting to honour African-Americans who persevere to the top despite that country’s deep internal racism, Spector makes contentious political and economic claims about the “new” US Africa policy. “For some observers at least”, he says, “Barack Obama’s new partnership with Africa was announced in his speech in Accra [July 11, 2009], when he declared the era of the authoritarian African big man to be over – kaput!”[1] As described below, however, Washington has maintained extremely cozy relationships with a variety of African dictators.


Spector then endorses Carson’s claims that “US interests in the continent fundamentally stem from its interest in strengthening trade to help African states grow their economies and meet development needs”, and that “the US wants to work with African nations to strengthen democratic institutions, good governance and efforts to stamp out corruption [and] to spur economic growth through market-driven, free trade principles”. Sorry, but we recall Washington’s deregulatory support for Wall Street’s market-driven binge, which in 2008-09 contributed to the worst global economic crash in 80 years, resulting in around a million South African job losses. We know that only the wealthy recovered so far, and that in the US, the top 1 per cent received 93 per cent of all new income since 2009, because the system wasn’t fixed. And who can forget White House hypocrisy when it comes to vast and often illegal US agro-corporate subsidies which continue to thwart African production? And is there any capital city whose political system is more corrupted by corporate (especially banking) campaign contributions than Washington, resulting in such extreme malgovernance that Obama cannot even make an effort to convict a single banker for world-historic economic misdeeds?


Spector’s most flawed assumption is that by increasing trade with (and vulnerability to) the world economy, “Africa” grows. Although a few elites have certainly grown rich from extraction, the opposite is more true, if we make a simple, rational adjustment to GDP: incorporating the wasting of Africa’s “natural capital” (a silly phrase but one used increasingly by powerbrokers eyeing the ‘Green Economy’). Measuring this loss is something that 10 African leaders agreed to start doing so in May, in the Gabarone Declaration initiated by Botswana president Ian Khama and the NGO Conservation International. The adjustment entails counting the outflow of natural capital (especially non-renewable mineral/petroleum resources) not only as a short-term credit to GDP (via “output of goods” measuring the resources extracted and sold), but also as a long-term debit to the natural capital stocks, as non-renewable resources no longer become available to future generations. Number-crunch the resource depletion, and net wealth declines in Africa as well as the Middle East.


Even the World Bank is taking seriously the need to adjust GDP, e.g. in its 2011 book The Changing Wealth of Nations, which concludes that instead of growing rapidly, as often advertised by naive commentators, Africa is shrinking even faster.


Conservatively estimated for the year 2007-08 (the last available measurements), Sub-Saharan Africa’s decline in Adjusted Net Savings exceeded 6 per cent of national income (and that does not even include diamond and uranium outflows, too hard for the World Bank to calculate).

The continent-wide "resource curse" makes the August 16, 2012, Marikana massacre look like a picnic, and allows us to dismiss Spector’s article as the kind of idle spin-doctoring fluff one gets from the State Department’s US Information Service (his former employer). But that is not a particularly satisfying place to leave matters, for the broader assumptions about the US in Africa also need a rethink, in part because South Africa is hosting the BRICS summit in Durban next March, and we’re being subjected to rhetoric from Pretoria about a “new dynamic” in the emerging market power bloc, supposedly challenging the sole-superpower system of global governance. So it is timely to consider whether the two words US and Imperialism still fit snugly, and then (on another occasion in the near future) whether Resource-Cursed South Africa also deserves the description “sub-imperialist” because of its persistent collaboration as an economic deputy-sheriff to Washington. When a decade ago, Thabo Mbeki introduced the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, it was termed “philosophically spot on” by Carson’s predecessor in the Bush regime, Walter Kansteiner. With both presidents gone for nearly four years, what’s new and different?

Has Washington, as Carson claims, helped Africa democratise? The quaint US State Department notion is based on Washington’s “talking left” about democracy. On closer examination, Obama and Carson are “walking right”, along the same neo-conservative track George W. Bush prepared across Africa’s military, geopolitical and extractive-economic terrain. Thanks to White House patronage, murderous African dictators still retain power until too late, most obviously Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, who is personally worth at least $40 billion (according to an ABC News report) and who was recipient of many billions of dollars in US military aid in the 18 months following Obama’s speech. As Carson’s boss Hillary Clinton remarked in 2009, “I really consider President and Mrs. Mubarak to be friends of my family”, and offered this gaffe a few days before the corrupt tyrant was overthrown in February 2011: “Our assessment is that the Egyptian government is stable.” As a result of her affection for one of the worst African big men, Egypt’s democratic movement’s core activists turned a cold shoulder to Clinton again and again.


Washington’s coddling of other dictators was signaled just weeks after Obama’s Ghana speech, when his UN Ambassador Susan Rice announced a New York luncheon with 25 African heads of state (40 had been invited): "We are looking to have a dialogue with responsible leaders about the future of Africa’s economic and social development.”

Obama dined with numerous tyrants that day, as only a few governments (Eritrea, Guinea, Kenya, Madagascar, Niger, Sudan and Zimbabwe) were specifically “left off the guest list because of disputes over their governance or an antagonistic relationship with Washington”, according to Kenya’s Nation newspaper. Amongst the 40 were Cameroonian dictator Paul Biya, and as his office reported, “At the end of the two and a half hours that they spent together, most of the African leaders left the dining hall visibly satisfied.” Democracy and human rights were apparently left off on the agenda, according to a briefing by the main White House Africa security official, Michelle Gavin.


Another attendee was Gambian president Yahya Jammeh, a colonel who after overthrowing a democrat in 1994 and later claiming to have found an AIDS cure, last month came under renewed criticism from international human rights advocates after carrying out the first nine out of a potential 40 mass death-row executions (those threatened include an elderly 84-year-old, eight prisoners with mental health issues and eight foreign nationals). As one local citizens’ network put it, “Given that the Gambia government uses the death penalty and other harsh sentences as a tool to silence political dissent and opposition, Civil Society Associations Gambia believes that any execution is a further indicator of the brutality with which President Jammeh’s regime is bent on crushing political dissent.” Yet when asked whether, like the European Union, the US State Department would “also have some sort of response should they not heed these warnings not to proceed?”, the official answer was chilling: “I think we haven’t telegraphed any response at this point.”


One reason not to annoy Jammeh was the US Central Intelligence Agency’s reliance upon a Banjul airport as a secret destination and refueling site for “rendition” victims, i.e. the illegal transfer of suspected terrorists to countries carrying out torture on behalf of Washington. According to former US air force veteran and Miami Herald journalist Sherwood Ross, among 28 countries “that held prisoners in behalf of the US based on published data” are a dozen from Africa: Algeria, Djibouti, Egypt, Ethiopia, Gambia, Kenya, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Somalia, South Africa and Zambia.


With the possible exceptions of Kenya and Zambia, all these regimes remain close Pentagon allies, and hence difficult for genuine democrats. Last March, as the Arab Spring wave moved east from Tunisia, Obama backed the Djibouti regime of Ismail Omar Guelleh against pro-democracy protesters, apparently because of the tiny dictatorship’s hosting of several thousand US soldiers at Washington’s only solely-owned base on the continent.

Such hypocritical relations are not new, and even though he served less than a term in the US Senate, Obama developed ties to some of the continent’s most venal elites. Promoting US interests in the form of petro-military complex profits, an ever-expanding “war on terror” and an anti-Chinese political block, are the common denominators behind Washington’s African alliances. Some examples are illustrative:

  • In 2006, before becoming president, he visited Chad’s dictator Idriss Deby in part to press the case for Chevron Texaco, which Deby had just expelled for failing to pay sufficient taxes.
  • Obama infamously extended red-carpet treatment to oil-rich Gabon’s world-class kleptocrat tyrant Ali Bongo15 months ago in spite of nearly unprecedented controversy.
  • This was followed by a similar invitation a few months ago to Ethiopia’s then prime minister Meles Zenawi, in spite of objections from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International leaders who complained, “The United States, the World Bank, and other states and institutions have shown little or no attention to Ethiopia’s worsening human rights record. By inviting Meles to the G-8 summit, the US government is sending a message that at best shows a lack of concern about the human rights situation in Ethiopia, and at worst, will be perceived as a US endorsement of the Ethiopian government's policies.” After Meles died in August, theNew York Times acknowledged that “he was notoriously repressive, undermining Obama’s maxim that Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions”. The article quoted former US National Security Council official John Prendergast’s concern about “a vexing policy quandary” in Washington’s relations with Ethiopia, Rwanda, Uganda and South Sudan: “All of them have served American interests or have a strong US constituency, but all have deeply troubling human rights records.” (Whether this is a “vexing quandary” or instead best described as a time-honoured tradition is up to the reader to decide.)
  • Obama’s support for Rwandan strongman Paul Kagame, including $800 million a year in aid and in June 2012, protection against possible UN censure for supporting genocide in the Congo, attracted complaints by respected social justice groups (including the Hotel Rwanda Rusesabagina Foundation). Maurice Carney of Friends of the Congo explains, “Since Rwanda invaded Congo in 1996, millions of Congolese have perished, hundreds of thousands of women have been systematically raped and Congo’s wealth has been looted. So the impact of Rwanda’s role in destabilizing the Congo has been tragic for the people of the region and especially the Congolese people. And this is really the sad part about the whole situation, because it’s within the means of the United States to hold its ally accountable, but it has not done so to date.” Washington subsequently chided Kagame, apparently as a result of his turn to new Chinese patrons, according to analyst Eddie Haywood: “US State Department cables released by Wikileaks show that Washington has been keeping a close watch on Rwanda-China economic ties. Referring to meetings by Rwandan officials with a Chinese delegation, the cables took note of Rwanda's economic agreements with China and loans from Beijing for the construction of buildings to house the Office of Foreign Affairs and to finance a railway project. China also agreed to consider funding the construction of a new stadium, a women's center, and a Confucius Institute. Rwanda requested the delegation for duty-free access to Chinese markets, and Rwandan rice cultivation and road projects were discussed. As Rwanda is a transportation gateway for the Congo’s vast resources to the global market, it goes without saying that China's ‘control by investment’ of a railway project traversing Rwanda through to a port in on the East coast of Tanzania would raise concerns in Washington.”
  • Last year, citing US national security interests, Obama issued a waiver so as to send more than $200 million in military aid to US-allied regimes in Somalia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Libya, South Sudan and Yemen in spite of a 2008 US law prohibiting such funding because of their armies’ recruitment of child soldiers. According to Human Rights Watch’s Jo Becker, “The Obama administration has been unwilling to make even small cuts to military assistance to governments exploiting children as soldiers. Children are paying the price for its poor leadership.”

Although Northwestern University professor Richard Joseph does give Washington credit for its roles in facilitating democracy (albeit in US interests) in Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal and Malawi, the overall message is one of extreme hypocrisy: Obama is only opposed to African dictatorships which are anti-US (or allied to China), but if you are a sub-regional power, help hunt Al Qaeda or have substantial oil reserves, you may commit horrendous crimes and still get the prized White House photo op.


In WikiLeaks we trust

We partly know this thanks to the NGO WikiLeaks, which in late 2010 published more than 250,000 US State Department cables. These repeatedly demonstrate how Clinton, Bush and Obama promoted, retained or imposed undemocratic regimes where these coincide with US interests. (Tellingly, Spector does not even mention this treasure trove as a source when reviewing Carson’s bona fides.) Because of WikiLeaks, we know that just a month after Carson took office, Hillary Clinton asked eleven of Washington’s embassies in Africa to collect fingerprints, DNA, iris scans, email passwords, credit card account numbers, frequent flyer account numbers and work schedules of local political, military, business and religious leaders, including United Nations officials. “To spy on the UN does take it a bit far”, remarks African politics researcher Liesl Louw-Vaudran of the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria. Thanks to WikiLeaks’ revelations of “meddling chitchat” by Carson and his colleagues, says Louw-Vuadran, “I think many Africans are a little bit disgusted, a little bit shocked… once again forcing Africans to question the US’s role [and] voice serious doubts about the US.”


One simple reason, she says, is “that if the US cannot protect its secrets, how on earth will they be able to protect people from terrorist attacks, for example?” Along with increased access to oil, imposition of market-driven (i.e. pro-corporate) economic policy, and hostility to China, Washington’s attempt to gain African cooperation in the “War on Terror” appears the most important factor in foreign policy. That role leaves the Pentagon’s Africa Command (AfriCom) very busy from its main bases in Frankfurt and Djibouti. “Rather than the simple and cheap rhetoric of bringing stability to the continent in the name of the ‘war against terror’”, according to veteran analyst Daniel Volheim, “AfriCom is involved in almost 38 African countries [including] Chad, Kenya, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Tanzania, and Sierra Leone.”


In the watchdog website Foreign Policy in Focus, Conn Hallinan reports, “So far, AfriCom’s track record has been one disaster after another. It supported Ethiopia’s intervention in the Somalia civil war, and helped to overthrow the moderate Islamic Courts Union. It is now fighting a desperate rear-guard action against a far more extremist grouping, the al-Shabaab. AfriCom also helped coordinate a Ugandan Army attack on the Lord’s Resistance Army in the Democratic Republic of the Congo – Operation Lightning Thunder – that ended up killing thousands of civilians.” Add to that the failure to gain a satisfactory transition in Libya, after Washington and European powers misled the South African government about NATO’s bombing intentions, in the wake of the African Union’s failed efforts to settle the civil war peacefully.


But the problems are just beginning, observes US investigative journalist Nick Turse: “Today, the U.S. is drawing down in Afghanistan and has largely left Iraq. Africa, however, remains a growth opportunity for the Pentagon.” Since 2009, Turse continues, “operations in Africa have accelerated far beyond the more limited interventions of the Bush years: last year’s war in Libya; a regional drone campaign with missions run out of airports and bases in Djibouti, Ethiopia, and the Indian Ocean archipelago nation of Seychelles; a flotilla of 30 ships in that ocean supporting regional operations; a multi-pronged military and CIA campaign against militants in Somalia, including intelligence operations, training for Somali agents, a secret prison, helicopter attacks, and U.S. commando raids; a massive influx of cash for counterterrorism operations across East Africa; a possible old-fashioned air war, carried out on the sly in the region using manned aircraft; tens of millions of dollars in arms for allied mercenaries and African troops; and a special ops expeditionary force (bolstered by State Department experts) dispatched to help capture or kill Lord’s Resistance Army leader Joseph Kony and his senior commanders.”


Adds University of Pittsburgh international affairs professor Michael Brenner, the AfriCom expansion “is self-perpetuating since there will be a steady supply of murderers and extortionists and Islamic radicals in this tormented environment which we never will be able to suppress. Our efforts, moreover, will generate the inevitable anti-Americanism and retaliation such ventures spawn – as in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq. So why launch this latest enterprise of dubious value? Well, when you have created an AfriCom, when you have staffed it with a few thousand personnel, when you have a Special Forces corps numbering 60,000, when you have a vastly expanded CIA Operations Division, and when American strategic thinking is still locked in the auto-pilot mode set in September 2001 – when all these forces are at work, there will be action.”


Of course, corpses of US troops on African soil are to be avoided at all costs, as Bill Clinton’s disastrous 1994 Somalia mission taught the Pentagon. AfriCom’s head General Carter Ham explained last year that Washington “would eventually need an AfriCom that could undertake more traditional military operations, and he moved his command in that direction” although “not conducting operations – that’s for the Africans to do.” Writing more frankly about the anticipated division of labour in the US, Air University’s Strategic Studies Quarterly in 2010Major Shawn T. Cochran quotes a US military advisor to the African Union, “We don’t want to see our guys going in and getting whacked… We want Africans to go in.”


Terror blowback

However, even with military ventriloquism, blowback damage results from Washington’s aggression, Volman argues. “The 2006 invasion of Somalia by the Ethiopian forces was clearly a proxy war, with AfriCom providing the logistics-allowing a criminal organization like al-Shabab to claim a legitimate reason for its war and brutal terror against the very people both sides claim to be freeing: the poor ordinary Somalis.”


The next stage of the proxy war was in 2010 when the US gave aid to the Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG), but when the New York Times reported the growing AfriCom role, Carson said its reporter’s allegations of