By Berhanu Nega
A Voice of America journalist who traveled to Kenya about a month before the recent elections told me a story that, I think, gets to the heart of the crisis of governance in Africa. When the journalist asked one of the top advisers of Mwai Kibaki whether the government was ready to relinquish power if it loses the election, the answer was a vehement no. He said they would make sure such an eventuality would not occur.
When the journalist asked this adviser how they planned to handle the ensuing anger with the population and possible sanctions from the donor community, his response was more or less, "Look at Ethiopia's Meles Zenawi: He stole the election; he killed a few hundred people and arrested all the opposition leaders. Nothing happened to him. He is still the darling of the U.S. administration. Kenya is an important ally to the U.S. war on terror and, after a few symbolic protests, the U.S. government will continue its relationship with our government as if nothing has taken place."
The noticeable trend toward a reversal of the nascent democratic experiment that started with high hopes in the early 1990s in many African countries is becoming a major source of instability in the region. African dictators who lamented that the collapse of the Soviet Union reduced their bargaining power vis a vis their "Western Friends" have now found a convenient excuse in "the global war on terror" to avoid criticism for brutalizing their own populations.
It is not just stealing elections. What they are doing in most of these countries is totally destroying the institutions necessary for a democratic political order, with long-term negative consequences for the stability of these countries. Election boards have become instruments of the ruling party and have replaced a direct military action as a mechanism to come to power in Africa. In Nigeria, the so-called independent election authority authorized the fraudulent election that every observer said was totally useless, even by Nigerian standards.
I remember sitting in prison last year when the mastermind of the Nigerian election, the former president of Nigeria, Olisegun Obasanjo, came to pay an official state visit to Ethiopia a month before the Nigerian election. We joked in prison that he was there to get tips from Meles about "how to get away with a stolen election in perpetuity in the 21st century."
We surmised that the advice would certainly include taking full control of the election authority and the courts first, doing whatever you need to steal the election.
A way forward
What is maddening about this affair is the degree to which the West buys this story and immediately calls for stability and advises "looking beyond this election" as a way forward. It then promises to give more taxpayer money to support and strengthen the institutions of democracy, as if the problem is a lack of resources.
It is obvious to anyone that the main obstacle that prohibits these institutions from working properly is the government. No money spent on improving these institutions will make them independent of the powers controlling the government and its armed forces. Look how Meles made a complete mockery out of the legal system in Ethiopia.
What is even more obscene is that Western diplomats pressure the opposition to accept deals that circumvent the democratic process. In Ethiopia, the opposition was pressured to accept the stolen election. Even when the opposition demanded negotiations to ensure the independence of the institutions necessary to conduct a clean election in the future, U.S. diplomats were not as sympathetic as one would expect from a democratic polity whose president publicly claims that "the United States will support the forces of democracy around the world."
Values of the West
You can imagine my confusion when the U.S. charge d'affaires in Ethiopia, Vicky Huddleston, came to Kaliti prison to ask me to abdicate my elected position as mayor of Addis Ababa and hand it to Meles' chosen candidate to help stabilize the government after it massacred more than 193 people in the capital alone. The only crime of these innocent youths was that they wanted their votes respected. They thought they were emulating the values of the West and hoped they would get its support.
Not surprisingly, this same ambassador who believes that Africans have to wait another 200 years to achieve genuine democratization, opposes the Ethiopia Democracy and Accountability Act. This bill, which passed the House unanimously and is now in the Senate, simply asks to support democracy in Ethiopia and to make sure those who committed atrocities in Ethiopia are held accountable.
To a cynical observer, it looks like African dictators have understood Western governments very well. The message that Africans are getting about Western policymakers is that they are much more interested in power than the ideals of liberty and democracy. It certainly does not reflect the values and decency of the average citizen in the West.
Surely, the long-term interest of the West is better served if democracy flourishes in these countries. If the U.S. is to regain its moral standing in the world, the time has come for it to take a more principled foreign policy stance that reflects the core values of its citizens. Africa is the continent where such a policy could bring a quick result not only in spreading liberty but also in providing a more secure world.
Contact: Office of Communications
Posted March 17, 2008
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