By Alemayehu G. Mariam|
It is proper to congratulate President Obama on his re-election to a second term. He put up a masterful campaign to earn the votes of the majority of American voters. Mitt Romney also deserves commendation for a hard fought campaign. In his concession speech Romney was supremely gracious: “At a time like this we can’t risk partisan bickering and political posturing. Our leaders have to reach across the aisle to do the people’s work, and we citizens also have to rise to occasion.”
There has been a bit of finger-wagging, teeth-gnashing, eye-rolling and bellyaching among some Ethiopian Americans in the run up to the U.S. presidential election held last week. Some were angry at President Obama and actively campaigned in support of his opponent. They felt betrayed by the President’s inability or unwillingness to give effect to his lofty rhetoric on human rights in Africa and Ethiopia. Others were disappointed by what they believed to be active support for and aid to brutal African dictators. Many tried to be empathetic of the President’s difficult circumstances. He had to formulate American foreign policy to maximize achievement of American global national interests. Terrorism in the Horn of Africa was a critical issue for the U.S. and Obama had to necessarily subordinate human rights to global counter-terrorism issues.
I was quite disappointed by the President’s failure to implement even a rudimentary human rights agenda in Ethiopia and the rest of Africa. But I also understood that he had some fierce battles to fight domestically trying to shore up the American economy, pushing some basic social policies, fighting two wars and putting out brushfires in a conflict-ridden world. I gave the President credit for a major diplomatic achievement in the South Sudan referendum which led to the creation of Africa’s newest state. President Obama authorized the deployment of a small contingent of U.S. troops to capture or kill the bloodthirsty thug Joseph Kony and his criminal partners. He launched the kleptocracy project which I thought was a great idea. As I argued in my column “Africorruption, Inc.“, the “business of African governments in the main is corruption. The majority of African ‘leaders’ seize political power to operate sophisticated criminal enterprises to loot their national treasuries and resources.” I felt the kleptocracy project could effectively prevent illicit money transfer from Ethiopia to the U.S. According to Global Financial Integrity, Ethiopia lost US$11.7 billion to illicit financial outflows between 2000 and 2009. I gave the president high marks for working through the U.N. to pass U.N. Resolution 1973 which endorsed the effort to protect Libyan civilians and his use of NATO partners to shoulder much of the military responsibility to rid Gadhafi from Libya after 41 years of brutal dictatorship. More broadly, I give him credit for closing secret C.I.A. prisons, ending extraordinary renditions and enhanced interrogations (torture), trying to close down the detention camp in Guantánamo Bay and move trials from military tribunals into civilian courts and abide by international laws of human rights. No doubt, he has much more to do in the area of global human rights.
I believe he could have done a lot more in Africa and Ethiopia to promote human rights, but did not. I have written numerous columns over the past couple of years that have been very critical of U.S. policy. In the “The Moral Hazard of U.S. Policy in Africa“, I argued that neither the U.S. nor the West could afford to sacrifice democracy and human rights in Africa to curry favor with incorrigible African dictators whose sole interest is in clinging to power to enrich themselves and their cronies. In my column, “Thugtatorship: The Highest Stage of African Dictatorship”, I argued Africa’s thugtatorships have longstanding and profitable partnerships with the West. Through aid and trade, the West and particularly the U.S. has enabled these thugocracies to flourish in Africa. A few months ago, in my column “Ethiopia in Bond Aid,” I argued that international aid is negatively affecting Africa’s development. “Before much of Africa became ‘independent’ in the 1960s, Africans were held under the yoke of “colonial bondage”. ‘International aid’ addiction has transformed Africa’s colonial bondage into neo-colonial bondaid.” In another recent column “Ethiopia: Food for Famine and Thought!”, I criticized the G8 Food Security Summit held in Washington, D.C. this past June as a reinvention of the old colonialism: “The G-8’s ‘New Alliance’ smacks of the old Scramble for Africa. The G-8 wants to liberate Africa from hunger, famine and starvation by facilitating the handover of millions of hectares of Africa’s best land to global multinationals…”
But despite disappointments, misgivings, apprehensions and concern over the Obama Administration’s failure to actively promote human rights in Ethiopia and Africa, I have supported President Obama. For all his faults, he has been an inspiring leader to me. Like many Americans, I was awed by state Senator Obama’s keynote speech at the Democratic national Convention in 2004 when he unapologetically declared: “There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America. There is not a liberal America. There is not a conservative America. There is a United States of America.” These words continue to inspire me to dream of the day when young Ethiopian men and women shall come together from all parts of the country and shout out and sing the words, “There is not an Oromo Ethiopia, Amhara Ethiopia, Tigrai Ethiopia, Gurage Ethiopia, Ogadeni Ethiopia, Anuak Ethiopia… There is only a united Ethiopia where ‘justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.’”
During the advocacy effort to pass H.R. 2003 (“Ethiopia Democracy and Accountability Act of 2007”), we had opportunities to meet with U.S. Senator Obama’s staffers in his district office and on the Hill on a number of occasions. Our meetings were encouraging and there was little doubt that Senator Obama would support H.R. 2003 if the bill had made it to the Senate floor after it passed the House of Representatives in October 2007. In February 2008, our advocacy group, the Coalition for H.R. 2003, formally endorsed Barack Obama’s presidential bid. We declared that “it is time for the U.S. to abandon its support of African dictators, and pursue policies that uplift and advance the people of Africa. It is time for an American president who will stand up for human rights in Ethiopia, and demand of those who violate human rights to stand down!”
Over the last four years, our enthusiasm and support for the President flagged and waned significantly as Africa remained on the fringes of U.S. foreign policy agenda. During the recent presidential “foreign policy debate” Africa was barely mentioned. There was only passing reference to Al Qaeda’s presence in Mali, the third poorest country on the planet. (According to the Economist Magazine, Ethiopia is the poorest country on the planet.) But not to make excuses, the President had a lot on his foreign policy plate. The Arab Spring was spreading like wildfire sweeping out longtime dictators. Nuclear proliferation in the Middle East remains a critical issue. The global economic meltdown threatens certain European countries with total economic collapse.
Hope Springs Eternal in Ethiopia and the Rest of Africa
I am hopeful that human rights in Africa will occupy a prominent role in the foreign policy agenda of President Obama’s second term. An indication of such a trend may be evident in the announcement two days after President Obama’s reelection that he will be visiting Myanmar (Burma) in a couple of weeks. After five decades of ruthless military dictatorship, Myanmar is gradually transforming itself into a democracy. President Thein Sein has released political prisoners, lifted media bans and implemented economic and political reforms. Amazingly, pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi is the acknowledged opposition leader in parliament after two decades of house arrest. Last week, a State Department spokesperson underscored the need for human rights improvement in Ethiopia according to a Voice of America report. There are favorable signs the Obama Administration will pursue a more aggressive human rights agenda in Africa.
President Obama Would Like to Leave a Legacy of Democracy and Freedom in Africa
Historically, second-term presidents become increasingly focused on foreign policy. They also become acutely aware of the legacy they would like to leave after they complete their second term. I believe President Obama would like to leave a memorable and monumental legacy of human rights in Africa. I cannot believe that he is so indifferent to Africa that he would leave it in worse condition than he found it. When he became president, much of Africa was dominated by dictators who shot their way to power or rigged elections to get into power. In much of Africa today, the absence of the rule of law is shocking to the conscience. Massive human rights violations are commonplace. In Ethiopia, journalists, dissidents, opposition leaders, peaceful demonstrators, civil society and human rights advocates are jailed, harassed and persecuted every day.
Needless to say, for President Obama Africa is the land of his father even though he was born and raised in America. I believe President Obama, like most immigrant Ethiopian Americans, would like to help the continent not only escape poverty but also achieve better governance and greater respect for the rule of law. He would like to see Africa having free and fair elections and improved human rights conditions. In his book Dreams From My Father, he wrote, “… It was into my father’s image, the black man, son of Africa, that I’d packed all the attributes I sought in myself, the attributes of Martin and Malcolm, DuBois and Mandela. And if later I saw that the black men I knew – Frank or Ray or Will or Rafiq – fell short of such lofty standards; if I had learned to respect these men for the struggles they went through, recognizing them as my own – my father’s voice had nevertheless remained untainted, inspiring, rebuking, granting or withholding approval. You do not work hard enough, Barry. You must help in your people’s struggle. Wake up, black man!” A man whose life’s inspiration comes from Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, W.E. B. DuBois and Nelson Mandela cannot ignore or remain indifferent to the suffering of African peoples. I think he will help Africans in their struggle for dignity in his second term.
U.S. Human Rights Policy in the Post Arab Spring Period
In the post-Arab Spring world, the U.S. has come to realize that its formula of subordinating its human rights policy to security and economic interests in dealing with dictators needs reexamination, recalibration and reformulation. By relying on dictators to maintain domestic and regional stability, the U.S. has historically ignored and remained indifferent to the needs, aspirations and suffering of the Arab masses. When the Arab masses exploded in anger, the U.S. was perplexed and did not know what to do.
The U.S. has been timid in raising human rights issues with Africa’s dictators fearing lack of cooperation in the war on terror and other strategic objectives. The U.S. effort has been limited to issuing empty verbal exhortations and practicing “quite diplomacy” which has produced very little to advance an American human rights agenda. I believe the President understands that America’s long term global interests cannot be advanced or achieved merely through moral exhortations and condemnations. We know that the President’s style is to exhaust diplomacy before taking more drastic measures. As he explained, “The promotion of human rights cannot be about exhortation alone. At times, it must be coupled with painstaking diplomacy. I know that engagement with repressive regimes lacks the satisfying purity of indignation. But I also know that sanctions without outreach–and condemnation without discussion–can carry forward a crippling status quo. No repressive regime can move down a new path unless it has the choice of an open door.” For the past four years, few African dictators have walked through the door that leads to democracy and human rights. Many of them have kicked it shut. I am hopeful that in the second term, the President will go beyond “exhortation” to concrete action in dealing with African dictators since he holds their aid purse strings.
President Obama is Not Just a President But Also a Constitutional Lawyer and…
I believe President Obama’s experiences before he became a national leader continue to have great influence on his thinking and actions. As a constitutional and civil rights lawyer, I believe he has an innate sense of moral distaste and repugnance for injustice and arbitrariness. President Obama cut his teeth as a lawyer representing individuals in civil and voting rights litigation and wrongful terminations in employment though he could have joined any one of the most prestigious law firms in America. He spent his early years doing grassroots organizing and advocacy working with churches and community groups to help the poor and disadvantaged. To be sure, he has spent more time doing community work than serving on the national political stage. As a constitutional and civil rights lawyer, law professor and advocate for the poor, I believe President Obama understands the immense importance of the rule of law, protection of civil liberties and human rights and the need to restrain those who abuse their powers and sneer at the rule of law. I think the community activist side of him will be more visible in his second term.
Ask Not What Obama Can Do for Ethiopia, But…
Some of us make the mistake of asking what President Obama can do for us. The right question is what we can do for Ethiopia by organizing, mobilizing and lobbying the Obama Administration to establish and pursue a firm human rights agenda. In his victory speech on election night President Obama said, “The role of citizen in our democracy does not end with your vote. America’s never been about what can be done for us. It’s about what can be done by us together through the hard and frustrating, but necessary work of self-government.” Governor Romney in his concession speech said, “At a time like this we can’t risk partisan bickering and political posturing. Our leaders have to reach across the aisle to do the people’s work, and we citizens also have to rise to occasion.” These are the principles Ethiopian Americans, and others in the Diaspora and at home, should embrace and practice. It should be time for a fresh start. We should learn from past mistakes and begin to organize and reach out in earnest to the Obama Administration. Many groups have had success with the Administration in advancing their causes including Arab Americans, Iranian Americans, Armenian Americans, Macedonian Americans, Serbian Americans and many others. As human rights activists and advocates, we should demand engagement by senior U.S. officials and diplomats on human rights issues.
The U.S. knows how to apply pressure on dictators who have been “friends”. In the 1980s, the U.S. played a central role in the transition of the Philippines, Chile, Taiwan, and South Korea from dictatorship to democracy. The United States also kept human rights agenda front and center when it conducted negotiations with the Soviet Union and other Soviet-bloc countries. The question is not whether the U.S. can advance a vigorous human rights agenda in Ethiopia or Africa, but if it has the political will to do so. I am hopeful that will will manifest itself in President Obama’s second term.
Amharic translations of recent commentaries by the author may be found at:
Previous commentaries by the author are available at: